Forbidden City (nightclub)

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The Forbidden City was a Chinese nightclub and cabaret in business from the late 1930s to the late 1950s, on the second floor of 363 Sutter Street (the former space is now renumbered 369 Sutter Street and is now a franchise of Barbizon Modeling and Acting) in San Francisco between Chinatown and Union Square.[1] The Forbidden City featured Asian American singers, dancers, chorus lines, magicians, strippers, and musicians.[2] It was popular with military personnel who were transiting through San Francisco during World War II. The novel, and in turn the musical and film Flower Drum Song were inspired by the Forbidden City, as was the 1989 documentary, Forbidden City U.S.A.


Promotional playbill from the Forbidden City nightclub

Charlie Low, the son of small store owners from Nevada,[3] opened the Forbidden City in 1938, after the success of Chinese Village, which he opened two years earlier.[3] Named after the Forbidden City in Beijing, the new club became the most famous among approximately 12 Chinese-themed cabaret clubs in Chinatown.[4] It was located on the outskirts of San Francisco's Chinatown, and intended to cater to the curiosity of a largely white audience.[3] Initially, Low found it difficult to recruit performers from the local Chinese community, which looked down on entertainers, particularly women in sexually provocative performances. Business was slow until Low hired Noel Toy, a nude model who had been performing at the Golden Gate International Exposition.[3] Life Magazine published a 3-page profile of the club, praising the dancing abilities of Chinese women as a "fragile charm distinctive to their race".[5]

The club thrived during World War II, and throughout the 1940s and 1950s. In 1957 author C. Y. Yee wrote a best-selling novel, Flower Drum Song, set at the Forbidden City. Rodgers and Hammerstein created a popular musical from the book in 1958, which has had several revivals, the most recent by David Henry Hwang in 2001-2002. In 1961 a Hollywood film was made from the musical. These portrayals did little to help the club, however. By the late 1950s it was facing increasing competition from more explicit shows, such as the Condor Club in North Beach. Owner Charlie Low retired in 1962 selling the club to exotic dancer Cobi Yee. Yee managed the club until it closed in 1970. The space was destroyed by a fire in the 1980s, but the building survived and was used as a computer instruction center as of 2000.[1]

An hour-long documentary, Forbidden City, U.S.A, was filmed in the mid-1980s and released in 1989, featuring most of the original cast. The documentary led indirectly to a second singing career for Larry Ching, the club's "Chinese Frank Sinatra."


The Forbidden City has been compared to an Asian-American version of the Cotton Club, in that it featured an all-ethnic cast of performers for a mostly white audience, performing to the popular tastes of the time rather than in stereotyped or authentic ethnic roles.[2] However, some acts played up the supposed exoticism of ethnic Chinese, as well as sensuality of Chinese women.[2] The owner, Charlie Low, generated publicity by nicknaming the performers after famous mainstream celebrities (the "Chinese Frank Sinatra", the "Chinese Fred Astaire", and so on). Part of the club's appeal to both audiences and performers was the "racial cross-dressing" of placing Asian Americans into traditionally white entertainer roles, and the racial dialog that came out of the varying level of success of the various performers had in fitting into these roles.[6]

For many visitors from middle-America, Forbidden City was their first encounter with people of Asian ethnicity.[2] San Francisco's Asian population was approximately 4.2% of the population in 1940, versus 0.2% for all of the United States.[7] Although the cast included Filipino Americans, Japanese Americans (except during World War II, when the club's Japanese American performers were removed as part of the Japanese American internment), Korean Americans and other Asian Americans, they were presented to audiences as Chinese.

The club itself seated 300, and also contained elaborate stage area and dressing rooms (accessed through the kitchen![8]). Typical of the clubs of the time, in front, it displayed pictures of famous guests (greeted by Low).[6]

An evening's entertainment at Forbidden City included a full Chinese or American dinner followed by dancing, then a floor show.[6] Acts were a combination of vaudeville and burlesque-style performances, including singing, tap dancing, ballroom dancing, skits, slapstick, tumbling, and parodies of American cowboy scenes.[2][6]

Image of the front and inside of a photo folder. Guests could get a 5x7 image of their evening at the Forbidden City signed by their host Charlie Low.

The club also formed a touring company that played across the United States and Canada, as well as USO shows worldwide.[6]

Notable performers[edit]

A number of Asian American musicians, actors, and other celebrities either started their professions at the Forbidden City, or are famous for performing there. During the early years of the club the performers' salaries, modest as they were, provided rare employment opportunities for Asian-Americans suffering under the discriminatory laws of the time.[6]

  • Jack Soo got his break in Flower Drum Song when he was discovered working there as MC, and was eventually cast as the MC and night club owner in the Broadway musical and film, and later became one of the most prominent Asian American actors.
  • Larry Ching, the "Chinese Frank Sinatra" performed here, from shortly after the club opened until shortly before it closed.
  • Noel Toy, the "Chinese Sally Rand", performed a burlesque fan dance and bubble dance (Rand had also been a nude performer at the Treasure Island exhibition).
  • Katy de la Cruz, the "Queen of Filipino Jazz", was a top-billed performer during the late 1940s to early 1950s.[9]
  • Jackie Mei Ling, a very famous and successful dancer and female impersonator, publicly identified himself as a gay man. He is famous for his innovative Oriental dance in various performances. He once played the role of harem master in the show "The Girl in the Gilded Cage", with his flexible body contorting in a series of peculiar postures.[10]
  • Dorthy Sun Murray- aka 'Dottie' known for her long legs and comedy dance performances
  • Toy Yat Mar, the "Chinese Sophie Tucker".
  • Stanley Toy, A solo "Chinese Fred Astaire".
  • Ellen Chin, Dancer, billed as the "Chinese Betty Grable".
  • Cobi Yee, Exotic dancer billed as "China's Most Daring Dancing Doll". Yee later bought The Forbidden City club from Charlie Low when he retired in 1962. She managed the club until it closed in 1970.
  • Jadin Wong, Singer, dancer and later Asian talent manager.
  • Dorothy Toy, the "Chinese Ginger Rogers".
  • Paul Wing, Dorothy Toy's husband and dance partner, the "Chinese Fred Astaire".
  • Ah Hing, the "Chinese Harry Houdini".
  • Charlie Low, owner, often served as MC, entertained celebrity guests, and took part in comedy skits.
  • Li Tei Ming, singer (Charlie Low's wife).
  • The Tai Sings, ballroom dancers.
  • Frances Quan Chun, Singer, The "Chinese Frances Langford" .[11]
  • Larry and Trudie Long, "The Leungs," nightclub act [8][12][13][14]
  • Jimmy Borges a.k.a. "Jimmy Jay" was a popular crooner at Forbidden City from 1957 through 1959 when he went to Las Vegas to star in "Holiday in Japan", a Steve Parker/Shirley MacLaine production. Jimmy Borges, discovered at The Forbidden City, replaced James Shigeta as the Las Vegas' show's star. In the same manner, Jimmy followed Larry Ching into Forbidden City. Both Jimmy and Larry are Hawaiian-born artists. Jimmy's ancestry was Portuguese, Hawaiian and Chinese. Jimmy's style of singing was jazzy, sounding like a cross between Mel Tormé and Frank Sinatra but uniquely his own. Jimmy continues to perform in symphony POPS concerts around the world (Florida, New Zealand, Honolulu, San Diego, etc.) to this day.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Ronald Reagan at Charlie Low's Forbidden City". the virtual museum of the City of San Francisco. Retrieved 2007-10-12.
  2. ^ a b c d e Esther Kim Lee (2006). A History of Asian American Theatre. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-85051-3. Retrieved 2007-10-12.
  3. ^ a b c d Gary Kamiya (January 9, 2015). "Forbidden City ushered in golden age of Chinatown nightclubs". San Francisco Chronicle.
  4. ^ "The Jazz Age in Chinatown". San Francisco Performing Arts Library. Archived from the original on 2007-06-23. Retrieved 2007-10-12.
  5. ^ "Life goes to the 'Forbidden City'". Life. Vol. 9 no. 24. Chicago, Illinois: Time, Inc. 9 December 1940. pp. 124–127. Retrieved 8 December 2017. Photographs credited to Horace Bristol.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Anthony W. Lee (2001). Picturing Chinatown: Art and Orientalism in San Francisco. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-22592-3.
  7. ^ Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung (2005). Historical Census Statistics on Population Data by Race (PDF). US Census Bureau. Retrieved 2007-10-12.
  8. ^ a b Long Story Short / Jodi Long Interview KUCI: filmschool
  9. ^ Ricky Lo (2004-12-20). "Katy de la Cruz: Remembering Mommy Kate". Philippine Star/Philippine Headline News Online. Archived from the original on 2007-08-16. Retrieved 2008-03-14.
  10. ^ Lee, Anthony W. Picturing Chinatown: Art and Orientalism in San Francisco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
  11. ^ Jesse Hamlin (2008-03-07). "Forbidden City's Frances Quan Chun Kan is dead". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 8 December 2017.
  12. ^ LONG STORY SHORT film
  13. ^ LONG STORY SHORT blog: writer Archived 2011-08-12 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ "Long Story Short is Red Carpet READY!". Retrieved 2016-01-29.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]