This year, the Center for Asian American Media’s CAAMFest pays tribute to filmmaker Arthur Dong, who has spent over three decades championing equality through documenting Asian American and LGBT stories. “Spotlight: Arthur Dong” features the premiere of a new digitally remastered version of Dong’s 1989 documentary Forbidden City, USA (Saturday , March 14, 4 PM at the Great Star Theater, 630 Jackson St., San Francisco), the world premiere of his new film The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor (4:10 PM, Sunday, March 15, Castro Theatre), and a special on-stage conversation (Friday, March 20 at 7:10 PM at the New People Cinema, 1746 Post Street, San Francisco) with noted film critic and author B. Ruby Rich. Dong will also be in attendance at CAAMFest’s Centerpiece Reception (Sunday, March 15, 6 PM at the Castro Theatre).
In conjunction with CAAMFest’s tribute to Dong, EatDrinkFilms presents an excerpt from his 2014 book Forbidden City, USA: Chinese American Nightclubs, 1936-1970. (Amazon or Indiebound). Below, Dong reveals the origins of his multifaceted project:
by Arthur Dong
One of my favorite childhood adventures was walking through the Stockton Street Tunnel. It began in San Francisco’s Chinatown and led to what we Toisan people called “Mahkeit Guy” (Market Street, downtown). Just outside the end of the tunnel, in the upscale area of Union Square, was where I first stumbled upon Forbidden City in the early 1960s.
What struck me then were the photos of nightclub acts from the 1940s that were still on display. I don’t recall exactly who was in those black-and-white stills, but I do remember that this was the first time I saw Chinese American performers dressed in glamorous taffeta gowns, swing-style suits with wide lapels, and skin-baring showgirl costumes. I had seen those kinds of outfits before in old Hollywood musicals, but they were almost never worn by entertainers who looked like me.
It’s odd that I didn’t venture in—I was a pretty nervy kid. Maybe it was because the club had become an adults-only place, where shows like the all-Chinese “Gershwin Revue” had been replaced by strip acts. In any case, I walked on, and so ended my first encounter with Chinese American nightclubs.
By the 1980s I had become a filmmaker, and during the course of some research, I spotted an article on dancer Jadin Wong that mentioned she performed at Forbidden City. My old memories of the nightclub reawakened, I headed out to New York City to meet Jadin. I stayed with my longtime friend, Kevin Gee, only to discover that his stepfather was none other than Charlie Low, the impresario who had created Forbidden City. Coincidence?
Jadin was seventy-two and delightfully outrageous. I’m the son of traditional working-class immigrants, and she was so unlike the sewing factory women I had grown up around; during our first meeting, she modeled her new bathing suit and asked my opinion of her cleavage (well-defined and firm, by the way). As it happened, Jadin’s former dance partner, Jackie Mei Ling, was in town too. He turned out to be a tall, witty gay Chinese man with an elegantly coiffed head of white hair. What stories they told!
I set out to investigate this Chinese American club scene they raved about, but my initial research turned up few leads on Forbidden City or any of the other Chinese American nightclubs that thrived during the 1940s and ’50s. In conversations with Chinatown elders, they disparaged the clubs as immoral houses of prostitution better left forgotten. Some cultural critics and feminists I met criticized the images projected by the female performers, calling them exploitative, with sexist and racist undertones. They didn’t see any reason to bring such imagery back into focus. As for mainstream entertainment historians, these nightspots were apparently not noteworthy enough to merit documentation.
That left oral histories as the key to unlocking this untold story. Starting from my connection to Charlie Low via Kevin, I branched out and located more than one hundred entertainers and club staffers. The spirit and audacity of the performers were a revelation. After all, I was Chinese American, an independent filmmaker, and gay—not exactly a winning combination of mainstream values (especially in the 1980s)—and, notwithstanding the political, cultural, and social critiques about the clubs, I was inspired by this earlier generation who defied societal norms to pursue their show business dreams.
After four years of interviewing and collecting archival material, I produced the documentary Forbidden City, U.S.A. , focusing on Charlie’s club. All along, I wanted to write a companion book, knowing that a fifty-six-minute film could never capture all the stories, ephemera, and photos I had amassed. These memories, postcards, menus, snapshots, programs, and meticulously crafted studio photos magically transported me to an era before my time, a time I yearned to be a part of in all the senses: the looks, the sounds, the feels, the smells, the tastes (wor siu opp, anyone?).
Yet, the materials that I’ve chosen for this book aren’t meant to be purely nostalgic anecdotes and souvenirs. They are historical accounts and cultural art, where the storytellers and creators—the performers, photographers, and graphic designers—have passed on a wondrous legacy.
You may purchase Forbidden City, USA: Chinese American Nightclubs, 1936-1970 at your local bookshop or through our affiliate links with Amazon or Indiebound. Arthur Dong’s Stories from Chinese America series, including the films Forbidden City, USA; Hollywood Chinese; and Sewing Woman , is available for purchase through our affiliate link with Amazon. His series Stories From the War on Homosexuality, including the films Coming Out Under Fire, Family Fundamentals, and Licensed to Kill, is also available.
Forbidden City, USA is the culmination of Arthur Dong’s nearly thirty-year devotion to the topic of Chinese American nightclubs, originally inspired by the author’s research for his documentary of the same name. As a filmmaker, Arthur has produced films on social issues since 1971, including the Oscar® nominated Sewing Woman, Licensed to Kill, Hollywood Chinese, and Coming Out Under Fire. His latest production is The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor.