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September 7, 2023

Charlie Low’s Forbidden City, American’s Greatest Chinese Nightclub

Forbidden City was a Chinese nightclub and cabaret in San Francisco, which was in business from 1938 to 1970. Although it was not the first Chinese American nightclub, Forbidden City was the most famous nightlife venue to feature Asian American singers, dancers, chorus lines, magicians, strippers, and musicians, and was entirely managed and staffed by Asian Americans. It was popular with military personnel who were transiting through San Francisco during World War II, as well as Hollywood celebrities, and became the most well-known “Chop Suey Circuit” during the 1940s and 1950s.

During the 1930s, restaurants in Chinatown catered primarily to occidental tastes and began to incorporate live music into their program. One of the first to do so was Charlie Low; on December 22, 1938, Nevada’s small store owners’ son opened the Forbidden City around the corner on the second floor of 373 Sutter Street. Low did this following the success of the Chinese Village, which he opened two years prior.

Named after the imperial court and playing into the double entendre, Forbidden City sat on the outskirts of San Fransico’s Chinatown, opening its doors to the white masses that grew curious of the exotic splendor that it promised. The primary customers were made up of white servicemen from WWII and Hollywood celebrities — who were desperate to witness the “oriental” performance promised in magazine spreads — in addition to the small percentage of Asian American locals and tourists. This grouping composed the nightly audience of about 2,000 individuals, who would attend the bar and watch the dinner floor show. Chinese-American performers would entertain each night folks with a dazzling three-ring circus with singers, chorus lines, dance teams, and acrobats. Though most of the workers were Chinese American, the staff also included Filipino, Japanese, and Korean Americans as well.

Accounts of Forbidden City go as follows: a jacketed doorman would greet visitors outside before drawing them into the club’s grand interior, filled with its rich tapestries and Mandarin-collared bartenders. From where the visitors would sit, they would be able a large gold Buddha looking down on them from the bandstand. In Life magazine’s 3-page spread dedicated to the Forbidden City, it states: “in decor, ‘Forbidden City’ blandly jumbles rice-paper screens, lighted fishbowls, college colors, and football trophies. Somehow the net result is satisfactory. Its tri-nightly floor shows blandly scrambles congas, tangos, tap numbers, and snaky stuff from the Far East. Chinese girls have an extraordinary aptitude for Western dance forms. As singers, not many achieve success according to occidental standards. But slim of body, trim of leg, they dance to any tempo with a fragile charm distinctive to their race.”

It is not without notice that much of this plays on the expectations of white customers. The performers would play into the exotica fantasies and foreign theatrics expected in many cases. These grand rooms with tables, a dance floor, and a cabaret show promised their clientele a “taste of China,” but really, it was more China-by-way-of-Hollywood. The facades and interiors of places like Forbidden City — the Chinese Sky room, Club Mandalay, the Kubla Khan, the Lion’s Den, Club Shanghai — were done up in Western stereotypes of Chinese culture, from the pagoda roofs to the rice-paper screens and lanterns.

Diners could order familiar nightclub-staples like steak and potatoes while Chinese American chorus girls would make their entrance in modest cheongsams, quickly discarded to reveal sexy burlesque costumes underneath. Elegant chanteuses sang popular American ballads in curve-hugging evening gowns, and dapper men sang and danced in tuxes and top hats.3 It is through such experiences that development of social aspects of Chinese American culture. Most performers stood in limbo, keeping Chinese and other Asian traditions while adding “Americanized” twists. As much could be seen with the branding of Asian American performers to well known American artists, such as Larry Ching, the “Chinese Frank Sinatra,” and Frances Quan Chun, singer billed as the “Chinese Frances Langford”.

It was standard from 1920 to 1940s for Chinese restaurants to have an extensive list of American dishes and an all-English menu. Forbidden City did not stray away from this practice, including an American menu on one side — including salads, sandwiches, steaks, chops, and desserts like ice cream — with domestic ingredients familiar to American customers. On the other side was the Chinese menu; there were assortments of chow mein, chop suey, egg foo young, fried rice, soup noodles, and house specials. Much of the food was not authentic to Chinese cuisine, but by promoting their dinner menus alongside the shows, Chinese food (this new form of it, in any case) became popular in America.

In doing so, Forbidden City drew crowds of Americans from all across the social strata, and for reasons not centering around the entertainment line-up. On Saturday nights, Forbidden City would pack the house with either one-dollar dinners or one dollar and fifty cent meals. While the dishes offered were far from the authentic cuisine of China, many of the items included were staples of Chinese American cuisine. The trickery seen in the Forbidden City’s performances reflected in the courses offered: fried rice, chop suey, and chow mein. Though patrons at that time expected authentic Chinese food or even an exoticized version of the cuisine, the version they received catered to flavors their taste buds were already used to.

A critical note on the menu is the categorization of “the big three” dishes that made their way into all Chinese restaurants during this time (and later became staples of Chinese-American cuisine): chop suey, chow mein, and egg foo young.

These three courses remain a staple that circulates through numerous Chinese restaurants due to their inexpensive and convenient nature, remaining both accessible to American palates as well as profitable. In addition, dishes such as chop suey, chow mein, and fried rice were necessary for many restauranteurs to please the American palate. Much like the emergence of American Chinese dishes, Forbidden City worked the same it both through a need for space and profit as well as the consequences of Americanization built the silhouettes of Chinese American culture.

Forbidden City laid out a path for Chinese Americans of the newer generation to express, create, and entertain through an amalgamation of Chinese culture and American culture — both through social means but more specifically through a culinary outlets. The club inspired Tom Ball, a Caucasian stage producer who opened “China Doll”, the first Asian American nightclub in New York City in 1946. Forbidden City also inspired the novel The Flower Drum Song (1957), which became a musical (1958) and film (1961) of the same title. In 1989, the club was profiled in the documentary, Forbidden City U.S.A., by Arthur Dong.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting bit of history and a nice collection of photographs. The menu reminds me of the sad, quasi-Cantonese styled slop foisted onto ignorant Westerners (like myself) during the 1960s. Only during the 1980s with a new wave of Chinese from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the PRC did I realize what Chinese cuisine is and how good it can be.




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