Forbidden City (nightclub) - Description


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. However, some acts played up the supposed exoticism of ethnic Chinese, as well as sensuality of Chinese women. 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.

For many visitors from middle-America, Forbidden City was their first encounter with people of Asian ethnicity. San Francisco's Asian population was approximately 4.2% of the population in 1940, versus 0.2% for all of the United States. 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!). Typical of the clubs of the time, in front, it displayed pictures of famous guests (greeted by Low).

An evening's entertainment at Forbidden City included a full Chinese or American dinner followed by dancing, then a floor show. 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.

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

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