For two nights in San Francisco this past month, patrons at two fundraising events were given the opportunity to reminisce or learn about the “Swinging Chinatown Days: The Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs,” the title of an exhibit currently being shown at The Old Mint located at 88 Fifth Street in San Francisco.
To start down memory lane, Cynthia Yee and her Grant Avenue Follies ladies presented their night of nostalgia at the Four Seas Restaurant in the middle of Chinatown before a sell out dinner crowd of over 200. Old timers who had been patrons of the old nightclubs – such as Andy Wong’s Sky Room, Kubla Kahn, Forbidden City, the Shangri-La and others – and younger patrons who had heard of these infamous clubs, were taken back to the 1940s-1960s when the clubs were flourishing. When they first entered the packed dining room being, they were serenaded by Rosemary Wong singing old favorites accompanied by George Chan. Soon after they saw performances by the ladies of the Grant Avenue Follies, three of whom were a part of the original Chinatown night club scene themselves: Pat Chin, Ivy Tam and Cynthia Yee. Other dancers included Avis See-Tho, Alice Chan, Marlene Luke, Betty Louie, Gloria Gee, Lani Owyoung and Emily Chin.
Always entertaining as MC was Chuck Gee, a former costume designer. Gee introduced Hank Quock who performed his he-she act, Cynthia Yee did a magic act and longtime retired Chinatown nightclub vocalists Jimmy Borges and Eleanor Young sang. Shanghai Pearl was flown in from Seattle to entertain a la Gypsy Rose Lee strip style which raised the blood pressures of the males in the audience.
A couple of nights later, the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society and The Chinese Historical Society of America had an opening night gala to introduce the new exhibit with MC Ben Fong-Torres who belted out a very nice singing number himself.
Trina Robbins, who just authored a book on Chinatown Nightclubs signed books, while Doris Grover performed her ribbon dance, Jimmy “Jay” Borges and Richard Kishimoto did some vocals of old favorites while Ivy Tam did a solo dance with feathered fans. In the audience swaying to the old favorites were KRON movie critic Jan Wahl, Scoma Restaurateur Cheryl Scoma, Judge Harry Harry Low, Coby Yee, first Miss Chinatown Penny Wong, and one time Hollywood and Broadway dance star Dorothy Toy Fong. Photographs of the old nightclubs with their signature beautiful showgirls were interspersed in rooms for the exhibit.
From the late 1930s to the early 1960s, Chinese nightclubs flourished in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Chinatown nightclubs were the only venue for talented Asian performers at that era, so tourists and celebrities coming through were entertained by the Chinese Frank Sinatra, Larry Ching, the Chinese Sally Rand – Noel Toy Young, and the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – Paul Wing and Dorothy Toy. The exhibition features over 120 vintage photographs, costumes, dancing shoes and momentos from several famous San Francisco nightclubs.