Flower Drum Songstress

In 1940s San Francisco, if you were trying to help a couple of swabbies intent on a little nightclub entertainment during shore leave, you might drop the name Dorothy Fong Toy. “Whozat?” the lousy coasties would inevitably whine, being from Iowa. “Aw, shit on a shingle, fellas! She’s the Chinese Ginger Rogers!” For that tantalizing sobriquet would have been emblazoned on marquee of Chinatown's Forbidden City club, or, depending who was hot that month, the “Chinese Sophie Tucker" (Toy Yat Mar), the "Chinese Harry Houdini" (Ah Hing), the "Chinese Sally Rand" (Noel Toy Young), or any number of others. Owner and showman Charlie Low billed the performers as such to draw white audiences to his clubs, but their talent largely matched that of their namesakes, and many had long careers (the "Chinese Frank Sinatra,” Larry Ching, recorded a hit album in 2003, thanks to an assist by Ben Fong-Torres). But Forbidden City wasn’t the only game in town; Chinatown boasted a number of hotspots, and the exhibit “Swinging Chinatown: The Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs” displays a haul of treasure from the era, including photographs, costumes, and memorabilia. Tonight’s opening gala comes with a steep door charge — along with the Grant Avenue Follies, a troupe of original nightclub dancers, and host Fong-Torres — but the ongoing exhibit, set in our historic money garden, shows you a good time on the cheap.

The “Swinging Chinatown: The Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs” gala starts at 6 p.m.
Feb. 11-21, 2010

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