Keeping memories of Chinatown alive — and kicking!
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From the 1940s until the 1960s, San Francisco’s Chinatown was home to a thriving Chinese American nightclub scene. The clubs had names like Forbidden City, the Chinese Skyroom, and the Shanghai Low. They had showgirls, ballroom duos, comedians, jazz singers, and magic acts — all featuring Asian-American entertainers. These clubs had wide appeal: celebrities like Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, and Lauren Bacall were all spotted over the years, along with tourists, businessmen and locals. The Forbidden City even inspired a novel, by C.Y. Lee, which was later turned into the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Flower Drum Song.”
The scene died out in the 60s, as Carol Doda-style topless dancing eclipsed the old variety-show style. But there’s a group keeping the memory of those old Chinatown nightclubs alive — and high-kicking: The Grant Avenue Follies.
The 12 members of the dance troupe do tap, jazz, hula, and other styles. They perform four to six times a month. That may not sound like a lot, unless you know that most of the dancers are over 70.
You're Retired Now — Let's Start Dancing!
The group came together nine years ago. Cynthia Yee, who used to dance at the Chinese Skyroom, was at a senior center dance class when she met Pat Chin, Isabel Louie and Ivy Tam. They had all danced at the Chinese nightclubs at different times.
Yee is an active member of the Chinese American community, and at the time, she was helping to plan a fundraiser for Chinese Hospital. She thought it would be fun to do some entertainment at the event, with the theme “A Night at the Forbidden City”.
All four of the dancers had great memories of performing in the clubs: the glittering stage lights, the sassy costumes, meeting all kinds of new people every night. So the four former showgirls, then in their 50s and 60s, put together a number for the event.
“We were an instant hit,” Yee laughs. “And it was so much fun we said: Oh, let’s do another one! And that’s how it all began.”
The troupe now performs at senior centers, nursing homes, VA hospitals and fundraisers all over the world. They have expanded from the original four former professionals to include people from all walks of life: a retired pharmacist, a schoolteacher, a dentist.
Yee says every time the troupe performed, other seniors would approach them and say they had always wanted to dance, but that their parents had not allowed them. Yee’s response? “Come on get to the senior center, you’re retired now. Let’s start dancing!”
The Good Old Days
Yee grew up in Chinatown in the 40s and 50s. Her upstairs neighbors were dancers and entertainers who worked at the nightclubs, including Dorothy Toy. Toy was one half of Toy and Wing-- known as the “Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers-- one of the most famous dance acts of the time. One night her parents took her to see the show at Charlie Low’s Forbidden City, the biggest and most popular of the Chinese clubs.
She saw Toy and Wing dance that night. “And that’s when I fell in love,” she says. Toy encouraged Yee’s mom to send her to ballet classes when she was just seven. When Yee turned 17, Toy asked her to join the show at the Skyroom.
Yee says she remembers big Grayline buses would drop tourists off at Pine and Grant Streets for the first show of the night at the Chinese Skyroom. After that, it was off to the Forbidden City on Sutter Street for the second show, and finishing off at the legendary drag show at Finnochio’s on Broadway.
Changing Times in Chinatown
Where the Skyroom used to be is now a conference room for the Grant Plaza Hotel. The former site of Forbidden City now houses a franchise of the Barbizon Modeling School. Though she still spends a lot of time in Chinatown, Yee lives in the Richmond now. There’s a large Chinese population there. And that’s where the Grant Avenue Follies rehearse, every Wednesday at the rec center on 18th Avenue.
Ivy Tam is one of the group’s original four members. She emigrated to the United States as a young woman, and performed at the Forbidden City in the early 60s. Before the Follies, she hadn’t danced for many years. She says she’s happy to have returned to dancing now at age 78, and especially happy to be able to bring back good memories for other seniors who aren’t as spry.
“At least when we perform, make them a little happier,” she says.
Tam says she also enjoys seeing the surprise on people’s faces when they realize what kind of show they’re in for.
“I can tell, if they don’t know us … they expect we do just the Chinese dancing. … They don’t think we will do tap, we will do hula, we will do anything!”
Tam’s specialty is a dance with giant feather fans that always wows the audience. And Yee says that’s not all.
“They love our fishnet stockings. Nowadays, when we come out in our fishnet stockings, we don’t even have to get to the stage yet. People are like ‘whoa!’
They start applauding!”
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
Both Yee and Tam agree the best part about dancing with the Grant Avenue Follies is the feeling of sisterhood in the group. The “girls” socialize, travel, and eat huge Chinese restaurant meals together. They drive each other to appointments and watch out for each others’ health. They say it’s good to have that sense of family with the group, especially now that they can’t find it in Chinatown. With waves of successive immigration from very different areas of China, and younger generations moving out of the neighborhood and even out of the city, the place just doesn’t feel the same anymore.
“People before [were] like a big family,” says Tam. She says when her mother was sick with cancer, people at the grocery store would ask after her, or come out to the car to say hello to her.
Yee agrees; people really knew their neighbors in the old Chinatown. “My mother still lives in Chinatown. She’s very fortunate in that her building is very close-knit, but in general I don’t believe you see that anymore,” she says.
Yee hopes that the Grant Avenue Follies can bring some of the feeling of that old Chinatown back, at least for those that remember it. But she’s also thinking ahead.
“It’s my dream to have a small venue ... in Chinatown. To have the best wonton mein, and downstairs the cellar, to be a live entertainment area.”
She says she would like to see a place where younger generations of Chinese Americans feel comfortable. “[To] say ‘Wow, my grandfather used to live here.’ And they want to see the place, want to experience the old Chinatown flavor.”
For now, the ladies of the Grant Avenue Follies are bringing that flavor back, one song and dance at a time.
This weekend, Sep. 23-24, 2023, the group will perform at Chinatown’s Autumn Moon Festival.