is proud to present the adventures of Ben
Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man: author, broadcaster,
and former senior editor and writer at Rolling Stone Magazine. This
guy's our hero! Ben was a featured character in the movie "Almost
Famous," the Oscar and Golden Globe-winning film by Cameron
In the black
and white photographs, they are impossibly dashing, daring, devil
may care. There's Larry Ching, "The Chinese Sinatra," surrounded
by four babes. There are the five leggy Devilettes in sheer, short
outfits, but still showing far less than Noel Toy, the "Bubble Dancer"
who performed in the nude. And there are the graceful looking Toy
& Wing, "The Chinese Fred and Ginger," as in Astaire and Rogers.
I say "impossibly"
dashing and daring because these were Asian Americans working in
nightclubs and lounges in the Forties and Fifties, when Chinese,
along with other ethnic minorities, weren't seen (and, in many cases,
accepted) as entertainers, except in roles like Susie Wong and Fu
Ben Fong-Torres with Forbidden City crooner Larry Ching
Photo credit: Frank Jang
In the late
Thirties in San Francisco, a showbiz-loving visionary, Charlie Low,
opened the Forbidden City, a nightclub and restaurant near Chinatown,
San Francisco, featuring floor shows with singers, dancers, chorus
lines, acrobats and magicians. His was not the first or only such
club, but he made his the best known, and it became the model for
the nightclub in the C.Y. Lee book and Broadway musical, The
Flower Drum Song.
at age 82, still sings, quite beautifully (and, by the way, in no
way resembling Sinatra; Larry's is a much sweeter, tenor voice).
So does Frances Chun. Mary Tom Mason, Ivy Tam, and Stanley Toy still
dance, Toy still twirling at age 88.
And so they
did the other night, at a theater at San Francisco State University,
celebrating the DVD
edition of Forbidden City, U.S.A., the award-winning documentary
by Arthur Dong about their nightlife and times.
I was co-MC,
with Emerald Yeh, at the world premiere of the original film in
1989; I was MC again for the fundraising event at my alma mater.
Thirteen years later, I feel the same about these pioneering troupers,
17 of whom made it to the event. I love them. Not only for what
they were and what they meant. I remember thinking, when I saw them
telling their stories in the documentary, how I wished I could've
had parents like them. First generation Chinese; entertainment-savvy;
liberal, and English speaking. What could be better?
I still feel
the same way. Sure, our family did all right, despite having tradition-bound
parents who spoke only Cantonese. But man, these folks are fun to
be around, and, from my vantage point as MC, I enjoyed numerous
- Larry's singing was one of them, and I'm going to do all I can
to capture his voice in a recording studio and issue a CD. He's
had only a 78 rpm record, as far as his family knows, and he deserves
- Ivy Tam, in the 1989 film, looked like Debbie Reynolds. Cute
as a bug. No wonder Charlie Low went after her (she became his
fourth wife). She shocked me by telling me she's 67. "I'm the
baby of the bunch," she said.
- The Forbidden City alumni had a blast, seeing each other for
the first time in years, swapping whatever memories they could
remember, and enjoying the crowds. S.F. State students had seen
them in the original film, and they asked for autographs and photos.
The performers soaked up the attention, the flashes from the cameras,
the lights of the video crews. The lights. Forever, the lights.
The ever-spritely cast of the Forbidden City posing with
Photo credit: Frank Jang
After the program,
one audience member told me I'd missed my calling. "You should be
a stand-up comic," he said.
No, no. I can
get people to laugh-but usually when there's nothing (like, say,
a career in comedy) at stake. But there were a lot of laughs, I
must admit. Let's go to the video:
I opened by
thanking the audience for showing up, recognizing that some of them
had a choice between Forbidden City and the Rolling Stones at Pac
Bell Park. "I myself chose this event," I said, "because I wanted
to see younger performers."
The show began
with a technical snafu. The film projector, loaded up with Forbidden
City, U.S.A., failed. Several times. A few flickering images;
then nothing. I had to go out to address the puzzled audience, even
though I had no idea what was wrong. The first time, I think I waved
and said, "That's it. Good night, everybody!"
torturous minute of those same scattered images, I made some lame
crack about Arthur's abstract art. Another false start, another
shot: "This may not be the best time to say this, but Arthur just
told me that this is a brand-new print. It's never been seen before.
And it may never be seen."
Well, it did
get seen, and, afterwards, all the performers strode onto the stage,
one by one. The first were the Changs, Bobby and Jeannie, an acrobatic
team. Bobby Chang, I said, "began performing at Forbidden City in
the late Forties with his partner, Wong Chun. Some of you may recall
the hit record of that time, 'Everybody Wong Chun Tonight.'" People
laughed. I swear.
But one of the
biggest laughs came when an audience member asked whether the performers'
parents disapproved of their being in show business. Noel Toy, who
danced in the nude, said, "I had no problem with my folks." A beat.
"Of course, they didn't KNOW."
So hats - and
everything else - off to Noel and the Changs; to Ivy and Larry;
to Stanley, Frances and Mary. And to all of these troupers: Dorothy
Toy Fong, Marian Fong Got, Bertha Lew Hing, Jade Ling, Dorothy Sun
Murray, Connie Park Nakashima, Paula Ming Norris, Lily Pon, and
Gladys Wong. And to the memory of Charlie Low and all the performers
who broke down barriers by hitting the stage at the Forbidden City.
Philip Gotanda and Tess Lina
Photo credit: Ben Fong-Torres
ROOM AT THE
BOTTOM: Philip Kan Gotanda has done it again. His new play, The
Wind Cries Mary, has concluded its run at the San Jose Repertory
Theater, but not before gathering a short stack of rave reviews.
I hope that means it'll be produced again, in other cities.
is an ingenious and effective adaptation of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler,
which Gotanda has reset in 1968 in San Francisco, with a backdrop
of campus anti-war protests and the first stirrings of Asian and
other ethnic minority students, leading to such groups as the Third
World Liberation Front. "Mary" is the lead character, a tough, sassy,
but troubled spirit portrayed by the stunning Tess Lina [pictured
with Philip]. Sab Shimono, a regular in Gotanda plays, along with
Stan Egi, Allison Sie, Thomas Vincent Kelly and Joy Carlin round
out a very strong cast. For more on the play, including an excellent
series tracing Mary from initial casting to closing night, by Karen
D'Souza of the San Jose Mercury News, go to http://thisweek.kqed.org/segments/404/.
City, USA DVD Launch Party Photo Gallery