Mr. Dong, whose award-winning trilogy of documentaries about discrimination against gays includes “Coming Out Under Fire,” began researching the clubs while working on his 1989 documentary, “Forbidden City, U.S.A.” “I love the big band era, I love Busby Berkeley musicals,” he said. “And the fact that these were Chinese-Americans doing this made it even that much more exciting.”
This San Francisco nightclub scene was the inspiration for the 1957 novel, The Flower Drum Song, by Chinese-American writer, C.Y. Lee, which in turn inspired Oscar and Hammerstein's eighth stage and screen musical. They hired Gene Kelly to direct the first stage production (1958; film 1961). From the New York Times article on Forbidden City USA and Mr Dong:
Mr. Dong discovered seven nightclubs in San Francisco, as well as a lone outpost in New York, the China Doll, where patrons could indulge in pagoda punches and Tibet coolers “fit for a Buddha.” Owned and operated by Tom Ball, a white stage producer, China Doll played up the Asian angle in ways unseen in the San Francisco clubs, which were all Chinese owned. “At the Forbidden City, you had the Gershwin revue and the Gold Rush show,” Mr. Dong said. “At China Doll, you had shows like ‘Maid in China’ and ‘Slant-Eyed Scandals.’ ”
Mr. Dong also discovered that a lot of the performers at these “all-Chinese” cabarets were not really Chinese. Many were Japanese-American, including the M.C. Pat Morita (“The Karate Kid”) and the comedian Jack Soo, who would go on to star in “Flower Drum Song,” the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical inspired by the Forbidden City nightclub.
This is a fascinating part of the history of American popular music,particularly the Big Band erea, which hardly any of us know. So we thank Arthur Dong for making it available.