". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Forbidden City USA

Forbidden City USA: Chinese American Nightclubs, 1936-1970 by Arthur Dong chronicles the Chinese nightclub scene in San Francisco and NYC. The book is published this weekend by DeepFocus Productions.

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.

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