Of Another Fashion

An alternative archive of the not-quite-hidden but too often ignored fashion histories of U.S. women of color

Free Twitter buttons from languageisavirus.com

These two Asian American dancers are performing at San Francisco’s premiere nightclub in the 1930s called Forbidden City. While the club was Chinese-themed, the performers themselves were not all Chinese American. Some were Japanese American and Filipino American. (Click the “Forbidden City” tag at the bottom to see more.)

Less than a decade after this photo was taken, all of the Japanese American performers would be interned under Executive Order 9066. To see more internment photos, click on the “1940s” tag or the “Japanese American” tag - note: internment images will include both these tags. 

Source: Museum of Performance and Design, Performing Arts Library, University of California

Charlie Low posing with another member of his Forbidden City nightclub's famous clientele. Here, he's with the much loved Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and essayist, Herb Caen. Standing in the middle is Mary Mammon, one of the nightclub’s biggest stars. (1957)

A telegram dated 26 December 1965 from Ronald Reagan to Charlie Low, owner of the Forbidden City nightclub (which Reagan visited several times). The telegram invites Low to a press conference, reception, and dinner celebrating the announcement of Reagan’s bid for Governor of California.

Life magazine ran an article on Charlie Low’s Chinese-themed Forbidden City nightclub and cabaret in San Francisco, California (operating between 1938-1958) titled, “Life Goes to the ‘Forbidden City’: San Franciscans pack Chinatown’s No. 1 nightclub.” An excerpt from the article is below: 

At 363 Sutter Street in San Francisco stands ‘Forbidden City,’ the No. 1 all-Chinese nightclub in the U.S. Here each evening Californians flock to watch a talented floor show that ranges from slumberous oriental moods to hot Western swing. San Francisco is numerically ill-equipped with Broadway-style cabarets. Its citizenry eats at home and dances at hotels. When ‘Forbidden City’ opened two years ago, it filled a local cultural need. It has prospered ever since.

In decor, ‘Forbidden City’ blandly jumbles rice-paper screens, lighted fishbowls, college colors and football trophies. Somehow the net result is satisfactory. Its tri-nightly floor show as blandly scrambles congas, tangos, tap numbers, and snaky stuff from the Far East. Chinese girls have an extraordinary aptitude for Western dance forms. As singers, not many achieve success according to occidental standards. But slim of body, trim of leg, they dance to any tempo with a fragile charm distinctive to their race.

As an academic who works in, among other fields, Asian American studies and who has taught courses in Asian American popular culture and cultural history, I feel compelled to clarify a popular misconception about the Forbidden City. While it was actively promoted and marketed as a Chinese-themed nightclub, many of the dancers were not Chinese but Filipino and Japanese Americans. The conflation of Asian ethnicities by Charlie Low, the nightclub’s owner, as well as by the performers, audiences, and the media erases the vast differences among Asian groups. Such differences were sharply delineated after February 1942 when FDR signed Executive Order 9066 which forcibly interned approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans to militarized camps, including some of the Forbidden City dancers.

A publicity still of 22 year-old New Mexico-born Mary Mammon, a featured dancer at Charlie Low’s Forbidden City nightclub, published in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette (15 June 1941).

Dancers backstage at Charlie Low’s Forbidden City nightclub on 363 Sutter Street in San Francisco, California (1948). The Chinese-themed nightclub and cabaret (operating between 1938-1958) catered to a mostly White clientele that included Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan.