Setting the Stage
During the day, life dragged on heavily through the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown residents went by with the bustles and laborious strides that counted the passing hours. But, as the sun went down, the streets filled with all walks of life, for in the late 1930s, nightlife in Chinatown was like no other. The hours were endless, and the pleasures infinite. During this time, a booming number of nightclubs were being built throughout Chinatown. Standing at the forefront of all this was the Forbidden City. Proclaimed San Francisco’s most glamourous show and “the world’s most famous nightclub,” promising customers a dinner, dance, and show saturated with the spectacle of the Chinese culture and exotic allure that accompanied it. On the surface, the Forbidden City served as just a nightclub where Performers played shows and customers had countless drinks. Still, there was more depth to its influence on Chinese American culture and cuisine; its existence is a catalyst for the emergence of a new culture: one fusing with that of the Chinese and American culture. Brought out through the creation of Forbidden City, the performances and shows put on, interior design, and most importantly, the menu, specifically through the dishes chop suey and chow mein, a new hybrid culture was made. By Americanizing such establishments as Forbidden City, society differentiated Chinese American culture from Chinese culture’s social and culinary practices. But to trace its influence, we must pinpoint the beginning.
The Wonders of Forbidden City
At the time, restaurants in Chinatown catered primarily to occidental taste and began to incorporate live music into their program. One of the first to do so was Charle Low; on December 22, 1938, Nevada’s small store owners’ son opened the Forbidden City around the corner on the second floor of 373 Sutter Street. Low did this following the success of the Chinese Village, which he opened two years prior. Named after the imperial court and playing into the double entendre, Forbidden City sat on the outskirts of San Fransico’s Chinatown opening its doors to the white masses that grew curious of the exotic splendor that it promised. Customers made up of white servicemen from WWII and Hollywood celebrities desperate to witness the “oriental” performance promised in magazine spreads and the small percentage of Asian American locals and tourists; this grouping composed the nightly audience of 2,000. The Forbidden City introduced the Chinese American bar and dinner floor show. Performers would entertain each night folks with a dazzling three-ring circus with singers, chorus lines, dance teams, and acrobats, all Chinese Americans. There were Chinese American performers and staff, also included Filipino, Japanese, and Korean Americans. Accounts of Forbidden City go as follows a jacketed doorman greeted visitors outside, drawing them into the club’s grand interior, with its rich tapestries and Mandarin-collared bartenders. On the bandstand sat a large gold Buddha looking down on the audience.1 in the Life magazine’s 3-page spread dedicated to the Forbidden City, it states, “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 shows 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.” 2
It is not without notice the play on such expectation in the minds of white customers. The performers would play into the exotica fantasies and foreign theatrics expected in many cases. These grand rooms with tables, a dance floor, and a cabaret show promised their clientele a “taste of China,” but really, it was more China-by-way-of-Hollywood. The facades and interiors of places like Forbidden City, the Chinese Sky room, Club Mandalay, the Kubla Khan, the Lion’s Den, and Club Shanghai were done up in Western stereotypes of Chinese culture, from pagoda roofs to rice-paper screens and lanterns, while diners could order familiar nightclub-staples like steak and potatoes. The Chinese American chorus girls might make their entrance in modest cheongsams but would quickly discard them to reveal sexy burlesque costumes underneath. Elegant chanteuses sang popular American ballads in curve-hugging evening gowns, and dapper men sang and danced in tuxes and top hats.3 The act of surprise was common in the performances, given most would go out wearing traditional clothes, and right when the act would begin, they would quickly take it off, revealing a suit in a tie or a glamorous dress. It is through such experiences that development of social aspects of Chinese American culture. Most performers stood in limbo, keeping Chinese and Asian American traditions and adding a twist of “Americanized” dreams. Reinforced with naming American singers to the Asian American performers such as Larry Ching, the “Chinese Frank Sinatra,” and Frances Quan Chun, singer billed as the “Chinese Frances Langford” with this a relation not necessarily perfect is built to transition to a hybrid culture. Much like the exterior of forbidden City, the dishes offered mirror these states.
It was standard from 1920 to 1940s for Chinese restaurants to have an extensive list of American dishes and an all-English menu. Forbidden City did not stray away from this practice having an American menu on one side, including salads, sandwiches, steaks, chops, and desserts with domestic ingredients familiar to American customers. On the other side was the Chinese menu; there were assortments of chow mein, chop suey, egg foo young, fried rice, soup noodles, and house specials. Forbidden City drew crowds of Americans from all social strata, and not only because of the entertainment line-up. Forbidden City packed the house with one-dollar dinners, one dollar and fifty cents on a Saturday night. Much of the food was not authentic Chinese. But by promoting their dinner menus, the nightclubs helped popularize Chinese food in America.4 The dishes offered were far from the authentic cuisine of China; many of the items were staples of Chinese American cuisine. With courses like fried rice, chop suey, and chow mein, there was a reflective presence of trickery seen in the performances. On the outside, one expects authentic Chinese food or an exoticized version driven in the minds of many white customers, but to their surprise, what was a watered-down version one catered to the taste buds they are used to. “Even though Americans like the Chinese food they now are getting, it must be admitted that most Chinese restaurants are producing a type of food that is not really Chinese: It is more properly called ‘Chinese-American,’ that is, a type of food, based on Chinese cooking, that has been designed for Americans.” 5 a critical note on the menu is the categorization of the big three chop suey, chow mein, and egg foo young that finds its presence in all Chinese restaurants during this time.
The big three: chop suey, chow mein, and egg foo young on the menu were the staples for American Chinese cuisine. The first chop suey is like most of the food found in Chinese restaurants at the time cheap and convenient composed of meat variations of either chicken, fish, beef, shrimp, or pork and eggs, cooked quickly with vegetables such as bean sprouts, celery, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, and celery. The second Chow mein is a stir-fried dish consisting of noodles, meat (chicken is most common but pork, beef, shrimp, or tofu sometimes being substituted), onions, and celery. In preparing Chow Mein for American tastes, many restaurants alter the process of cooking. Chow Mein in China is made by boiling oriental-style long noodles, then stir-frying noodles. In Athens, noodles are first dry-fried because Americans like fried foods. The noodles are only an inch long–suitable for forks rather than chopsticks. The main entree is marinated in sauce, then poured over the fried noodles. The mein (noodle) still tastes crisp when the dish is served. Lastly, egg foo young is a Chinese omelet filled with vegetables, pork, and shrimp covered with a sauce. These three courses remain a staple that circulates through numerous Chinese restaurants due to their inexpensive and convenient nature. It is both accessible to American palates as well as profitable. In addition, dishes such as chop suey, chow mein, and fried rice were necessary for many restauranteurs to please the American palate. “The Americans do not like authentic Chinese food,” 6 Much like the emergence of American Chinese dishes, Forbidden City worked the same it both through a need for space and profit as well as the consequences of Americanization built the silhouettes of Chinese American culture.
Forbidden City laid out a path for Chinese Americans of the newer generation to express, create, and entertain this amalgamation of Chinese culture and American culture observed through social means but more specifically through culinary outlets. Riddled with racist undertones and xenophobic exclamation, Forbidden City had its critics. It was a space where many performers got to explore through a lens that one could argue was distorted, refracting an assimilated glass. Still, it was a space for Chinese Americans where they could live out their American dream defined by them.
1. East Meets West, Over Cocktails: A book and an exhibition recall vanished Chinese nightclubs Ito, Robert New York Times (1923-); Apr 13, 2014; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times pg. AR2 https://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/13/arts/music/east-meets-west-over-cocktails.html
2. Ofanotherfashion. Of another fashion, February 1, 2011. https://ofanotherfashion.tumblr.com/post/3036052847/life-magazine-ran-an-article-on-charlie-lows.
3. Hix, Lisa. “Dreams of the Forbidden City: When Chinatown Nightclubs Beckoned Hollywood.” Beyond Chron, February 3, 2014. https://beyondchron.org/dreams-of-the-forbidden-city-when-chinatown-nightclubs-beckoned-hollywood/.
4. Spiller, Harley. (2004). Late Night in the Lion’s Den: Chinese Restaurant-Nightclubs in 1940s San Francisco. Gastronomica, 4(4), 94–101. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2004.4.4.94
5. Shun Lu, & Fine, G. A. (1995). The Presentation of Ethnic Authenticity: Chinese Food as a Social Accomplishment. The Sociological Quarterly, 36(3), 535–553. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4120779
Paul Chan and Kenneth Baker, How to Order a Real Chinese Meal (New York: Guild Books, 1976), 5.
6. Richard Wing, interview with the author, March 12, 2001.