Although 1940s Shanghai had lost considerable luster courtesy of occupation, war, and revolution, another Shanghai was angling to take its place. In the same fashion that Hollywood had been responsible for inspiring glamor the world over, nightclubs in search of their own golden era underwent a certain Shanghai-ification. The city offered a powerful syllogism, an invocation that promised delight and unparalleled decadence. Even pre-Castro Cuba with its tropical, imperialist-friendly allure was home to a theater christened “The Shanghai.”
And then there was Oakland.
I’ve spoken with a few patrons who fondly remember Fong Wan’s New Shanghai Terrace Bowl. Possessing everything mid-20th century Americans could want–a nightclub, a bowling alley, and a Chinese restaurant–it was a popular destination, vaguely exotic for its fare, but safely American in its capacities for serving up sport and booze.
Charlie Low’s Forbidden City is perhaps better known to later generations, in part because of Arthur Dong’s excellent documentary on the San Francisco caberet, or perhaps thanks to Flower Drum Song. I know it well because I get my hair cut on Sutter Street; a modeling school now occupies the second floor space that once housed the club.
Fong famously purchased the vacant building across the street from Low’s Forbidden City, installing a massive sign directing patrons down the street to his own club, a savvy move that helped cement his reputation as a hard-driving businessman.
But this is only the tip of the research iceberg. Interested in multiple Chinatowns? Chinatown Time Travel is a good place to start. As you can tell from the above photo, Bunky’s Pickle has a fascinating archive. Likewise, Dizzy Atmosphere offers up a native view of our own sinful city. There’s plenty more to be seen if you trust in a combination of accident and vigilance in your photographic archaeology.
But not all is history: I’m anxiously awaiting Trina Robbins’ June 24th lecture about San Francisco’s Chinese nightclubs, co-presented by the Art Deco Society of California. Stepping from the past and onto the stage the same evening will be the high-stepping ladies of the Grant Avenue Follies.
It’s almost impossible to imagine an era when chop suey was as adventurous as the Szechuan treats served up on Clement Street today, or an era that wouldn’t have read the above image as the pretext for an argument against orientalizing. I’m no apologist, but I do know that if we didn’t have Chinatown and its nightclubs this city would be a very different place. What can’t be forgotten is that culture goes both ways. I’m saying this as someone who was taught to use chopsticks by a Chinese aunt–at Benihana.
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