Just like time travel, "Forbidden City, U.S.A: Chinese American Nightclubs, 1936-1970" beckons viewers back into a glamorous, often forgotten, era when San Francisco's Chinatown cabarets flourished.
Award-winning documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong spent 30 years gathering ephemera, photos and stories for the exhibition, which is on view at the San Francisco Public Library through July 6.
While researching the period, Dong realized his friend Kevin Gee was the stepson of impresario Charlie Low, who opened Forbidden City, a prominent club at 363 Sutter St. (Others were the Lion's Den, Kublai Khan, Dragon's Lair and Chinese Sky Room).
Using that connection, Dong -- who also wrote a book and made a documentary on the topic -- says he located more than 100 entertainers and staffers associated with the clubs, including Gee's mother, Ivy Tam (and Low's fourth wife).
The venues gave young second- and third-generation Chinese-American singers and dancers a chance to step onto American stages, to perform for USO troops during World War II, and to travel to other clubs such as New York City's China Doll. Still, the entertainers earned less than non-Asian dance troupes. A somewhat ironic note: One of Low's ex-wives, torch singer Li Tei Ming, reportedly got a pay hike rather than alimony.
Elders disapproved, seeing the stage as immoral.
The performers "knew how to have fun and be glamorous," Dong says, "despite the sometimes restrictive social and cultural conditions of the time."
Among the more notable objects in the show is the cover of a Forbidden City program, picturing dancer Lily Pon, scantily clad, in a cheesecake pose, with the text: "Come along with me please! I'll show you how to have fun -- in Chinese."
"This juxtaposition of image and dialogue takes on a tongue-in-cheek attitude, co-opting racially motivated expectations and poking fun at them," Dong says.
Other mementos on display include menus, colorful matchbooks, cover charge cards ($1.50 weeknights, $2 weekends) and even sugar cubes wrapped in printed paper.
Library curator Joan Jasper fell in love with the "precious" cubes and their wrappers depicting a chorus line act called the Wongettes.
"These pieces just evoke how much fun the clubs and the performers were. ... They were a glamorous respite for the troops, and the general population, during a trying time," Jasper says. "People just think of Chinatown now as restaurants and souvenir shops and do not know just how lively it was and what a fabulous night spot Chinatown was back in the '40s."
Costumes on view include an intricately embroidered acrobat's outfit and a dress and headdress worn by dancer Coby Lee, who, with her family, bought the landmark Forbidden City from founder Low in 1962.
"A convergence of cultural and social factors," Dong says, "led to final closure of Forbidden City in 1970." He points to the end of World War II, shifting priorities from a "night on the town" to raising a family, television and cultural trends of the 1960s, such as rock and roll, disco and topless dancers, as reasons why.
Nonetheless, Dong says, the period represented "a crucial coming-of-age" for American-born Asian Americans to be "active creators and participants in Western culture." He adds, "To this day, the performers' stories continue to serve as inspiration for Asian Americans looking to pursue careers in the entertainment arts."
IF YOU GO
Forbidden City, U.S.A.: Chinese American Nightclubs, 1936-1970
Where: Jewett Gallery, Main Library, lower level, 100 Larkin St., S.F.
When: Daily; closes July 6
Contact: (415) 557-4277, http://deepfocusproductions.com/forbidden_city_exhibit.php