Opening the Golden Gate: For Generations of Asian-American Artists in the Bay Area, Life in the Theatre Has Meant a Passionate Struggle for Opportunity and Change

Article excerpt

1. Cabaret and Chop Suey

In Bay Area playwright Philip Kan Gotanda's 1986 play Yankee Dawg You Die, an older Asian-American actor says to an upstart younger star, "We built the mountain, as small as it may be, that you stand on so proudly." Since British actor H. Agar Lyons donned yellow face to play the role of Fu Manchu in 1923, equal representation in entertainment has been an uphill climb fought by generations of Asian Americans.

The Chinese name for San Francisco translates literally as "Gold Mountain," and much of the figurative mountain to which Gotanda alludes has risen over the past century from the rocky environs of this Pacific city. With its 21-percent Asian population (31 percent in San Francisco proper) and its long Pacific Rim history, the Bay Area has been a unique home for Asian-American actors, dating back to the 1930s--and that remains vividly true today.

But change is afoot. Recent shifts in the local theatrical ecology of the Bay Area are altering the range of opportunity and visibility for Asian-American theatre artists of every stripe. One of the region's oldest and most important organizations devoted to Asian-American artistry, the Asian American Theater Company--which generated unprecedented accomplishments in the 1970s and '80s but fell into hard times in the late 1990s--is presently mounting its first full season since 2006. Its sister regional companies, San Jose Repertory Theatre and Theatre Works of Palo Alto, continue to aggressively seek out actors and writers from the Asian-American community, and even flagship venues such as American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre have plays with Asian and Asian-American themes in their upcoming seasons. Young Asian-American artists I spoke with for this article are more likely than not to view their ethnicity as a professional asset.

That's a far cry from the 1930s, when the circuit of cabaret clubs, popularly known as the Chop Suey Circuit, came into being. Although the circuit included New York and Los Angeles, "There was no other city with Asian clubs like San Francisco," declares 92-year-old Dorothy Toy.

She should know. Toy and her partner Paul Wing, known as the dancing duo Toy and Wing, were one of the biggest acts ever to roll through the circuit. Born in the Bay Area, they met in Los Angeles, made a name on Broadway, played the lamed London Palladium, and danced through Hollywood in films like No Orchids fur Miss Blandish and Happiness Ahead. Paul was ethnically Chinese, Dorothy Japanese. But like many of her non-Chinese peers, Toy changed her name (from Takahashi) to better market herself to Caucasian Americans who thought "Asian" meant "Chinese." Her stage name would later help protect her from internment during World War II.

After the war, Toy and Wing settled in the Bay Area, often headlining clubs like Kubla Khan, Club Shanghai and Chinese Sky Room, all of which offered nightly shows featuring singers, dancers and emcees who were mostly American-born Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Filipinos; unlike many of their traditional parents, they spoke flawless English and embraced American pop culture, singing and dancing to the hits of the day. But the biggest, most glamorous and most reputable nightclub was the Forbidden City, opened in 1938 by the suave entertainment entrepreneur Charlie Low.

"At first, the clientele was mostly G.I.s," Toy recalls. Many of these military men didn't believe Chinese women could dance or sing, so they wanted to see for themselves. The tourists came next. And, finally, Hollywood took notice, as movie stars like John Wayne and Ronald Reagan began catching Forbidden City shows during their visits to San Francisco.

The mainstream press took an interest in the Circuit--for better or worse--forcing even the greatest Asian-American stars to live in the shadow of their Caucasian counterparts. They dubbed Larry Ching the Chinese Frank Sinatra, Toy Yat Mar the Chinese Sophie Tucker and, of course, Dorothy Toy the Chinese Ginger Rogers. …