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Former Chorus Girls Recall Chinatown's Storied Nightlife Scene

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Former Chinese Sky Room chorus Girl Pat Chin poses with Frank Sinatra and club owner Andy Wong, circa 1957. The photo hangs on the wall at The Showgirl Magic Museum -- one of many souvenirs from Chinatown's glory days as a nightlife destination. (Courtesy Pat Chin/Showgirl Magic Museum)

The Showgirl Magic Museum occupies the basement of the Clarion Performing Arts Center, located down a back alley in San Francisco’s Chinatown. In the corner of the unassuming space, crammed with costumes, hats, jewelry and other memorabilia dedicated to the neighborhood’s nightclub history, there’s a photo of Pat Chin posing with Frank Sinatra.

“That picture was taken after he filmed Pal Joey here in San Francisco,” says Chin, who worked as a chorus girl at Chinese Sky Room, one of around eight local nightspots, in the 1950s. “Sinatra rushed over to help me off the stage, lit my cigarette and did a lot of small talk. He was a complete gentleman.”

A Nightlife Destination

From the 1930s to the 1960s, San Francisco’s Chinatown was a nightlife destination, where celebrity sightings, if not full-on flirting opportunities, were commonplace.

The sidewalks bustled at 3 a.m. Busloads of tourists came through, and the neighborhood thrived with an array of glitzy supper clubs like Forbidden City, Chinese Sky Room and Club Mandalay, where you might run into the likes of Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

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The recently opened Showgirl Magic Museum aims to memorialize this glamorous past, with the support and from the viewpoint of the Asian American entertainers who put Chinatown on the international nightlife map.

“I was a dancer during the ’60s,” says museum founder and Clarion Performing Arts Center vice president Cynthia Yee. “And so it only made sense to me that I would try to bring back the history of Chinatown.”

Inside the Showgirl Magic Museum in San Francisco’s Chinatown. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Asian Discrimination Abounds

Yee says discrimination against Asian residents in San Francisco was rampant during the days when the clubs flourished. Remnants of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred many Chinese people from living and working in the U.S., were still in effect. Even the bands that played the Chinese nightclubs were predominantly white.

“In those days, the musicians union was very strong,” Yee says. “Chinese musicians were not allowed to join the union.”

There were especially few professional opportunities for women, Yee adds. The burgeoning Chinatown club scene gave some measure of financial independence to the young Asian American women who worked in these nightspots.

Cynthia Yee as ‘Miss Chinatown,’ in 1967. (Courtesy of Cynthia Yee)

Yee found herself hitting the road with famous dancer Dorothy Toy (a.k.a “The Asian Ginger Rogers”) as a teenager, after Toy—whose family owned the building in Chinatown where Yee lived as a child—needed to hire a replacement dancer for her troupe at short notice. Yee had been inspired by Toy to take dancing classes as a girl, and jumped at the tantalizing offer.

“We traveled throughout the United States, to the Caribbean, and Europe,” Yee says. “We used to run around in a checker limousine and it would hold 12 of us with all of our luggage and all of our wardrobe.”

Meanwhile, Chin got her start as a dancer after quitting a low-rung job at the stock exchange and facing few prospects except cafe or restaurant work. Chin says the clubs were clamoring for talent, and soon found herself treading the boards at Chinese Sky Room after responding to an ad she saw one day in a local paper.

“They hired me immediately because they couldn’t find too many Chinese girls who would be willing to reveal their legs in public,” Chin says.

Advertising for ‘Toy and Wing’s Oriental Playgirl Revue’ at Chinese Sky Room, circa 1960s. Dorothy Toy and Paul Wing were famous dancers on San Francisco’s Chinese nightclub scene, which flourished from the 1930s to 60s. (Courtesy Showgirl Magic Museum)

Like many other Chinatown chorus girls, who performed three shows a night in skimpy sequined outfits before predominantly white audiences, Chin didn’t tell her family about her line of work.

“I kept it a secret for a long time,” she says.

Chin says her parents eventually found out when they saw her picture in the paper, by which time they didn’t have the will to do anything about it.

“By then it’s too late,” Chin says. “Because here I am earning a living and sending money home. And there’s no complaints there.”

Yee’s family, meanwhile, took a more benign view.

“Most families would shun at the idea of joining the show,” she says. “But I was lucky because Dorothy Toy had promised my mom that she would take care of me. And she did.”

A Scene in Decline

In the late 1960s, the elegant showgirls and big bands of Chinatown’s nightclubs started to fall out of fashion.

Chin and Yee blame the topless venues that started to proliferate in nearby North Beach, like the Condor Club, which became notorious after a cocktail waitress named Carol Doda first danced in a topless swimsuit in 1964.

Pat Chin chats with KQED at the Showgirl Magic Museum. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

“I guess people would rather go see the topless performers and go-go dancers who danced inside of cages on Broadway,” says Chin.

“It killed a lot of the business,” adds Yee.

Toughening zoning laws in the neighborhood also played a role in the dwindling of the scene.

“The community leaders changed the zoning to protect Chinatown,” says Steven Lee, a member of San Francisco’s Entertainment Commission and the owner of Lion’s Den Bar and Lounge, one of very few new nightclubs to have opened in Chinatown in the last few years. “There was a lot of bars in Chinatown at the time and they didn’t want them to become strip clubs. They wanted to keep Chinatown historic. So after a while, the entertainment scene in Chinatown was near nothing.”

For decades, according to the San Francisco Entertainment Commission, entertainment could only be offered in the neighborhood in conjunction with an existing restaurant permit. That requirement was lifted as part of Chinatown’s zoning reorganization legislation in 2019, and Lee says he’s eager to see Chinatown’s nightlife scene spring back to life. Lion’s Den, which offers food as well as live music and DJs, opened its doors in March of this year.

“And that’s why I wanted to open Lion’s Den,” Lee says. “It’s trying to show that we can maybe help Chinatown a different way than just having a store selling back scratchers.”

Outside the Lion’s Den Bar and Lounge, one of very few new nightspots to have opened in Chinatown in recent years. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Chinatown’s Nightlife Prospects

Running a nightclub today is different than it was in the 1950s. There are parking issues, and car break-ins are on the rise. The yo-yoing COVID-19 restrictions of the past 18 months have added a further layer of challenges.

“People were starting to come out,” Lee says. But as soon as the Delta variant caused new restrictions, “tables were canceling and bands were canceling, because we’re requiring vaccine cards now.”

Then there’s the recent spate of racially motivated attacks against the local Asian population to contend with.

Former showgirl Chin, who’s now in her 80s and lives in the Richmond but spends a lot of time in her old neighborhood, says she misses the Chinatown of her youth—not just because of the bustle, but also because of its safety.

“It was so lovely then. I would go out at midnight just to pick up the Examiner for my mother. So here I am, a little girl, about 9 or 10 years old, still walking the streets and it’s safe.” Chin says. “We didn’t have to worry about people hitting us over the head or robbing us.”

Not that this former chorus girl plans to stay home anytime soon.

Since 2004, Chin and Yee have been members of the Grant Avenue Follies, a performance group that focuses on vintage tap dance routines. It’s a way of bringing back the glory days of the Chinatown nightclub scene, along with preserving its artifacts at the Showgirl Magic Museum.

Earlier this year the group made an artistic departure. They got political, creating a rap in response to racist attacks against Asian elders with impassioned lyrics like, “The elders are your teachers, the elders are your guides / When you mess with them, you’re committing suicide.”

The high-energy video for the “Gai Mou Sou Rap” racked up over 80,000 views on YouTube and made the evening news.

“We want to show people that you can’t bully us,” Chin says. “Because we will fight back.”

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Learn more about the Showgirl Magic Museum here.

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