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The Chinatown Nightclub Dancer Who Helped Squash Asian Stereotypes

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An attractive young Asian-American woman poses seductively, lying on her front, with manicured hands folded across her chest.

I

n the 1930s, young Asian American women living in San Francisco didn’t have a lot of job prospects. At home, these women often faced limiting cultural expectations. And in the wider non-Asian community, discrimination against them was rife. Secretarial and administration positions were off limits, and even the most beautiful and talented girls couldn’t find regular work as models or actors. For those unwilling to rush into marriage or work manual labor jobs, employment options were few and far between.

After prohibition ended in 1933, however, new opportunities arose. For those brave enough to embrace the thrills and spills of city nightlife, the new bars and nightclubs that began opening all over Chinatown offered jobs. Bold young Asian American women became singers, dancers and showgirls, and entertained packed rooms of diverse audiences. In the process, they helped buck racist stereotypes about Asian Americans common in the Bay Area at the time.

One of these women was Mary Mammon.

For the first 16 years of her life, Mammon lived in Clifton, Arizona—a small town that was overwhelmingly white, but still welcoming to her family. When Mammon’s grandmother got sick, her mom—originally from San Francisco—moved Mammon and her five older siblings to the city by the bay. Mammon was immediately struck by how segregated it was.

“At one time,” she told Arthur Dong for his Forbidden City USA book, “the boundary line was Broadway. The Italians didn’t cross over to the Chinese side and the Chinese didn’t cross over to that side without causing some sort of fracas … [At] one time, the parks had signs that said ‘No Chinese or dogs allowed.'”

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Faced with few other options, in 1936 Mammon tried her hand as a cocktail waitress at the Chinese Pagoda, situated at 830 Grant Ave. (The bar makes a very brief appearance in the 1960 film Portrait in Black.) A popular trend at the time was to have singing wait staff, so Mammon quickly became accustomed to performing. Though never formally trained, she had gravitated towards singing and dancing since she was a little girl. In high school, she was a member of the Glee Club, and a huge fan of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. Mammon jumped at the opportunity to perform for an audience.

One of Mammon’s most popular numbers at the Pagoda was “A-Tisket-A-Tasket,” the jazz standard popularized by Ella Fitzgerald. Legend has it that, after seeing Mammon perform it one night, Herb Caen expressed confusion in his Chronicle column over why an Asian girl would perform such a song. At the time, most Americans had simply never seen people of Asian descent singing anything other than traditional Chinese opera.

Mammon actively looked for performing gigs that wouldn’t require her to also wait tables. She reached out to chorus lines across San Francisco and was turned down by all of them. “They didn’t think a Chinese could do it,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald in 1992. “Most people thought that Blacks had a lot of rhythm and Orientals had none.”

A fashion-forward Mary Mammon is seen at the center of a Forbidden City table in the 1940s. To her right is her friend and dance partner Dottie Sun. On either side of them sit two servicemen and another friend. ('Forbidden City USA' documentary)

In December of 1938, Mammon was finally given the chance to expand her skills when the first Chinese nightclub in America opened at 363 Sutter Street. Its name was Forbidden City, and it was the brainchild of Charlie Low, a bar owner originally from Nevada. Low was encouraged to open the club by his second wife Li Tei Ming—a singer who was looking for stages to perform on. When Mammon auditioned for the second-floor club, she was welcomed with open arms—she was one of the few chorus girls there with any experience at all.

“I shared the tastes of middle America,” Mary said in 1992. “The nightclubs were not a cultural shock to me. They were quite nice. The days of the speakeasy were gone. I mainly remember that we had a lot of fun at Charlie Low’s club, doing what we wanted to do. People were curious about us.”

The club limped through its first year, struggling to find its tone and audience. But once it did, it inspired a rash of copycats in Chinatown. The Chinese Skyroom, Club Shanghai, Kubla Khan and Lion’s Den all swiftly followed in Forbidden City’s footsteps, offering the same joyful blend of Asian and American cultures. The change in the neighborhood was not welcomed by everyone—and the female performers were judged most harshly of all.

“The Chinese families in San Francisco looked down on such things,” Mammon explained in Forbidden City USA. “Show your legs out there for people to see? It was unheard of! Girls were taught to grow up and keep house, and we were supposed to get married at a certain time, and we were supposed to know how to take care of a house, and take of the children, and take care of your husband. This was just not part of the Chinese culture.”

In Arthur Dong’s 1989 documentary, Forbidden City USA, Jadin Wong, one of Mammon’s fellow dancers, recalled: “We used to get letters from Chinese people telling us that we should be ashamed of ourselves doing what we do for a living, dancing in a nightclub.” Singer Frances Chun added: “[It] was shocking for the Chinese community, and confusing for the Caucasian people.” One former patron named Gladys Hu explained that “it was quite a scandalous place to be going, because you had showgirls in skimpy costumes.”

In the midst of it all, Mammon and her friends remained impervious to the criticism and, for the most part, had a ball—despite being underpaid for their labor.

B

y the 1940s, Mammon and her Forbidden City cohorts were nationwide sensations. Life magazine had garnered the club national attention in 1938 with an article outlining the ways it filled “a local cultural need” in San Francisco. But it was during World War II when word really began to spread, thanks to the servicemen who visited Forbidden City whenever granted leave in the Bay. Once word spread throughout the military, the press was quick to follow.

One newsreel of the time introduced Forbidden City’s chorus girls in a beach setting. Wearing traditional Chinese dresses, the women begin the segment with what the newscaster describes as an “age-old dance” in order to “welcome Springtime.” After a few moments, the seemingly demure women run behind a screen, fling off their clothes and emerge gleefully in modern swimsuits for a dance routine on the sand. Each of the Forbidden City dancers looks thrilled to play into, and then flip, the common Asian American stereotypes of the day.

The Associated Press picture story about Mary Mammon, titled “Chinatown Girl,” as seen in the Bangor Daily News, July 4, 1941. (Bangor Daily News)

In June of 1941, a syndicated Associated Press article presented a day in the life of Mammon. Chinatown, the report said, “once was reputed to hold all the sins and exotic charms of Old China, but a new generation, modern and American, has sprung up.” After a series of fluffy and frivolous photos of Mammon performing, shopping, eating, studying, sunbathing, and walking through Chinatown in fashionable garb, the story concluded with a salient point.

“Tourists may mourn the passing of the old Chinatown customs and fixtures,” it said, “but for Mary and girls like her it has meant emancipation.”

The coverage gave Forbidden City yet another boost, and it began attracting celebrities. Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Alfred Hitchcock, John Wayne and Ronald Reagan all paid the club a visit. Now and again, Mammon and other dancers, including Hazel Jay and Dottie Sun, hit the road to show audiences across America what they could do. The Chinese Follies tour was one such jaunt.

With the 1950s came a new wave of pop culture icons and a cultural shift that left Forbidden City and other nightclubs like it looking increasingly dated. Low finally sold the club in 1962. By that time, Mammon was a single mom of two sons, having married in 1947 and divorced in 1955. When the club closed, she hung up her dancing shoes and took a grocery clerk job at Safeway. Mammon never lost her love of music, though. In retirement, she sang in choirs and danced at the Berkeley Chinese Senior Center, where she was an active volunteer.

Mary Mammon died in 2002 at the age of 84, a beloved great-grandmother who never forgot her nightclub days. The determination she showed in her younger years to live life on her own terms was not only an inspiration to other women at the time—it also transformed how white America saw a new generation of Asian Americans. That everyone had such a good time in the process is just the cherry on top.

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To learn about other Rebel Girls from Bay Area History, visit the Rebel Girls homepage.

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