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A Return to the Forbidden City’s Glory Days

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From 1938 through 1962, the Forbidden City nightclub was a San Francisco landmark, featuring elaborate production numbers and specialty acts. It was like many such successful clubs of the era, except for one crucial difference: It featured Chinese-American entertainers.

Film maker Arthur Dong, whose impressive “Sewing Woman” and “Lotus” reveal his concern for his Chinese heritage, had the inspired idea to do a documentary on the club, composed of interviews with many of its alumni, and enriched with a treasure trove of archival material--rare footage shot inside the club, vintage recordings of its singers and even clips from the Hollywood films in which they appeared.

Dong’s “Forbidden City, U.S.A.” (at the Nuart Wednesday and Thursday, plus additional screenings through Tuesday) is the kind of film that has yet to be done on Manhattan’s Cotton Club. It brims over with nostalgia for a more glamorous and innocent show-business era, yet is a commentary on racial stereotyping and on the insidiousness of discrimination. The handsome and vigorous array of Forbidden City veterans, now in their 60s and 70s, first of all had to persuade their often chagrined families that they were serious about entering show business and then had to persuade potential employers that Americans of Chinese descent could actually sing and dance. For most all of them, the late Charlie Low, the Forbidden City’s proprietor, was the man who gave them their breaks.

Just as African-Americans had their Sepia Mae Wests and Black Valentinos, the Forbidden City offered a Chinese Sophie Tucker (Toy Yat Mar), a Chinese Fred Astaire (Paul Wing), a Chinese Frank Sinatra (Larry Ching) and even a Chinese Sally Rand (Noel Toy). Clearly, these and other performers interviewed have their own vibrant personalities and individual talents, but to varying degrees submerged them for professional survival. As Toy Yat Mar observes, “I really didn’t care too much for the label, but it was commercial, so I stuck with it.” Old recordings reveal that both she and Ching were uncannily accurate as sound-alikes of Tucker and Sinatra.

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When Forbidden City performers toured, as they did during the club’s World War II heyday, they admit they were confounded by the rigid segregation they encountered in the South and were perplexed as to where they fit in, being neither black nor white. In any event, the Forbidden City, which became a casualty of the North Beach topless clubs and other social changes, was one of the few venues open to Chinese-American entertainers. Charlie Low’s alumni see themselves as Americans first and foremost, and Dong’s delightful 57-minute film preserves their place in our show-business heritage.

There will be additional showings of “Forbidden City, U.S.A.” at 5:45 p.m. on Friday, Monday and Tuesday, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 12:45 p.m.

Information: (213) 478-6377, (213) 479-5269.

Oliver Huckenhill’s 65-minute “Determinations,” which screens tonight at 8 at LACE, is one of the most demanding of Filmforum’s presentations.

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It is a kind of reverie in protest of the severe sentences accorded the five members of the Vancouver Direct Action Anarchists, who set off a series of bombings in the early ‘80s in a protest against nuclear weapons development (and also pornographic images of women). The film seems totally random, composed of reprocessed images, staged vignettes and nature footage, all of which is occasionally punctuated by recitations of the five defendants’ ponderous court statements.

“Determinations” has been called nothing less than an attempt at “rejuvenating the documentary form,” but is likely to strike many viewers as relentlessly tedious, self-indulgent and of no help whatsoever in the cause of the Vancouver Five.

Information: (213) 276-7452 or (714) 923-2441.

“Enchanted Drawings: The Hollywood Animated Film” commences Friday at the County Museum of Art and runs through Jan. 6 on Fridays and Saturdays. This weekend’s programs are “In the Beginning: The Silent Era” (Friday at 1 and 8 p.m.) and “Walt Disney: Part 1" (Saturday at 10:15 a.m. and 8 p.m.).

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Information: (213) 857-6522.


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