Directed by: Arthur Dong 1989 | 56 min.

Section: Documentaries

Premiere: Return Engagement

Film Website

Countries: United States

Languages: English

Genres: Asian American, Documentary, History


It was the swinging 30s. The big bands of the 40s. It was San Francisco nightlife – Baghdad by the Bay. And the crowds were packing the nation's premiere all-Chinese nightclub, Forbidden City. Like the Cotton Club of Harlem which featured America's finest African American entertainers, Forbidden City gained an international reputation with its unique showcase of Chinese American performers in eye-popping all-American extravaganzas.

FORBIDDEN CITY, USA captures this little-known chapter of entertainment history and takes it center stage, featuring a cast of original nightclub performers. "The Chinese Sinatra", "the Chinese Sophie Tucker", and the "Chinese Sally Rand" are just some of the spirited personalities that strut their stuff and share triumphant and often sidesplitting tales of adventures in the cabarets of yesteryear.

Among the performers from Hawaii who came through Forbidden City were Larry Ching (the Chinese Sinatra), the late jazz singer Jimmy Borges (who got his showbiz break in 1957 at Forbidden City performing under the more Chinese-sounding moniker, Jimmy Jay), and dancer Mai Tai Sing, who returned to Hawaii in 1970 to become the popular hostess of Trappers at the Hyatt Waikiki and later the Ciao Mein (and who still lives in Honolulu today). Original recordings and film performances long buried in studio vaults and private collections are highlighted alongside real life stories in this groundbreaking classic film that world premiered in San Francisco, and played at HIFF in 1989 and was named “Best Documentary of the Decade” in 1990. Director Arthur Dong returned to the Festival in 1997 with a retrospective of his work, in which FORBIDDEN CITY, USA was screened again.

HIFF is honored to bring back the film for a return engagement, with the Hawaii premiere of a newly restored version that has been digitally remastered from the original film elements by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, revealing vibrant colors and details never before seen. Arthur Dong will also be in attendance to introduce his film, and also speak about his new companion book to the film, “Forbidden City, USA: Chinatown Nightclubs, 1936-1970,” which will also be available for sale at the screening.

Plus, as an extra treat for the audience, there will be performances by the Grant Avenue Follies, a senior dance group inspired by the cabaret dancers from the SF Chinatown lounge circuit during its heyday from the 1920s to the 60s, including some of these original dancers, who danced in said circuit and venues such as the Forbidden City, the Sky Room, the Club Shanghai, Kublai Khan, Club Mandalay and the Lion's Den.
-Anderson Le


Sunday, November 13 1:00 PM Doris Duke Theater Date Passed

Cast & Crew

Director Arthur Dong
Producer Arthur Dong
Cast Larry Ching, Frances Chun, Jack Mei Ling, Charlie Low, Mary Mammon, Toy Yat Mar, Dottie Sun, Noel Toy, Dorothy Toy, Tony Wing, Paul Wing, Jadin Wong
Cinematographer Michael Chin
Editor Walt Louie
Writer Arthur Dong
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