September 19, 2021

The Fourthny

Art is beauty

How a single mom went from dancing in San Francisco nightclubs to owning one

9 min read

It’s a Saturday afternoon in August, nearly a year after the death of one of the most iconic burlesque performers to grace the stages of San Francisco’s bygone nightclubs. 

A group of former dancers, friends and family members are gathered at the Showgirl Magic Museum in the basement of the Clarion Performing Arts Center in San Francisco’s Chinatown, laughing and sifting through old photo albums as they snack on matcha ice cream and listen to cabaret music on a crackling turntable. 

They’re in the middle of a conversation about Coby Yee.


Arlene Dark, a longtime dancer at the Chinese Sky Room, points to a photograph of her and grins. “I was always doing Coby’s number backstage. She had a very good act, and the crowd just loved her.”

Cynthia Yee, a past nightclub performer crowned Miss Chinatown in 1967, fondly refers to one area of the museum she now helms as “the Coby Corner.” It’s filled with an assortment of glitzy gowns and lavish sequined headdresses that glimmer from the walls, as well as paraphernalia from the club that came to be known as “Coby Yee’s Forbidden City,” including a ’50s-era dinner menu with a filet mignon priced at $5.50, and the tap shoes of Paul Wing, who was one half of the popular dancing duo billed as “the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.”

Shari Matsuura, Coby Yee’s daughter, walks down the steps into the museum and takes in the scenery, nodding to herself. 

“It’s the first time I’ve come back to San Francisco without my mom,” she says with tears in her eyes, adding that she flew in from Honolulu just a few days before. “I think she would be so surprised by all of this. But it’s wonderful to be surrounded by all of these people — all of my mom’s friends. This is home to me.” 

Some of the memorabilia on display at the Showgirl Magic Museum in San Francisco on July 29, 2021. The museum is a tribute to San Francisco's rich mid-20th century nightclub culture.

Some of the memorabilia on display at the Showgirl Magic Museum in San Francisco on July 29, 2021. The museum is a tribute to San Francisco’s rich mid-20th century nightclub culture.

Mariah Tiffany/Special to SFGATE

Described as “China’s most daring dancing doll” in aging newspaper clippings, Coby Yee’s electrifying stage presence enchanted crowds of hundreds at the peak of the Chinese American nightclub scene in San Francisco, which lasted from the mid-1930s to 1970. Not only was she a headlining act who crafted all of her own costumes, but later in life, she also owned and operated the largest and most famous of the clubs, the Forbidden City on 363 Sutter St., plus a cocktail lounge on Broadway (the Dragon Lady) and her own dance and clothing studio in Waverly Place. 

“You could go to Chinatown, see Coby Yee perform, be seated by her at her own bar, go take a dance class from her and then commission a dress. And then you could pop over to another club and see a show that she created,” said Burlesque Hall of Fame museum curator Darby Fox in an episode of their podcast “Quimm City Presents.”

The Las Vegas-based museum presented Yee with a “Living Legend of Burlesque” award in 2020, though she passed away at the age of 93 on Aug. 14 of that year — one day before she would have received the honor in a virtual ceremony. An exhibit titled “Coby Yee: The Hardest-Working Woman in Chinatown” is currently on display at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, showcasing her legacy and contributions to the art form. 

“I have a lot of admiration for her,” said Fox. “There’s a lot of hardworking women and exotic dancers that came after Coby, and they had a venue and a place to perform because she kept stages like that going in a changing landscape of live entertainment. She was a pioneer and a powerhouse.”

A photo of Coby Yee in the late 1950s. 

A photo of Coby Yee in the late 1950s. 

Courtesy of Shari Matsuura

The child of two Cantonese immigrants, Yee was born in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 2, 1926. Early in life, she demonstrated an affinity for tap dancing, according to Matsuura. She had an uncle who owned a supper club in Washington, D.C., where she performed as a teenager and had her first brush with show business, her daughter said. After World War II, her parents expressed a desire to return to China, and brought Yee and her sister with them to San Francisco to catch a boat and cross the Pacific. When they arrived, Yee refused to leave San Francisco.

“I don’t know how she convinced my grandparents,” said Matsuura, noting that Yee’s sister was already married and not expected to go back. “But she stayed put.” 

Eager to show off her talents, Yee started performing in chorus lines and ensemble acts before becoming a top-billed performer at the Forbidden City, which had been spearheaded by Charlie Low in 1938 following the success of his previous venture, the Chinese Village (known as the first cocktail bar in Chinatown). The popularity of the bar inspired many similar businesses, including Kubla Khan and the Lion’s Den, where Yee also performed. 

It was a time when at least five busloads of people from across the country would descend upon San Francisco every evening for a taste of the nightlife, said Cynthia Yee. They’d make their way from the drag club Finocchio’s on Broadway to Bimbo’s 365 on Columbus before finally arriving at the Chinese Sky Room and the Forbidden City, where a revue combining mime, comedy, live music and scantily clad dancers cycled through three performances a night, which regularly sold out. 

Coby Yee performs in a magic act at the Forbidden City on Sept. 24, 1966.

Coby Yee performs in a magic act at the Forbidden City on Sept. 24, 1966.

Courtesy of the Showgirl Magic Museum

Yee was undoubtedly the star and a local celebrity of sorts, with her name splashed across newspaper ads and regularly appearing in nightlife columns. 

“Mona Fong and Coby Yee have made Charlie Low’s show at the Forbidden City the best that Charlie has produced … just what the doctor ordered,” reads an excerpt from a 1959 review penned by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Hal Schaefer.

That same year, Herb Caen detailed how King Baudouin of Belgium came to see her perform while on a visit to the city.

“She curtsied — whereupon he smiled and waved to her,” wrote Caen. “Before she went on, though, she asked Boss Charlie Low nervously: ‘Shall I censor the act?’ Charlie: ‘Heck no, let ‘er rip!’”

Other stories depict her shrewd sense of humor. Once, when interviewed by the San Francisco Examiner after a man had drunkenly wandered into her dressing room, she remarked, “I have never been so embarrassed. He caught me standing there completely clothed!” 

Chinese dancers Mae Tai Sing and Tony Wing perform an elaborate floor show circa 1955 at Forbidden City, a nightclub in Chinatown, San Francisco.

Chinese dancers Mae Tai Sing and Tony Wing perform an elaborate floor show circa 1955 at Forbidden City, a nightclub in Chinatown, San Francisco.

Orlando/Getty Images

That’s not to say clubs like the Forbidden City were universally revered. At first, they drew a mixed response, with some in the Chinese community viewing them as exploitative, not to mention a fetishization of their ethnicity that catered to mostly white tourists. And though the Forbidden City was marketed as an all-Chinese nightclub — a three-page spread in a 1940 issue of Life Magazine hailed it as “the No. 1 all-Chinese nightclub in the U.S.” — apprehension from Chinatown’s residents led to the recruitment of many Japanese, Korean and Filipino performers from around the Bay Area as well, according to Arthur Dong’s book “Forbidden City, U.S.A.”

However, dancers would often subvert the so-called “Orientalist” stereotypes they promoted, playing with the racial expectations of their clientele and ultimately defying societal norms to pursue the performance art they were passionate about. And the truth was their talent couldn’t be ignored.

“Coby really pushed boundaries back then, and encouraged me to continue to explore what it means to be a Chinese American woman, especially in burlesque,” said Frankie Fictitious, an East Bay burlesque performer. “We were raised to keep our heads down and blend in, but [performers like Coby] redefined what it meant to be an Asian American woman or a woman of color, subverting the idea that we are docile and submissive, when we’re women being unapologetically powerful and reclaiming our sexuality.”

A photo of burlesque performer Frankie Fictitious, left, wearing one of Coby Yee's, right, handcrafted costumes she sewed during the height of her career. 

A photo of burlesque performer Frankie Fictitious, left, wearing one of Coby Yee’s, right, handcrafted costumes she sewed during the height of her career. 

Courtesy of Frankie Fictitious

If there’s one thing those close to Yee remember her for, it was her ambition. When Low decided to retire and sell the Forbidden City in 1962, Yee took over, owning the club until its eventual closure in 1970, while still going back and forth between multiple venues to perform, often within the same night. 

“I don’t think she realized she was going to become a trailblazer. In her mind, she was just going to work,” said Matsuura. “And to me, it was normal. I had a working mom — a single mom. She did the regular things to get me ready for school. She dropped me off and picked me up. We went to family dinners. There was nothing too out of the ordinary, except my mom worked at night.”

Eventually, a shifting nightlife scene and the rise of clubs featuring go-go dancers and topless acts like Carol Doda at the Condor Club led to the demise of Chinatown’s nightclubs, said Cynthia Yee. The Chinese Sky Room was the last to shutter.

Two chorus girls prepare for their act in the dressing room of the Forbidden City nightclub circa 1955 in Chinatown, San Francisco. 

Two chorus girls prepare for their act in the dressing room of the Forbidden City nightclub circa 1955 in Chinatown, San Francisco. 

Orlando/Getty Images

After the Forbidden City days, Coby Yee quietly opted to leave show business. That is, until Cynthia Yee saw her teaching a ballroom dancing class at a senior center in the East Bay about six years ago.

“I asked her to come and do a show with us,” said Cynthia Yee, referring to the Grant Avenue Follies, a touring dance troupe she founded in 2004 with a group of other former Chinatown performers and community members. “She was like, ‘No, no, no. I’m not doing any more of that. Forbidden City is over with.’ And I said, ‘Please. Come down with me to Las Vegas to the Burlesque Hall of Fame. You just have to walk across the stage, that’s all you have to do.’”

Eventually, Coby Yee relented and joined the group in traveling across the world, from Las Vegas to Havana, Cuba, and Shanghai, China. Her last performance was in February 2020 at a show produced by Cynthia Yee at the Clarion Performing Arts Center, just a floor above the museum that now serves as a tribute to her burlesque career. 

Coby Yee dancing in Cuba in 2019.

Coby Yee dancing in Cuba in 2019.

Courtesy of Patricia Nishimoto

“I remember that day. She was so… tired,” said Fictitious, who also performed at the event. “But then when she got up on stage, she lit up and was the biggest ball of energy. She made everyone in the audience smile. They gave her a standing ovation, but then again, she always gets one. I just remember thinking how happy the stage made her … and I’m so happy that she was able to rediscover her passion for burlesque toward the end of her life.”  

Coby Yee resided at her home in San Pablo for 40 years, where she spent hours behind her sewing machine each day, continuing to create thousands of intricate garments that filled up every corner of her house but never made it to the stage.  

Fictitious wanted to change that. 

With the help of the Bay Area burlesque community, many of Yee’s remaining costumes were donated or sold on a pay-what-you-can basis to local burlesque performers. Some are on display as part of the exhibit at the Burlesque Hall of Fame. Others are still available for purchase through Pistil Dance Studios in Vallejo, with the proceeds going toward the Grant Avenue Follies, the Burlesque Hall of Fame, the Clarion Performing Arts Center, among other organizations that keep the art of burlesque alive.

“I know my mom would be very pleased to see other people wearing her designs, to be enjoying and making use of her work in this way. Tickled, really,” said Matsuura. “Can you imagine?”

Coby Yee and Frankie Fictitious at Yee's San Pablo home. 

Coby Yee and Frankie Fictitious at Yee’s San Pablo home. 

Courtesy of Frankie Fictitious

A photo of Coby Yee, circa 1945. 

A photo of Coby Yee, circa 1945. 

Courtesy of Shari Matsuura

From left to right: Patricia Nishimoto (a member of the Grant Avenue Follies), Shari Matsuura (Coby Yee's daughter) and Coby Yee in Chinatown, taken in 2019. "Coby loved seeing me in her white leather coat," said Nishimoto.

From left to right: Patricia Nishimoto (a member of the Grant Avenue Follies), Shari Matsuura (Coby Yee’s daughter) and Coby Yee in Chinatown, taken in 2019. “Coby loved seeing me in her white leather coat,” said Nishimoto.

Courtesy of Patricia Nishimoto

Coby Yee, right, gives one of her handcrafted headdresses to Patricia Chin, a member of the Grant Avenue Follies, at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.  

Coby Yee, right, gives one of her handcrafted headdresses to Patricia Chin, a member of the Grant Avenue Follies, at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.  

Courtesy of Cynthia Yee

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