“A Night at The Forbidden City” draws on legacy of Asian American cabaret

Jenny Ku, who performs under the name The Shanghai Pearl, produced “A Night at The Forbidden City.” (Courtesy photo.)

“A Night at The Forbidden City” aims to bring back the charm and excitement of 1940s and 1950s era supper clubs. The evening promises magic, aerialists, musical storytelling and legendary dance troupes — in an homage to the legacy of Asian American variety and cabaret performers.

It’s a night that will rival the urge to Netflix and chill in a time when original acts like these are hard to find.

Show producer and performer Jenny Ku, also known as The Shanghai Pearl, says part of what makes this show special — besides its all-API cast — is that many generations will be performing together.

“We are going to see where we came from, and…we’ll also get a glimpse of the future. We have these emerging artist, as well as these established artists as well as our living legends,” she said.

The show’s lineup includes magician Nash Fung, actor and musician Sara Porkalob, circus artist Patricia Charms, aerialist Vivian Tam, dancer Moonekya, and burlesque performers The Shanghai Pearl, Hyacinth Lee and Satira Sin. Also appearing will be The Grant Avenue Follies, a cabaret group that includes veteran dancers who performed in San Francisco during the 1950s and 1960s.

Acts like the Grant Avenue Follies represent a bygone era of showbiz entertainment in Chinatowns like the ones in San Francisco and Seattle.

Jenny Ku, left, also known as The Shanghai Pearl, poses with the dancers of the San Francisco-based Grant Avenue Follies. (Photo by Jenny Crooks.)

Ku found through her research that there were many clubs like the Forbidden City in San Francisco that were owned by Asian Americans. The performers in these clubs were also Asian American since they found barriers to work at other nightclubs.

Seattle’s Chinatown-International District has its own rich showbiz history, with music, dance and cabaret clubs that were highly active during the ’40s and ’50s.

During that Golden Age of nightclubs and cabaret, a typical evening out for a family would include an elegant dinner, followed by an entertaining lineup of chorus line dancers, soloists, a band, a magician, an acrobat and a variety of other acts.

“The format of this show [gives] homage and tribute to this bygone era because we don’t really have as much opportunity to do that. We are no longer in the era because there are so many different choices now,” Ku said.

She said that cabaret and variety performance builds upon many different kind of art forms and dramatic forms. This mishmash of influences is what attracted her to the genre to begin with.

But Ku also found that cabaret history and culture is dominated by a mainstream White depiction of the performance style — an erasure that continues in entertainment today.

“We’re always the nerd, or the nurse, the tech person — and in popular culture we are always the sidekick,” Ku said.

Fringe arts – like burlesque, cabaret and acrobatics  – provide a unique space for expression and representation. Unlike the classical arts, fringe arts do not have millions of dollars donated by patrons and organizations.

Magician Nash Fung (Courtesy photo.)
Aerialist Vivian Tam. (Courtesy photo).

Ku says that without institutional backing, it is a sort of DIY art form. And while that may have its challenges, it also creates opportunities.

“With arts that are kind of DIY and accessible, we get to write our own stories,” she said. “We are the star, we are the headliner, we get to do what we want, we are telling our story.”

Ku said it won’t just be a history lesson. The evening promises to be filled with light-hearted fun, with a dash of time-travel, glitz, and glam.

Ku said while there are still performers keeping fringe stage traditions alive, they are in competition with other entertainment, including cable TV and streaming services.

She sees the push for diversity in mainstream entertainment as “slow but steady.” Its happening, but she’d definitely like to see more API representation in the arts world at large.

“I can’t say that I’m satisfied. This is what drives me to do the work. We want to be the change.”

“A Night at The Forbidden City” will be showing at The Theater Off Jackson at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday June 24. Purchase tickets here.