Chinese artists had a platform to display their skills and culture in the forbidden city’s numerous nightclubs. Ironically, they had to overcome some cultural hurdles associated with China to advance in their jobs. For instance, it was common practice in the world of theater in China for women to cover their legs. Parents disliked it because the performers did not earn as much money as one might think. The performers claim that because that kind of performance was novel at the time, they had no prior knowledge of what they were doing.
How nightclubs such as Forbidden City helped or hindered Chinese Americans’ struggle to be accepted as Americans.
By giving them a place to express their abilities and engage in American society, the forbidden city nightclub assisted Chinese Americans in their fight to be considered citizens. Asian Americans were given opportunities to enter the entertainment industry and be recognized for their abilities, which helped dispel stereotypes and prejudices many Americans had about them. The nightclub also contributed to misconceptions about Asian Americans, such as the “exotic” or “mysterious” stereotype, which can prevent them from being accepted as thoroughly American citizens.
The challenges experienced in particular by the showgirls of the forbidden city are highlighted in the movie the struggle of the nightclub’s showgirls, who endured prejudice on account of both their color and gender, is highlighted in the movie. The patrons of the nightclub frequently objectified and fetishized the showgirls. They had to battle these attitudes to be taken seriously as performers (10:46). However, the showgirls also felt empowered by their performances and could subvert gender stereotypes by participating in martial arts sequences and other roles that men typically perform.
Additionally, many showgirls experienced racism and discrimination daily, frequently compelled to wear “oriental” costumes and cosmetics that fueled prejudice against Asian women (12:21). But the showgirls also challenged these prejudices and the racial attitudes of their viewers through their performances. They broke down the cultural obstacles that prevented them from succeeding in the entertainment industry by embracing their identities as Chinese American women and exhibiting their talents on stage.
How the forbidden city portrays “model minority” or “exotic” stereotypes of Asian Americans?
There are numerous instances of the “model minority” and “exotic” preconceptions of Asian Americans throughout the forbidden city USA. Using orientalist ideas and imagery is one of the most noticeable ways these preconceptions are expressed. Pagodas, lanterns, and cherry blossoms were just a few of the Chinese and Japanese aesthetics used to decorate the nightclub. In addition to sustaining the stereotype that Asian Americans are submissive and docile, these visual components reinforced the exotic perception of Asian Americans as mysterious and foreign.
The music and dance acts at the nightclub reinforced these prejudices in addition to using Orientalist images (24:31). The music was a fusion of Western and Asian influences, and the performers frequently wore traditional Asian garb. The concept that Asian Americans were caught between two worlds, unable to completely assimilate into American culture while simultaneously being viewed as outsiders in their communities, was reinforced by this mingling of cultures. The dancers also performed choreography that had a substantial Asian martial arts influence, which helped to maintain the idea of Asian Americans as disciplined and adept fighters (23:14).
The media significantly contributed to the spread of these misconceptions. Forbidden City USA was frequently referred to as “exotic” and “mystical” in news reports and reviews, supporting the notion that Asian Americans belonged to a distinct and alien culture. These prejudices were also supported by the nightclub’s patrons, primarily white, well-off, and looking for an “exotic” and “otherworldly” experience.
Since they fueled false expectations and negative prejudices, these stereotypes significantly affected the Asian American community. Asian Americans were considered the “model minority,” expected to be quiet, obedient, and diligent. This stereotype perpetuates the assumption that Asian Americans are intrinsically successful regardless of their challenges by ignoring the systemic discrimination and racism that Asian Americans have experienced.
How the black-white binary appears in the stories told in Forbidden City USA
The black-white binary can be found in the forbidden city USA’s stories in several ways. The experiences of African American entertainers who worked at the nightclub are one of the most obvious ways this phenomenon is displayed. Even while the nightclub had a reputation for being a place where people of all colors and nationalities could mingle, dance, and enjoy music, there were apparent racial divides.
African American performers were frequently compelled to perform in segregated portions of the nightclub or pushed to the rear of the stage. They received lower pay than their contemporaries, white and Asian Americans (43:17). The white audience, primarily interested in watching Asian American performers and less interested in seeing African American performers, reinforced this segregation and bigotry.
However, not all performers were silent in accepting this division and prejudice. African American entertainers protested the racial discrimination at the nightclub and called for equality. Herb Jeffries was one such performer; he was African American and a part of the “exotic” motif of the nightclub; he was frequently billed as the “bronze buckaroo” and engaged in Western-themed acts. Jeffries fought for equal pay and treatment for all performers by speaking out against the racial discrimination he had encountered.
Others in the performing arts, like the Chinese American performer toy, were entangled in the black-white binary. Toy tried to bridge the gap by supporting African American performers in their campaigns for equal rights (37:55). Toy was a performer who frequently wore blackface in addition to being Asian American. She was in a particularly precarious situation. As a result, suffering prejudice as an Asian American performer while also participating in perpetuating racial stereotypes as a performer wearing blackface (50:17). This underscores how important it is for disadvantaged groups to work together in the pursuit of social justice.
Conclusively, the tales in the forbidden city USA illuminate the subtleties and complexity of racial relations in America in the middle of the 20th century. The nightclub was a gathering place for individuals of all colors and ethnicities to enjoy music and dancing. Still, it was also a setting for reaffirming and maintaining racial barriers. The struggles for racial justice and equality are still being fought for, as evidenced by the experiences of African American performers.
Ng Siew Hong. Forbidden City USA, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9LZvqy-O4