Golden girls from the Golden Age of Chinatown dance into new year
SAN FRANCISCO -- A group of golden girls from the golden age of San Francisco's Chinatown still regularly takes to the stage to pay homage to their past.
Chinatown is more than just a neighborhood for Cynthia Yee.
"I was born here, I grew up here, and I will retire here," she said.
If you walk through the doors Clarion Performing Arts Center and head downstairs, you'll understand why. In the basement, you'll find the Showgirl Magic Museum. It pays tribute to San Francisco Chinatown's Golden Age, a time that Yee not only lived, but participated in.
"I began performing in 1963, at the age of 17," said Yee.
From the late 1930's through the 1960's, the neighborhood was known for its vibrant nightclub scene including the Forbidden City and Chinese Skyroom.
The most famous dancers of the time, the duo of "Toy and Wing" not only performed in San Francisco, but traveled the country and the world. They even made it on the silver screen.
"I used to see Dorothy Toy [of Toy and Wing] running up and down the stairs with a pair of toes shoes and little make-up kit, and I wanted to do that too," remembered Yee. "So she sent me to her ballet teacher for lessons."
But that was just the beginning of the journey for Cynthia Yee.
"I get a phone call from her [Dorothy Toy], and she had started a show to go on the road and needed dancer, because one of her dancer's needed surgery," said Yee. "They used to sneak me behind the bar to go up to dressing room because I was underaged."
For nearly a decade, Yee performed in San Francisco and traveled the country while wearing costumes that were considered revealing for the time.
"The costumes, we only used half to show the legs, because in Chinese Opera they didn't do that. They had too much material," she remembered.
But even today, the show must go on.
In 2003, Yee and three original dancers of the Forbidden City formed the Grant Avenue Follies, who still perform at community events, festivals and for charities.
"You have to be 65 years old to join the Grant Avenue Follies," said Yee. "The amazing thing now, the group is 80 percent retired schoolteachers whose parents wouldn't let them take dancing lessons when they were young."
And while Grant Avenue Follies pay homage to the Golden Age of Chinatown, the group has also entered the modern era by producing three music videos in the past two years.
During the rise in AAPI hate, the ladies wrote and performed the "Gai Mou Sou Rap" to denounce the tides of racism. Last year, they put together the "Glammas Wrap" celebrating their age and glamour. And this year, they partnered with AARP for the "That Lunar New Year Cheer" celebrating Chinese cultural traditions.
"We wanted to have a young audience, and what better way to do a rap," said Yee. "We love the kids, and they love us and understand us, and we understand them, because we don't preach to them."
The Showgirl Magic Museum is inside the Clarion Performing Arts Center on Waverly in San Francisco's Chinatown.
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