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Arts & Entertainment

The senior showgirls of San Francisco Chinatown keep legendary nightlife scene alive

With nary a sequin or feather out of place, the Grant Avenue Follies—named after the street and one of Chinatown’s focal points—are prepared to touch up their lipstick and start the show. With the tunes of smooth crooners backing them, the Follies’ nostalgic numbers are reminiscent of what you could see if you were to walk into one of the neighborhood’s nightclubs some 70 years earlier.

Proving that age is only a number, the Follies is a performance group of 11 members that was founded in 2003 and is composed exclusively of older women—ages 66 to 87. Its goal is to revive the spirit of Chinatown’s historic nightlife, all while staying active and advocating for seniors and the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

Born and raised in Chinatown, Follies co-founder Cynthia Yee says she dreamed of being a dancer from a young age. At one point, she lived in an apartment building owned by Dorothy Toy, a prominent Japanese American vaudeville dancer who spent a period of time during the 1960s—the tail end of Chinatown’s Golden Era—leading shows in the neighborhood’s historic Forbidden City nightclub and Chinese Sky Room. 

Cynthia Yee, co-founder of the Grant Avenue Follies, performs during a dress rehearsal at the Clarion Performing Arts Center. | Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Chinatown’s nightlife heyday started even further back, however. In the 1930s, the neighborhood had the largest concentration of Chinese-owned nightclubs in the country and one of the largest Chinese populations outside of Asia. 

During Chinatown's Golden Era, nightclubs like Club Shanghai and the Chinese Sky Room were abundant along the neighborhood's main streets like Grant Avenue. | Courtesy OpenSFHistory

Though Yee says the neighborhood’s clubs served as settings for Chinese businessmen to enjoy drinks with work associates, the audience was largely tourists and soldiers passing through town.

“We used to have about five tour buses come up every night to see our show,” Yee said. “And they used to be full of tourists.”

Mainstream 1940s and '50s musical culture could be found intertwined with Chinese motifs in the elaborate shows, highlighting talent like the “Chinese Frank Sinatra” and billing Toy as the “Chinese Ginger Rogers.” 

Yee says clubs like the Forbidden City were crucial to Asian Americans like herself who were interested in becoming dancers and performers, as few clubs outside of Chinatown offered the same opportunity to non-whites. She recalls being starstruck by Toy’s glitz, exuberant energy and swinging toe shoes. 

After taking dance lessons in her adolescence, Yee got her start in showbiz purely by chance in 1963 when she was 17. What started as a temporary spot filling in for an injured dancer in a show produced by Toy blossomed into the glamorous and fruitful career of her childhood fantasies. 

Grant Avenue Follies co-founder Cynthia Yee points to herself and Dorothy Toy in a photograph she keeps in the Showgirl Magic Museum in Chinatown. | Morgan Ellis/The Standard

She left her mark on iconic Chinatown clubs like the Chinese Sky Room alongside Toy in the ’60s. But by the early ’70s, the clubs had started to close, and Yee had hopped on a plane to join a traveling production with Toy and other dancers.

Yee retired her dancing shoes around 1973, though it turns out it would be far from the end of her cabaret career. She stayed busy, devoting herself to volunteer work with Chinatown community organizations like the Chinese Hospital Auxiliary, of which she was the president, and Friends of On Lok

The Grant Avenue Follies’ journey started when Yee and three friends once again got a bite from the dancing bug. Starting around 1989, the four of them began attending dance classes to stay active and connected to one another. Soon, the former burlesque dancers wanted to perform again.

Their first gig was a fundraiser for the Chinese Hospital, where Yee volunteered. Yee describes their wardrobe for the occasion as “short” tuxedos, fishnet stockings and grand feather headdresses.

A photo of some members of the Grant Avenue Follies hangs in the Showgirl Magic Museum in Chinatown. | Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Of course, the show was a hit.

“Everyone dropped their chopsticks,” Yee said of the audience for that first performance. The Grant Avenue Follies was officially founded in 2003, and they’re still going strong 20 years later—although two founders have since died. 

The Follies often don colorful, heavily sequined costumes with accessories like feather headdresses and fans, and shiny jewelry to complete the ensemble. The soundtrack incorporates both Chinese music and '50s hits from American crooners like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. Their routines have also evolved to include more modern elements to appeal to younger audiences, like sprinkles of spoken-word poetry and magic acts. 

Pat Chin, the Grant Avenue Follies' oldest member, performs during a dress rehearsal at the Clarion Performing Arts Center. | Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Having experienced firsthand the youthful energy that music and dance instill, the Follies wanted to share that same bright spirit with their community and often perform for charities and nonprofits, like Self-Help for the Elderly, the Asian Women’s Resource Center and the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center. 

Watch to learn more about how the Grant Avenue Follies came to be and what they’re all about.