Power relations and social hierarchies are embedded in the politics of representation. Like Stuart Hall argues, representation helps us create a map to understand our position in the world and interpret the world through constructing meanings. Representation can be used to normalize social hierarchies so that the privileged can continue to enjoy their privileges while the disadvantaged remained so. It can be a powerful tool, too, to disrupt the existing structure of hierarchies and make room for new meanings, interpretations, and ways of being.
Forbidden City, USA is an example of the latter. Filmed by Arthur Dong, the documentary captures the glory history of the world-famous San Francisco nightclub The Forbidden City in the 1930s-40s. The film interviews Asian American dancers and singers who performed at The Forbidden City and showcases clips and photos of their performances. By giving voices to Asian American dancers and centering their stories, the film helps create a sense of pride of being an entertainer at the nightclub. This sense of pride is precious — as the dancers and singers said, they often encountered rejections from their friends, families and communities because working in the entertainment industry was deemed as “immoral” “insane” and all in all unconventional. Jadin Wong described in the documentary that she ran away twice so that she could dance! In essence, this film shows a different side of Asian femininity that counters the dominant stereotypical docile, servile, and eager to serve Asian wife. Instead, the film shows the female dancers and singers as sexy, autonomic, forward-thinking, outgoing, and fun. The agency of entertainers at the Forbidden City is also highlighted when they shared their struggles to become a dancer or singer despite stigmas and rejections within the community and the odds of being Asian in the white-dominant Hollywood/entertainment industry.
While the film is celebrating the pride and glory of being an entertainer, I find some images of female dancers and singers quite disturbing and problematic. According to the film, the success of Forbidden City largely depended on its objectification and exoticization of Asian female bodies. Like the owner Charlie Low said, people came to the nightclub because they wanted the novelty of Asian (American) dancers and performances. Like the pictures above, female dancers wore revealing clothes to show off their bodies and mainly legs, which was a quite a titillating thing to do in the 1940s. Even though its name is Forbidden City, the nightclub actually featured many American, Hollywood type of performances, such as tap dance, ballroom dances, burlesque dances, jazz music, and etc. Many songs performed were English songs. Even when they performed so-called “authentic” Chinese dances, their performances were based on the Western stereotypes or ideas of what chinese performances were like or should look like. In this case, I would argue, although Forbidden City did challenge the binary between the West and the East by fusing both, it did so by assimilating the East to the West, instead of fundamentally challenging the unequal power relations between the West and the East. It did not celebrate Asianess by reclaiming Asianess but by making Asianess similar to whiteness.
By Angel (Ruiqi) Ye