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Remembering Coby Yee, burlesque star of a bygone Chinatown

Coby Yee with fellow dancers at the Forbidden City. | Photos: Courtesy of Cynthia Yee
By Nikki Collister - Published on August 27, 2020.

The curtains have closed on the life of a beloved Chinatown entertainer.

Coby Yee, who made her name as a dancer in the '40s and '50s before becoming the owner of Chinatown's Forbidden City nightclub, died of natural causes on August 14 in her San Pablo home. She was 93.

Known for her glamorous handmade outfits and zest for life, Yee was regarded as a legend in both the local and national burlesque scenes, and continued to perform right up until her passing.

Just weeks before her death, she was honored with the 2020 Living Legend Award by the Burlesque Hall of Fame (BHoF), which cited her "trailblazing" work as both a performer and club owner, and her "generosity towards the new generation of performers."

"Coby is such an inspiration to me," said San Francisco-based burlesque performer Frankie Fictitious, who presented the award to Yee alongside BHoF executive producer Joyce Tang. "She paved the way for myself and so many other Asian-American burlesque performers to this day. She followed her dreams, and did it all with timeless style, grace, and a kind heart."

Coby Yee performing at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, 2015.

Born in Ohio in 1926, Yee was the daughter of Chinese immigrants from Canton. She learned to tap-dance at an early age, taking to the stage at local shows and family gatherings. As a child, she saw her first nightclub show at her uncle's restaurant in Washington, D.C., complete with a live band, chorus girls, and an adoring crowd.

"I loved it," she recalled gleefully in a Zoom webinar hosted by the Bay Area Chinese Genealogy Group (BACGG) on July 15. "I said, 'I want to be in show business!'" 

That aspiration brought her to San Francisco in the 1940s, where she got a job as an entertainer at the Forbidden City nightclub, owned by entrepreneur Charlie Low. Located on Sutter Street between Grant Avenue and Stockton Street, it typified the Chinese-American nightclubs of the era, with their flashing neon signs, cherry-topped cocktails, and smoke-filled dining rooms. 

The Forbidden City was a popular tourist destination, frequented by Hollywood celebrities and military men traveling through San Francisco during World War II. It was later elevated to national fame as the setting of the novel, musical, and film "Flower Drum Song."

At a time when Asian-Americans faced discrimination in much of the country, including the West Coast, the Forbidden City offered a safe environment and living wage for its entertainers. They included not just Chinese-Americans, but people of Filipino, Japanese, and Korean backgrounds as well. 

A 1940s promotional photo.

Billed as "China's Most Daring Dancing Doll," Yee dazzled audiences with her "reveal and conceal" style of dancing and flashy wardrobe. She took pride in her extravagant outfits and headdresses, which she designed and sewed herself.

It was a craft she continued selflessly throughout her career, making outfits for friends, students at her Chinatown dance studio, and even strangers she met on vacations.

"Whenever I went on the road, I had my sewing machine," she said in the BACGG interview, recalling a trip where she ended up making custom bikinis for strangers she met at a hotel pool.

"So I'd like to be remembered as a costume designer," she said, adding with a laugh, "A good one!"

Coby Yee in one of her many handmade robes and headdresses.

One recipient of Yee's sartorial largesse was Cynthia Yee, a former dancer at the Chinese Skyroom in the late 1960s. She later became the founder of Grant Avenue Follies, a nostalgic nightclub cabaret that gave older veterans of the Chinatown scene the chance to perform once again. 

While the two performers (who are unrelated) had overlapping careers at some of Chinatown's most famous nightclubs, they only became close friends in the last five years, after Coby joined the Follies and began performing with them on international tours. 

"She was a ball of fire," said Cynthia, recalling a 2018 trip to Cuba. Then 91, Coby "would go out dancing after midnight, while the rest of us were ready to go to bed."

Coby's youthful energy was equally apparent in her BACGG interview, held just a month before her death. 

"Even when we had dress rehearsals [for the interview], with only three of us present, Coby was always dolled up in full costume and makeup, ready to put on a show," the group's executive director, Ron Chan, wrote on its website.

Coby Yee (in orange) with the late Ivy Tam (in white) and members of the Grant Avenue Follies at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in 2015.

In addition to being a performer, teacher, costume designer and mother (she's survived by her daughter, Shari), Yee was also a business owner. In 1962, she bought the Forbidden City from Low, who was ready to retire. For the next eight years, she managed its staff of musicians, comedians, and dancers, while continuing to perform on the stage. 

But by the late 1960s, the Chinatown nightclub scene had passed its peak. The Broadway strip clubs of North Beach ushered in a new era of exotic dancing, and by 1970, a majority of the Chinese nightclubs had closed, including the Forbidden City. 

Today, few relics of Chinatown's golden age of nightlife remain. The former Forbidden City building, whose walls once reverberated with swing music, is now home to designer clothing store Wilkes Bashford. No evidence of its storied past remains. 

The Forbidden City (375 Sutter St.) in 1970. After the nightclub closed, it became a movie theater, and is now home to clothing store Wilkes Bashford. | Photo: OpenSFHistory/wnp5.50385.jpg

As a seasoned performer, Yee continued to make appearances around the globe in the subsequent decades. She made her home in the Bay Area, regularly returning to San Francisco’s Chinatown for performances and speaking events.

Her last public performance was in February 2020, at the Clarion Performing Arts Center's Firecracker Revue. A celebration of Chinese New Year, the event featured Asian burlesque entertainers from across the country. Yee not only performed on stage, but led a workshop teaching attendees how to make their own custom headdresses. 

According to Cynthia Yee, Coby had been planning to take the headdress workshop on the road, touring various burlesque festivals across the country. "She was busy up until her last day," Cynthia said.

Coby Yee (center, seated) with Firecracker Revue performers in February 2020.

On July 25, Yee accepted her lifetime achievement award from the Burlesque Hall of Fame at her San Pablo home, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a video recording of the event, Yee, wearing a self-designed red robe, headdress, and heels, treats viewers to a performance with her longtime partner, Stephen King.

"We can't go to the clubs anymore," she says, "so we'll dance in our driveway!" 


Thank you to tipster Coy M. for letting us know of Coby Yee’s passing. If you see a story Hoodline should cover, text us and we’ll take a look: (415) 200-3233.

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