The Shanghai Pearl’s upcoming Burlesque Royale is in many ways the show she was born to create. Though she’s been producing since she was just an eager young lass brandishing her bona fides from the Academy of Burlesque (some may recall shows she had a hand in at the Jewelbox and Wallingford’s Seamonster), it wasn’t until the successful Burlesque for Barack fundraiser in 2012 that Shanghai began producing on a grand scale. Burlesque Royale will take place at Seattle’s elegant Triple Door, the perfect setting for Shanghai to realize another little fantasy: bringing San Francisco’s Grant Avenue Follies to Seattle for the first time.
From approximately 1937 to 1964, San Francisco’s Chinatown was home to a thriving and glamorous nightclub scene. Chinese singers, dancers, and burlesque performers regularly starred in lavish floor shows at clubs like Forbidden City, The Chinese Skyroom, Kubla Khan, and Club Shanghai. The ‘exotic’ nature of the dancers was commonly capitalized on and bizarre publicity taglines were often attached to the Asian dancers, comparing them to familiar Caucasian entertainers. Billed as “the Chinese Ginger Rogers”, “the Chinese Frank Sinatra”, or “the Chinese Sally Rand”, these men and women were stars of their own accord, entertaining GIs in wartime as well as Hollywood royalty from Ronald Reagan, Jane Wyman, and Boris Karloff to Bing Crosby and Duke Ellington. Their histories were not as celebrated as the legendary Caucasian burlesque dancers we may recall first today, but the golden age of Chinese nightclubs was a microcosm of show business with a huge draw.
These clubs and their many entertainers were the cornerstone of a huge part of San Francisco’s Asian-American history. Some of the chorus girls, dancers, and burlesquers from the nightclub scene at that time remained in contact over the years. Retired dancer Cynthia Yee came across a Palm Springs Follies show (some may recall that Joan Arline was once a member of PSF) and realized that she and her friends were more than capable of doing the same…or better. They formed a nonprofit dance troupe called the Grant Avenue Follies and began staging shows at community centers, veterans’ groups, and hospitals. The ladies quickly realized it wasn’t too late to roll up those fishnets once again and relive the fun of their dancing days.
Meanwhile back in Seattle…
After ‘politely stalking’ the ladies of the Grant Avenue Follies for years (“I think they thought I was just this funny, weird stripper,” the Shanghai Pearl recalls), she struck up a collective friendship with them, asking numerous questions about their nightclub days. The ladies invited Shanghai to perform with them at a Chinese Historical Society Gala in San Francisco.
“These are the women I’ve been looking for my entire life,” Shanghai recalls of bonding with the living Legends and simultaneously unearthing a whole new family of adventurous, sexy role models from the Asian community. Before this, “all of my lady role models were white…and Margaret Cho,” Shanghai recalls.
Six members of the Grant Avenue Follies (Cynthia Yee, Pat Chin, Ivy Tam, Lillian Poon, Emily Chin, and Avis See-Tho) will perform in a pair of group numbers at Burlesque Royale. Shanghai says the ladies are thrilled to come to Seattle and have made a working vacation of the trip (book-ending the Triple Door performances with two shows at local senior homes as well as a visit to a retired showgirl friend in Vancouver).
Shanghai mindfully curated Burlesque Royale, inspired in part by the undisguised sexuality and directness of the recent all male KINGS show in Seattle as well as by her own desire to feature high impact performers and a diverse cast. Putting on a truly great show spotlighting powerful women capable of commanding a room was foremost in her mind. And though she loves and has often employed comedic tactics of ‘surprise sex’ in her acts, Shanghai has recently been preoccupied with why those layers of pretense are necessary. “It can be alienating – even in burlesque – for people to be faced with sex when it comes to women,” she muses. “There’s a layer of safety that comes with joking and irony – and I love that layer, but why is it that we need that layer?”
Fittingly, Burlesque Royale features a heavy-hitting lineup. Sydni Deveraux (‘1st Runner Up, Reigning Queen of Burlesque’, Seattle), Donna Denise (The Most Powerful Chest in Burlesque, Dallas), and performance artist/activist/ecdysiast La Chica Boom (founder and producer of Kaleidoscope Cabaret, San Francisco) will perform, as well as Burgundy Brixx (winner of ‘Best Solo’ at the Boston Burlesque Expo, Vancouver BC). Burgundy’s classic style and execution are something Shanghai admires. “Watching her is like watching an old reel come to life,” she says. Performer and lady MC Foxy Tann (The Boss of Burlesque, Minneapolis) will host because – among other charms – “she’s just kind of a badass,” says Shanghai. “I want this show to be a good representation of what this craft has been, and what it can be, and all the different evolutions of it,” Shanghai explains. “In burlesque we have so many opportunities.”
Martha Enson and Cathy Sunderland of Moisture Festival and Aerialistas fame also guest star. Burlesque Royale takes place at 7:30 and 10:30 on Saturday, September 14. Get tickets HERE.
AND – check out La Chica Boom’s amazing mission statements over HERE, get more info on Grant Avenue Follies HERE, and please – you won’t regret it – check out Trina Robbins’ vital paperback on the golden age of Chinese nightclubs, Forbidden City.
Written by Jessica Price and published here courtesy of Burlesque Seattle Press.