Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chinatown Girls: Mary Mammon and Dorothy Sun

Featured in Arthur Dong's documentary Forbidden City U.S.A. (1989), Mary Mammon and Dorothy Sun performed in the original chorus line at the legendary "all-Chinese" San Francisco nightclub. In 1938 owner Charlie Low put out a call for dancers. Because local girls faced too much opposition from their families, the only girls who applied were those from out of town — like Mary Mammon, born and raised in Clifton, Arizona, and Dorothy Sun, born in Coulterville (a mining town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada) and raised in the California Delta.

Mary and Dorothy must have been great pals, because they evidently worked together through much of the 40s: on and off at the Forbidden City and other San Francisco clubs, such as the Lion's Den; and on the road in Kenneth Walker's "Chinese Follies" revue, which toured the U.S. and entertained troops with the USO in the South Pacific.

From what I can tell, Mary was the sexy one, with her hula and fan dances, while Dorothy was the funny one, with her "eccentric" dance parodies.

Here are the two in an Associated Press feature about Mary Mammon that ran in Sunday papers all across the country. This particular scan comes from the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette (June 15, 1941).


Chinatown in San Francisco, where 20,000 persons live in less thank 20 square blocks, is the largest Chinese settlement outside the Orient. Once it was reputed to hold all the sins and exotic charms of Old China. But a new generation is in command. Schools, churches and playgrounds have routed oldtime tong wars and racial taboos. Authentic Chinatown fixtures remain mostly for the tourist trade. The commerce and the way of living is one of America's newest revolutions in this best known foreign quarter of any U.S. city. The women, who not so long ago lived in household seclusion, have stepped into the new role of being American women. Mary Mammon is typical.

A LATE SLEEPER, Mary's hours would have shocked old Chinatown. She is a featured dancer in one of the new night clubs, timidly opened but an instant success. Now she gets home in the small hours, but the family — mother, sister, two brothers — doesn't mind.

SOCIAL LIFE is a daylight pursuit. Mary loves soda fountain lunches, scoffs at chop suey, but likes mother's real Chinese cooking. At 22, Mary, who was born in New Mexico, chooses her own "dates", clothes, employment, and is popular in the community.

AT WORK, Mary and chum, Dorothy, dance and sing in the Lion's Den club. Pay is not high by American theater standards, but Chinatown girls find employment limited; to them, wages are tops.

STYLISTS say, dollar for dollar, Chinese girls dress more smartly than their American sisters. Top, Mary at her daily pressing job; bottom, stepping along tong-scarred old Waverly Place with pal, Dorothy Sun. Note aged delivery man with tray on head, a survival.

MARKETING takes the girls into a shop brimming with exotic foods, preferred to those in Americanized stores. "Delicacies" here don't tempt Americans. Mary wanted some hard dried fish — among other "native" items on her list. A sale is a ceremony.

STUDY has meant much to Mary — high school education, speedy Americanization. Her father (deceased) changed family name, Mar, to Mammon.

SUNBATHS, slacks, shorts cause oldsters to wag heads, but are common. And permanent waves are slowly turning black hair to brown.

FIRST JOB was typing, then Mary waited tables. When demand for Chinese entertainers arose, she studied dancing. Meanwhile, war in China liberalized the community — women helped with relief work.

AT HOME, furnishings are American style. But the women still treasure their embroidered silks, the tight, slinky gowns of Old China, however ill-adapted they may be to modern athletic figures.

* The Forbidden City ad at the top of the page comes from The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco.


hcpen said...


SpyMonkey said...

Amazing photos...I wonder how Asian women were accepted in those days by Americans in general? Has the attitude changed these days? Any idea Dave?

lightning in a bottle said...

mary mammon sure knew what she wanted out of life. and those pictures showed. glad to see that there were some real independent and unconventional asian women during that time period.

love the betty page type hair and 40s fashions! women really dressed up then. (one of the best things from the movie, love, caution was the fashions that tang wei wore)

duriandave said...

-- hcpen, glad you liked it!

-- SpyMonkey, according to the interviews in Forbidden City USA, the female performers were often treated as exotic "China dolls", and clubgoers sometimes expressed surprise that Asians could be so Americanized.

As for attitides nowadays, I suppose it depends on what part of the U.S. you're talking about. But here in the San Francisco Bay Area, cultural diversity is pretty much the norm.

-- girl lightning, yep, these ladies deserve major props for charting their own courses.

I really like those hairdos too!

Roger said...

An interesting and riveting story. I enjoy reading about the lives of the Chinese in America.

duriandave said...

Hi Roger! Thanks for dropping by. Stay tuned for more about the fascinating Chinese American nightclubs of the 1940s and 50s.

Allison Murray said...

Hi! Dorthy Sun was my grandmother and I was so happy to stumble upon your post. As a child, I loved hearing her stories of preforming. Her parents both passed away before she finished high school so she and three sisters went under the care of her older brother. This probably influenced her decision to become apart of the Forbidden City and gave her more freedom to become an entertainer. Her and her best friend, Frances, graduated high school the day the golden gate bridge opened and were some of the first to walk across it. Together they joined the Forbidden City and stayed best friends for the rest of their lives. While Frances sang, Dotty loved comedic dances and showing off her long legs. Later she went on to tour with the USO. She married John Murray, from Scottish descent, in Hawaii because it was illegal for them to interracially marry in California at the time. She often recalled how she was held in esteem as a performer but was still forced to enter through the back door of the hotels and stages she preformed at. I am only a quarter Chinese but feel deeply connected to our cultural past and life she led. If you would like more information on her life I would be happy to share! Thanks for keeping history alive through your postings!

duriandave said...

Thanks for writing, Allison! Wish I could have seen Dorthy dance. From the little I saw in Arthur Dong's documentary Forbidden City USA, it seems like she put on a great show. She must have been a fun grandma too. :)

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