Published: July 2006
Did You Know?
In Did You Know? the National Geographic magazine team shares extra information we gathered to expand your knowledge of our featured subjects.

The Chop Suey Circuit

During the early decades of the 20th century, the variety shows of vaudeville were standard entertainment across the United States. In the late `30s and early `40s Chinese restaurants and nightclubs put on all-Asian revues for predominantly white audiences. Singers, tap dancers, acrobats, fan dancers, and musicians performed nightly at the China Doll, Shangri-la, Kubla Khan, Lion's Den, Chinese Sky Room, and perhaps the most famous Chinese nightclub of all, Forbidden City. Performers who made the rounds at these clubs referred to them collectively as the "Chop Suey Circuit," an allusion to other vaudeville circuits such as the Orpheum, Loews, and "Chitlin'" Circuits. The Chop Suey Circuit clubs touted all-Chinese variety shows even though the performers were mostly American-born Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos. Although the performers were all Asian, the entertainment was all-American. Top acts included the Chinese Frank Sinatra (Larry Ching), the Chinese Sophie Tucker (Toy Yat Mar), and the Chinese Fred and Ginger (Paul Wing and Dorothy Toy).

Non-Chinese entertainers often took Chinese stage names because that was what American audiences knew. The height of the Chinese nightclubs' popularity coincided with World War II, a dangerous time for Japanese-Americans in particular. The dance team of Toy and Wing hid the fact that Dorothy Toy was actually Dorothy Takahashi, and she later fled California for Chicago to avoid being placed in U.S. internment camps with her parents and thousands of other Japanese and Japanese Americans.

To see many of these Asian-American headliners in action, check your local video store or library for the film Forbidden City, U.S.A. (1989).

The dancing team of Toy and Wing can be seen in the following Hollywood films:
Happiness Ahead (1934)
Deviled Ham (1937)
With Best Wishes (1939).

—Heidi Schultz