Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Way We Were

A popular sitcom that ran from 1982-1993, the theme song from Cheers told audiences that "You want to go where everybody knows your name." Although the Twin Peaks Tavern in the heart of San Francisco's Castro District first opened its doors in 1935, when new owners took over in 1972 it became the first gay bar in the United States to feature full-length plate glass windows.

Inside San Francisco's Twin Peaks Tavern following Santacon 2009

Not only did those windows allow customers to sip their drinks while watching traffic pass by, it also permitted pedestrians to look at the bar's customers and see if any of their friends were inside. Over the years, Twin Peaks (which was granted landmark status in January of 2013) has attracted a loyal clientele of older gay men and acquired nicknames such as "The Wrinkle Room" and "The Glass Coffin." Wrinkles, however, are a sign of having lived a long life -- something many gay men never got a chance to experience. Many died during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, some overdosed. Others committed suicide for any number of reasons.

Just as plastic surgery and Botox injections helped people to look younger than their chronological age, social networking platforms radically changed how people meet. With the baths closed (and more people participating in 12-step programs), it's now much easier to meet people on websites ranging from Facebook and Craigslist to Grindr and Scruff. And yet, despite the ease of clicking on a link or swiping in one direction or another, there are no guarantees of building a relationship which will be marked by its longevity. That requires decades of staying alive, trying to age gracefully, and learning how to trust in the wisdom and internal beauty of those with wrinkles

For many people, time feels different at various stages of life as their stamina becomes tempered by maturity and responsibility. Having lost the frisky frivolity of their puppy phase, naps become a welcome blessing, dreams take on new meanings, and memories tend to become more wistful.

Two documentaries that were screened during 2017's CAAMFest offered viewers a chance to look back in time and examine how our lives have changed. One documentary showed how people who worked within the LGBT rights movement reacted as they watched footage of themselves from three decades ago. Another chronicled the life and times of an Oakland resident who will turn 100 in May.

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Although it's only a 26-minute short, Rick Quan's superb documentary, Dancing Through Life: The Dorothy Toy Story (which received its world premiere on March 18) offers viewers a look at the long arc of an Asian-American entertainer's amazing career. Born in San Francisco on May 28, 1917, Dorothy Takahashi and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was very young. Her parents opened a restaurant opposite a small vaudeville theatre.

Both Dorothy and her sister, Helen, learned how to tap dance. When Dorothy's talent started to draw attention, the theatre owner negotiated an interesting deal. He would pay for Dorothy's dancing lessons if her parents could let him eat at their restaurant.

In 1932, when the two sisters joined Paul Wing Jew in an act that become known as The Three Mah Jongs, they became the first Asian Americans to enter the white American tap dance scene. After Helen left the act, Dorothy and Paul gave their act a new name (Toy & Wing) which they felt would fit better on marquees than Takahasi & Jew.

The dance partners wed in 1940 in what Dorothy later described as a marriage of convenience (mostly to avoid any problems with racial discrimination at hotels). But World War II took a heavy toll on their careers. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor led to President Roosevelt's signing Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. As a result, the Takahashis ended up in a Japanese internment camp near Topaz, Utah and Dorothy had to leave California in order to avoid being interned as well.

In addition to performing on the "Chop Suey circuit" (which consisted of mostly Chinese restaurants and nightclubs), Toy & Wing appeared onscreen in 1934's Happiness Ahead, which starred Dick Powell and Josephine Hutchinson. They were also featured in two musical shorts: 1937's Deviled Hams, and 1939's With Best Dishes (which featured Lillian Roth).

The couple moved to Chicago in 1936 and then to New York in 1939 (where they signed with the William Morris Agency). In 1939, Toy & Wing became the first Asian Americans to play the London Palladium. By that time, they were the most famous Asian-American dance couple (Dorothy had frequently been hailed as "the Asian Ginger Rogers"). In addition to the usual kicks, splits, and tap work, Dorothy incorporated some tricks into their act that she performed en pointe in ballet shoes.

In 1943, Toy & Wing were appearing at the Paramount Theatre in New York on a bill with Chico Marx when Paul received his draft notice. The theatre's management worked to get them an extension so that Paul could finish the dance team's three-week contract before being inducted into the United States Army. However, instead of putting him into an entertainment unit, Paul was stationed in a tank unit.

When Wing returned home after the war, he showed signs of shell shock (now known as post-traumatic stress disorder) and was never quite the same. The couple divorced after the war and Dorothy met her second husband, Lester Fong, while performing at San Francisco's Forbidden City. However, Toy & Wing remained dance partners and continued to appear throughout the 1950s. Dorothy later formed a troupe known as The Oriental Girls Revue, which toured the United States, Japan, and Europe during the 1960s. She ended her career as a professional entertainer in 1971 and spent the next 25 years working as a pharmacy technician. A beloved dance teacher to several generations of students, Dorothy Toy Fong will celebrate her 100th birthday on May 28th.

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Most people endure periods of struggle in their lives. Whether the obstacles confronting them are visible or psychological, understandable or elusive, the struggle can be exhausting. How often have you thought "If only I knew then what I know now, things might have turned out differently"?

Years ago, when I interviewed Ardis Krainik, we talked about how she had inherited a nightmarish financial crisis when she replaced Carol Fox as the General Director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Having worked for many years as Fox's assistant, Krainik had one advantage: she knew every expense item and where financial sacrifices could be made. As a result of her hypervigilant cost-cutting measures, she was able to turn the company's financial fortunes around.

Although Krainik died 20 years ago, Lyric Opera of Chicago now rests on a solid financial foundation thanks to her discipline. When I asked her how she felt about her accomplishment, she told me that it took several years of keeping her head down and placing one foot in front of the other as she plowed a path to financial stability. "Then one day, you look up and turn around and discover that you've walked 100 miles!"

A dancer in Richard Fung's documentary Re: Orientations

In 1984, Canadian filmmaker Richard Fung released a 56-minute documentary entitled Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians in response to the dominant impression that gay people were predominantly white. In his film, Fung interviewed LGBT people of South, East and Southeast Asian backgrounds who were living in Toronto. As the film's description notes:
"The tape features interviews with 14 lesbians and gay men with diverse backgrounds, lifestyles, experiences, and outlooks. The themes proceed from first gay realizations, coming out into the gay/lesbian community, an understanding of racism in the lesbian/gay/feminist communities, coping with racism in the sexual arena, relationships, and cultural self-assertion through art. Men and women of different Asian backgrounds speak frankly, humorously, and often poignantly about their lives as members of a minority within a minority. They speak about coming out, homophobia, racism, cultural identity, sex, and the ways that being gay and Asian have shaped who they are. After a short segment on Lesbian and Gay Pride Day 1984, the tape looks at the subjects in relationship to their 'ethnic' communities, workplaces, unions, and solidarity groups. The final section looks at the importance of working together and specifically at the work of Lesbians of Colour and Gay Asians Toronto."
A scene from Richard Fung's documentary, Re: Orientations

Not only was Orientations the first documentary to explore the experiences and perspectives of queer Asians in North America, it was filmed in the earliest years of the AIDS epidemic. The 2017 CAAMFest included a screening of Fung's follow-up 68-minute documentary entitled Re:Orientations, in which the filmmaker reconnects with seven of the participants from his 1984 film and asks them to reflect on how their lives have changed as they watch footage from the original Orientations (not all of the original participants survived or were able to participate).

Of those who appear in Re:Orientations some are still active in the LGBT rights movement, some have continued to pursue their artistic and/or academic goals, and some have settled down, gotten married, and chosen a more domestic lifestyle. Fung's interviews with his original subjects often take on a new and deeper context during conversations with younger activists, scholars, and artists who identify as openly queer and transgender. Among these are three artists from the ILL NANA Diversity Dance Company (Jelani Ade-Lam, Sze-Yang Ade-Lam, Kumari Giles).

Among the participants in Fung's documentaries were:
A scene from Richard Fung's documentary, Re: Orientations
Gein Wong

Oftentimes, the LGBT movement in the United States is so narrowly focused on its own path that Americans fail to pay serious attention to how LGBT communities in other nations have formed alliances and matured. Among the things that struck me most while watching Re: Orientations were:
  • How the generally tolerant and polite nature of Canadians contributed to a markedly lower level of homophobic violence that is so often provoked by religious dogma in the United States.
  • That many of the Gaysians featured in Fung's documentaries stressed the importance of building relationships and alliances that could not only strengthen the LGBT community, but the larger Asian-Canadian community as well.
Perhaps the most telling remark came from one man who insisted that, if the United States doesn't want him to come visit, he can easily do without America.

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