Ben Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man -- author, broadcaster, and former senior editor and writer at Rolling Stone Magazine -- was a featured character in the 2000 movie "Almost Famous." Everybody still asks him about it--even comedian Jon Lovitz.
In the end, it doesnt really matter whether Sen. Trent Lott is outwhich he should and may well be, by the time you read thisor remains the majority leader of that private party we call Republican. What his remarks added up to was yet another reminder that weve always lived among racists, and always will. Just when you think, for example, that Asian-Americans have made a bit of progress, you run across one of the numerous Web sites that are devoted to Asian jokes. Every slur and stereotype youve been working to squash is there, available for people of all colors to laugh at. Is that equality or what?
One Asian-American had a letter published in the New York Times, in the immediate aftermath of Lotts self-exposure. Wrote Bell Yung of Pittsburgh:
For countless immigrants like me and those Americans born after the 1960s, the furor over Lott is indeed an invaluable national tutorial. Even more important, it clearly demonstrates how the practice of equality among all has been a constant battle that is still being fought today in America, more than two centuries after its declaration of independence.
As the United States exerts increasing power over other nations and people, it behooves the administration to recognize this struggle at home, and to exercise patience and forbearance as it demands similar practice from other nations that may have a much shorter history of such a struggle.
Random Notes: Speaking of the New York Times, I got mentioned the other Sunday. In a superb piece about Gram Parsons, the country-rock pioneer who was the subject of my first book, reporter Neil Strauss surveyed the continuing interest in Parsons, who died young, 30 years ago, and never had a hit...
Ben Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man: author, broadcaster, and former senior editor and writer at Rolling Stone Magazine, reunited with the stars of the Forbidden City nightclub and vows to make a record with one of them.
In the black and white photographs, they are impossibly dashing, daring, devil may care. There's Larry Ching, "The Chinese Sinatra," surrounded by four babes. There are the five leggy Devilettes in sheer, short outfits, but still showing far less than Noel Toy, the "Bubble Dancer" who performed in the nude. And there are the graceful looking Toy & Wing, "The Chinese Fred and Ginger," as in Astaire and Rogers.
I say "impossibly" dashing and daring because these were Asian Americans working in nightclubs and lounges in the Forties and Fifties, when Chinese, along with other ethnic minorities, weren't seen (and, in many cases, accepted) as entertainers, except in roles like Susie Wong and Fu Manchu.
In the late Thirties in San Francisco, a showbiz-loving visionary, Charlie Low, opened the Forbidden City, a nightclub and restaurant near Chinatown, San Francisco, featuring floor shows with singers, dancers, chorus lines, acrobats and magicians. His was not the first or only such club, but he made his the best known, and it became the model for the nightclub in the C.Y. Lee book and Broadway musical, The Flower Drum Song.
Larry Ching, at age 82, still sings, quite beautifully (and, by the way, in no way resembling Sinatra; Larry's is a much sweeter, tenor voice). So does Frances Chun. Mary Tom Mason, Ivy Tam, and Stanley Toy still dance, Toy still twirling at age 88.
And so they did the other night, at a theater at San Francisco State University, celebrating the DVD edition of Forbidden City, U.S.A., the award-winning documentary by Arthur Dong about their nightlife and times.
I was co-MC, with Emerald Yeh, at the world premiere of the original film in 1989; I was MC again for the fundraising...
Ben Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man: author, broadcaster, and former senior editor and writer at Rolling Stone, responds to queries about how to get into writing. He also recounts a a busy day, including a gig with Sheila E. and a chat with Oscar-winning actor Dianne Wiest.
One recent Saturday, I emceed a lunchtime fundraiser for Oakland High School, featuring fellow alumnus Sheila E, did a reading as part of Litquake in San Francisco (one author every ten minutes-kind of like a Wordstock), then raced up to Marin County to conduct an onstage interview with Dianne Wiest for the Mill Valley Film Festival.
And I didn't have a heart attack. Woo-HOO!
Sheila was great, improvising on timbales with a swinging Oakland High School Band at Yoshi's, the jazz club in Jack London Square. Litquake, taking place in two theaters in Civic Center, was hopelessly behind schedule when I arrived at 4:30 for my 5 o'clock spot, and I wound up following a bright hip-hopper from Youth Speaks. Fortunately, I chose short excerpts about three artists who are hipsters in widely differing ways: Rickie Lee Jones, Rodney Dangerfield, and the Rolling Stones, and the audience members held back their rotten tomatoes.
At the Rafael Theater in San Rafael, Dianne Wiest, Oscar winner for Bullets Over Broadway ("Don't speak!") and Hannah and Her Sisters, swept in just before our 7 p.m. start time. We said hello as I escorted her into the theater, and, minutes later, there we were, chatting away in front of a packed house. Well, "chatting" is not quite accurate. Overcome by nerves, she giggled her way through her first answers. We'd begun by showing clips from several of her earlier films, including Footloose. Saying that she doesn't watch her own films, Dianne claimed that she couldn't even remember some of the scenes we'd just seen, and laughed some more. Much more, actually. I told her not to worry. Willie Nelson, who I interviewed earlier this year, told me...
AsianConnections is proud to present the adventures of Ben Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man: author, broadcaster, and former senior editor and writer at Rolling Stone Magazine. And, now, singer? Not really, but he's certainly had his moments.
AsianConnections is proud to present the adventures of Ben Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man: author, broadcaster, and former senior editor and writer at Rolling Stone Magazine. This guy's our hero! Ben was a featured character in the movie "Almost Famous," the Oscar and Golden Globe-winning film by Cameron Crowe.
As I was exiting from the Exit Theater, a woman spotted me and asked, "So, is this a third career?" She'd just seen me doing some Dean Martin and Elvis in "Exit Laughing," one of the entries in the San Francisco Fringe Festival of 55 one-hour plays and performances of all sorts, crammed into a handful of theaters over a dozen days and nights in the seedy Tenderloin district. She either knew, or had just read, in the playbill, that I was a writer and broadcaster. And, now, a singer, too?
No way. This was just for fun. Ruby Unger, the saucy, sassy, and somewhat silly founder of WUFF (Women United For Fun) decided to do a one-woman show celebrating the 20th anniversary of her social group, and, since WUFF has a men's auxiliary (Men Who Dare), asked me to give her a break during the hour by doing a song, preferably about WUFF, or its philosophy: Party today, for tomorrow, who knows?
So I rewrote the Dino hit, "Memories Are Made of This," and, since WUFF's avatar is a rubbery, plastic fish (or, as Ruby calls it, "the power trout"), opened with:
Take one fresh and tender kiss
Add one stolen rubber fish
One girl, one boy,
One new sex toy
Memories are made of this
You get the drift. When Ruby told me she'd planned on my relieving her of ten minutes of her hour, I added a second number: Elvis Presley's "Teddy Bear." On this one, I didn't...
AsianConnections is proud to present the adventures of Ben Fong-Torres, who, in turn, is proud to present Sheryl Crow.
Just about once a day, I roll my eyes as someone asks about Almost Famous. It's been almost two years since that movie came out, but the curiosity about my being a character in the film rolls on. Whether it's by e-mail or in person; whether it's friends I run into at social gatherings or complete strangers, it never fails: "So, what'd you think? Did you like it? What was it like being in the movie?" My eyes roll and I unreel my stock answer: Loved the movie; it perfectly caught what it was like falling in love with rock and roll in the early Seventies. As for my character and Rolling Stone, and how we treated the kid writer -- that's Hollywood. I was a plot device, and I'm happy to have been of service.
So, one of the most recent inquisitors was none other than Sheryl Crow. We'd just met, for an interview for Parade magazine, and, since we were, uh, almost famished, decided to grab lunch. As we settled into a banquette at the Grand Caf in downtown San Francisco, and as I set up my recording equipment, she popped the question. I could've slapped her, but I didn't. She'd also said that she used to read my work in Rolling Stone. "When I was a kid, I wanted to be like the people that I read about."
And when I pulled out a copy of Not Fade Away, my compilation of old articles, to give her, she shrieked: "Oh my god! We were just talking about this the other day. Will you sign it for me?"
So I lost a book sale, but I gained a friend. At least for an hour or so.
Over a scrumptious pesto pasta with rock shrimp (what other kind of shrimp would you expect Sheryl Crow to order?), she talked freely and winningly about how a girl from a tiny town in Missouri, who was once a schoolteacher engaged to a religious young man, became a rock star.
For that story, you'll have to check your Sunday paperweight.