Like a Rolling Stone

Cherry Blossom Time: Hello Kitty and Rally Thongs by Ben Fong-Torres

Posted by AC Team on Friday, 06 May 2011

It was Cherry Blossom Festival time here in San Francisco in mid-April – the 44th such celebration in Japantown,and, once again, my buddy George Yamasaki served as the public address announcer, telling the crowds gathered along Post Street about the various contingents, floats, and dignitaries, from mayors and mayoral candidates to Hello Kitty and anime characters.

After 40 years of handling commentary duties on his own, George, an attorney and a pianist who accompanies me on my occasional singing sortieson unsuspecting audiences, asked me to sidekick. That meant reading a fewof the descriptions from the script, and dashing onto the street and doing a couple of interviews.

Mayor Ed Lee was one of them, and I wanted to ask him for the best and worst aspects of h is time in City Hall, which began in February as an interim appointment and ends when the next elected mayor takes office in January. Mayor Lee, who’s proven to be an effective and popular chief executive, waxed so rhapsodic about the “best” stuff that I gave up on the worst. Still, as we passed the VIP seats, where a bevy of beauty queens and princesses were perched, I asked, “Is the second best thing getting to walk by all these lovely women?” No, he said. But only because some of them had already dropped by City Hall for a photo op.

Later, State Sen. Leland Yee strode up to chat. We’d seen each other at various community events, including a Jerry Garcia Day concert, where he reminisced about the good old days in Berkeley. “Hey,” he said, “how come you keep looking younger and I keep looking older?” “It’s all the drugs you didn’t take,” I said. I’m so diplomatic, I should be in high office. But not too high …

Yee was one of several office-holders jockeying for position in an already crowded election for our next mayor. Supervisors David Chiu and Ross Mirkarimi and city attorney Dennis Herrera were among the others. Also doing The...

Joining Our Community to Raise Funds for Relief Efforts in Japan

Posted by benfongtorres on Sunday, 20 March 2011

Whole Lotta Phone Calls Goin’ On by Ben Fong-Torres

In the Facebook box that asks “What’s on your mind?” I announced, the other day, “I'm supposed to be writing a book, but went & moderated a panel for the Broadcast Legends – including Hall of Famer Jon Miller. Fun. Tomorrow — Friday -- 5 to 7 pm -- I'm working the phones for KNTV (Ch. 3)'s fundraiser for the victims of the Japan earthquake. If you can, tune in, call in and ask for me. I'll do Elvis, Dino, 

Dylan for you. Anything to get a few more dollars for the relief effort.”

As always, I got lots of supportive comments, of which my favorite was this, from author Susanne Pari: “This is all good, Ben, but I know writing avoidance tactics when I see them.”

Then Larry LeBlanc chipped in: “Yeah, we writers are like that.”

Yes, we are. But the earthquake relief fund was well worth falling behind a few pages. When I showed up at the Japanese Cultural & Community Center of Northern California’s building, where the phone bank had been set up, the tote board showed about $77,000 donated since 7 a.m.

It was now almost 5, and, as I took my seat, alongside TV journalists James Hattori and Wendy Tokuda, and playwright Philip Kan Gotanda and his wife, director Diane Takei (she directs plays; not her husband), and JCCNC board member Rumi Okabe, the phones went silent. It was 5 o’clock; the station hadn’t plugged the fundraiser; people were still at work or on the road.

We socialized, and some of us made calls to friends to pull in donations. We practiced looking like we were on the phone, for when NBC Bay Area/KNTV’s reporter did a live report. But the station didn’t mention the phone number, so we twiddled our thumbs again until the 6 o’clock news. The number was flashed.

Suddenly, the phones began ringing and we were at it non-stop, getting people’s credit card and other info...

FINDING JAKE LEE by Ben Fong-Torres

Posted by benfongtorres on Thursday, 17 March 2011

A tale of lost and found Chinese American Art

One of the more amazing stories regarding the acquisition of artwork is being told right now in a modest exhibit at the Chinese Historical Society of America’s museum in Chinatown, San Francisco.

It is a fascinating, full-circle story of an exhilarating triumph at an auction house, and it began with an e-mail. Sue Lee, the executive director of CHSA, was at the office on a weekend last February. Soon it’d be St. Valentine’s Day, Presidents Day and the Year of the Tiger. She decided to check the museum’s general mailbox when she saw a note alerting CHSA to an auction, the next Tuesday, for eleven vivid watercolor paintings created some 50 years ago for the fabled Kan’s Restaurant on Grant Avenue. 

The artist  was Jake Lee, who’d been commissioned by Johnny Kan, whose elegant restaurant catered to Hollywood stars as well as tourists. Kan prided himself on presenting real Chinese cuisine (no chop suey for him), and published one of the first important Chinese cookbooks, Eight Immortal Flavors, with a foreword by James Beard and a cover illustration by, who else, Jake Lee).

Sue Lee (no relation, by the way), had seen postcard versions of some of the paintings, which depicted Chinese people of the mid- to late 19th Century – sans stereotypes. A commercial artist by trade, Lee painted Chinese immigrants arriving in San Francisco during the Gold Rush of 1849, working on the railroad, digging wine caves and working vineyards in Sonoma County, rolling cigars and creating lanterns in San Francisco shops.

But, he showed, it wasn’t all work. There were beautiful renderings of an opera house in Chinatown; a lion dance, on a carpet of exploding firecrackers, on Grant Avenue. (Images in this column are shown courtesy of CHSA.org)

And now, the original paintings had a chance to return to Chinatown…if Lee could win them at the auction, in Pasadena. She...

San Francisco and Shanghai: Sisterhood Is Powerful

Posted by Ben Fong-Torres on Thursday, 10 June 2010

Ben Fong-Torres says 'Bon Voyage' to fellow San Franciscans heading to the Shanghai Expo.

James Fang, San Francisco-Shanghai Sister City Committee Chairman, presents former S.F. Mayor Willie Brown with the recently published history, A Celebration: San Francisco-Shanghai Sister City Committee, Honoring 30 Years of Friendship, 1980-2010 . They will be part of San Francisco Week June 17 - 25 at the Shanghai World Expo.

We were in a well-appointed luxury apartment with a tenth floor Bay view to die - or at least get severely injured for. And most of the 40 or so guests, it seemed, were packed and set to jet off, in the next day or two, to China.

It reminded me, kinda, of a sendoff bash some 30 years ago, when I was part of a crew for Cycling Through China, an entertainment documentary. Two of the sponsors hosted a bash a few nights before we took off for Guangzhou, by way of L.A., Macau and Hong Kong. The room in their Pacific Heights home buzzed with excitement. The doors to China had opened, but the country was still in transition, with larger cities going through Westernization. Hotels and discos were being built, fast.

The title, Cycling Through China, said a lot. The primary mode of transportation was the bicycle. Highways were few; there was little need for them.

This time around, I was not going to China, but the buzz around the rooms was familiar. We were gathered to send off several contingents of San Franciscans, from political and social lights to ten groups of cultural performers, including an ensemble representing the St. Marys Chinese Girls Drum and Bell Corps, my favorite Chinese New Year Parade performers since my childhood.

They're among some 300 people set to fly the friendly skies (United is a sponsor) to China for Expo 2010, in Shanghai. The Expo has been going on since May and will roll through October. Shanghai has had a sister city relationship with San Francisco for 30 years; three decades of...

Jadin Wong: She Danced Through Stereotypes

Posted by Ben Fong-Torres on Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Jadin Wong: She Danced Through Stereotypes

Let’s not let the passing of Jadin Wong go without notice. For one thing, Jadin Wong thrived on being noticed. She was the essence of showbiz, as a nightclub dancer and actress.

And she’s of particular note because she was a pioneer in those fields – and not necessarily by choice. Ms. Wong was 96 when she died in New York on March 30. When, at age five in Stockton, Calif., she began expressing an interest in singing and dancing, it was 1918. She was just a little ahead of her time, and she’d stay ahead of her time when, as a teenager, she ran away from home – and disapproving parents – to pursue her dreams.

Jadin, whose name has also been spelled Jadine in posters and advertisements, wound up in Hollywood, where she tap-danced for spare change before getting some roles in films. She was an exotic dancer in the 1939 movie, Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation. She was also a natural for the Chinatown nightclubs that sprang up in San Francisco in the late Thirties, and became a star performer at the Forbidden City.

Since filmmaker Arthur Dong produced the documentary, Forbidden City U.S.A. in 1989, alumni of that club, and of other such nightspots, have gathered for reunions, fundraisers and other events. At one such gala, at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in 1997, Ms. Wong was one of a couple of dozen performers who showed up. She was one of a handful selected to perform for the audience. And she was the only one who made a grand entrance, in a carriage carted by a team of muscle-bound young men. Then the dancer, now aged 84 and costumed to the hilt, pulled off one more exotic dance. “Ho yeah, ho yeah,” you could hear men in the crowd yelling. Good stuff! Good stuff!

By then, Ms. Wong had retired from show business, opening a talent agency in New York, with a focus on Asian American clients. Although, in her youth, she was largely limited to...