Late Night in the Lion's Den: A Social History of Chinese-American Restaurant-Nightclubs in the 1940s

Restaurant menus can serve as excellent primary source material for social histories. The springboard for this article is a 1940s menu from San Francisco's Lion's Den, a Chinese-American restaurant and nightclub. A thorough review of the food and drink offerings is bolstered by an interview with a former Lion's Den dancer and emcee, Ms. Nora Wong. She tells stories of growing up Chinese in the U.S., and provides vivid insight into the real life of Chinese performers in the mid-twentieth century. The article is illustrated with period menus and the first-ever public glimpse of a telling behind-the-scene photograph from Ms. Wong's personal album. Beginning with 1930s Shanghai, the world nightlife capital that inspired imitators in the U.S., this article explores the naissance, development, heated competition, and eventual demise of Chinese nightclubs in both California and New York City. Many Chinese restaurant/nightclubs of the period are discussed, and other well-known performers are featured. Other topics discussed include the Western exotification of Asia, stereotyping, sexism, and racism.

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