Stereotype busterMai Tai Sing

Born May Tsang in Oakland, Calif., Sing, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, got a job as a teen, waitressing at a Chinese nightclub in San Francisco, Forbidden City. But she was more interested in the nightclub performers, and in the 1940s switched to a new job as a chorus girl. She was later promoted to be the dancing partner of Wilbur Tai Sing; they later married. Her stardom grew, bringing her movie roles, and then television. “Back then, many of the Asian characters, whether they were American or not, had to speak with broken pidgin English, as if they were forever foreign,” says Arthur Dong, who featured Sing in his documentary Forbidden City, USA: Chinatown Nightclubs, 1936-1970. “But not Mai Tai Sing. She didn’t deliver her lines with an accent. Even when she played a cigarette girl opposite Tony Curtis in ‘Forbidden,’ she was sharp and self-assured.”

From the collection of Arthur Dong (click to see larger).

Sing was the star of a dance revue in Vegas, but realized she couldn’t dance forever, and in 1959 went into business with her brothers as the hostess of the Ricksha Bar in San Francisco, attracting celebrities like Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr., and Frank Sinatra — and meanwhile accepting occasional film and TV roles. On the side, she hosted re-runs of Charlie Chan films on a local TV station. In 1970, she moved to Hawaii to be the manager and hostess of the jazz lounge at the Waikiki Hyatt Regency hotel, hosting guest performers like Smokey Robinson, Tony Bennett, and Wynton Marsalis. “What she and other performers in the Chinatown nightclubs did was fight racist preconceptions of what Asian Americans were about and what they could accomplish,” Dong says. “They were pioneers that struggled for inclusion and paved the way” for others. Sing died in Honolulu on July 11, from heart disease. She was 94. The next day, Sandra Oh was nominated for an Emmy Award as lead actress in a primetime drama — the first Asian woman to be so honored.

From This is True for 15 July 2018