Chinatown's garage bands
You look at SF's Chinatown, now, and you could never guess, probably, that there was this history.
Remembering when Chinatown rocked and rolled Gala pays tribute to boomer garage bands of the 1960s and '70s
It was 1966, and 13-year-old Jeffrey Chan took in the eyepopping scene onstage.
"Chinese American guys playing Beatles songs!" recalls Chan, with a mixture of nostalgia and incredulity. "Wow, I thought these guys are cool."
"It broke us out of the stereotype -- that we weren't waiters, bus boys or guys who worked in laundries," says Chan, now 51. "Not that there's anything wrong with that. But that's how people viewed us until we started playing music."
The Soundcasters was one of dozens of Chinatown garage bands in the 1960s and '70s that were part of a citywide blossoming of Asian American soul groups whose music touched a generation of youth searching for identity.
This little-known piece of San Francisco's musical and cultural legacy came alive again recently when the Chinese Historical Society of America honored the Chinatown bands at its annual fund-raising gala, held in Burlingame last weekend.
Perhaps heavier in the waist and lighter of hair, some 650 attendees applauded the equally weathered band members, who played as the crowd boogied for hours to the soul music of their youth.
"It really evokes a lot of memories," says Carey Huang, 52, who played trumpet with the Intrigues and still goes to gigs with a new incarnation of the band, renamed Intrigue. For an awakening young Asian America, this music inspired a sense of community and played a vital role in galvanizing Asian Americans to protest the Vietnam War and fight for civil rights.
It was also an integral coming of age experience that few who lived through it have ever forgotten. And for Baby Boomers growing up in Chinatown and its environs, the mere mention of band names like the Persuasions, Eclipse, Enchanters, Illusions, Soundcasters, Jest Jammin' and Majestic Sounds recall evenings spent waiting to get into Victory Hall, California Hall and Mr. D's.
Oh, they were dressed to the T's - guys in shirts with 4-inch collars or "hi-boys" so heavily starched that they scraped necks raw.
"You would wear your hair in a pompadour to appear taller, add rhinestone cuff links, alpaca sweaters and shiny black pointed shoes with pimp socks," wrote former band member Tim Leong, 51, in an account of those times for the historical society. All you needed was a splash of Jade East cologne to complete the ensemble."
The girls weren't to be outdone, ratting their hair into monumental bee- hives to match their dates' do's.
"Her hair was so high she looked 5-foot-11," Chan recalled of one girl. "The next day at school, she was only 4 feet!"
Jazz singer Cookie Wong, believed to be the first Chinese American female vocalist in a dance band of that era, recalls the short skirts, eye-liner and frosted lipstick.
Wong, whose mother, Pearl, ran Jazz at Pearl's in North Beach for years, was 18 when she started singing in several groups, including the Sentinels and Jest Jammin'.
"I was very studious, but I liked music," she says. "So I just hung around with the guys. But my mother never worried. She knew a lot of their parents. They weren't bad boys -- they didn't even smoke!"
Practice was difficult in Chinatown, where residents lived cheek-by-jowl. Bands frequently got thrown out in the middle of sessions because neighbors complained about the noise.
Still, the bands thrived, expanding from Chinatown to an expanded Asian dance circuit that took them from UC Berkeley's Pauley Ballroom to San Jose State.
"Our parents were supportive but they couldn't drive us," Chan says. "We were 16-year-olds driving to Sacramento on our own."
Some band members were even younger.
Huang was 13 when he snuck out of the house to play trumpet at a couple of dances.
Whatever the venue, they mostly played soul -- R & B, Motown, the Philly sound. The Beatles were an exception.
"You should have seen us -- a bunch of Chinese guys up there, playing James Brown," Chan says. "I guess we got into soul music because a lot of us grew up near the projects -- North Beach, Fillmore, Japantown -- and that was our circle. They listened to soul music and so did we. Plus, it was the time of civil rights and the Third World Movement. That united us with black music."
That bond, as well as the penchant for dancing, wasn't new in Chinatown. In the 1930s and 1940s, two Chinatown bands packed them in every weekend at the Chinese YMCA and the Chinese American Citizens Alliance hall with the Big Band sounds of Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. The Cathayans and the Chinatown Knights enthralled young Chinese Americans, who swung the night away.
"The city was alive with music at the time, and so was Chinatown," recalls Philip Choy, 78, a board member of the historical society.
Both the Cathayans and the Knights traced their beginnings to 1911, when all of its members belonged to the Cathay Marching Band, renown for leading funeral processions with drum rolls and playing the hymn, "Nearer My God to Thee." Outside Chinatown, however, the marching band was knocking 'em out in parades and pageants.
A dozen of these surviving elders were honored at the gala, and a current exhibition at the historical society tells the story of the Cathay Club, where many of them played.
Choy says the recognition is well-deserved, given their boldness for the times.
"In the late 1920s, early 1930s, they were living in a very bigoted world, " he explains. "The community itself was pretty much isolated from society at large. So this second generation was trying to break way from old world traditions and at the same time, break new world stereotypes."
Indeed, the name Chinatown Knights was chosen to challenge the emasculated image of Chinese males portrayed in the media, Choy says.
With the coming of World War II, some band members, like Andy Wong, of the Knights, went into the nightclub business, helping spark the popularity of Chinese American night clubs like the famed Forbidden City.
Chan, whose dad played trumpet with the Cathay Club, still sings and plays the keyboard with Intrigue. Today, his 24-year-old daughter plays more instruments than he does.
One band, Jest Jammin,' never disbanded and still plays.
"We jest jam for the community and we've never quit," said community activist Rev. Norman Fong.
Most garage band members, however, stopped playing to go to school, get married, have kids and get real jobs.
Chan has spent 24 years with PG&E. Huang works for the city Department of Parking and Traffic. Leong, a former broadcast journalist, now heads the new Bay Area-based Asian and Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund.
But they still feel the pull of music.
"You have that same connection with the music of our youth," Chan says. "It still works."
And there's pride in having been part of a special time.
"I can't believe that the civil rights movement and struggle over Asian American studies did not have an impact on the minds of those who started to play music," Leong says. "It was an opportunity to showcase Chinese Americans, to show that they could perform like anyone else. That they had soul."
"Leaders of the Band: A History of the Cathay Club, 1911-2004," is a rotating exhibition at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum through Feb. 20. 965 Clay Street, San Francisco.
Dancing on the Roof: From the 1960s to the 1970s
by Tim Leong
America was going through tremendous change during the 1960s and 1970s. Society allowed the creation of Ethnic Studies programs at the college level, and this instilled a sense of pride for all people of color. Civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed ideas and values that resonated even to Chinese Americans, giving confidence and approval to recognize and respect your roots and the community you in which you grew up. The music scene was reshaped by rock and roll, featuring artists like Elvis Presley and Little Richard. The invasion of rock bands from England such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones brought new ideas, songs, and creativity. In San Francisco , the “Summer of Love” scene epitomized the musical landscape of the era along with the growing rhythm and blues influences of African American musicians. This was an exciting time filled with hope, dreams and energy.
It is within this framework that young Chinese Americans took advantage of their musical talent and creativity by creating dance bands. Although very little of the music played within the Chinese American music circuit was original material, that didn't seem to matter to the audiences. When bands tried to incorporate original tunes in their set lists, the dance floors would clear until the band began playing another recognizable tune. Perhaps this reaction could be part of the reason why more Chinese American bands did not write original music and expand outside of the Asian American community. Nevertheless, they pounded out top hits from artists like Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave, all the Motown artists like the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Kool and the Gang, Earth Wind and Fire, and Chicago, much to the dancing delight of their audiences and friends.
Who could forget the excitement of waiting in line to enter dances held at San Francisco 's Victory Hall , California Hall, Red Chimney, and Mr. D's? Admirers and supporters would pick up postcard-sized bids for future dances to see which bands were playing, using that as their rationale to decide whether or not to go. As the Asian American bands continued to perform and build a loyal following, they became popular in the Bay Area and other communities with strong Asian populations. Blue Dolphin, Bold Knight, Pauley Ballroom at UC Berkeley, San Francisco and San Jose State Universities , and even Sacramento became destinations for many of these bands to perform in front of predominantly Asian American audiences. Dances on boats that cruised the bay, street fairs, and performing for causes ranging from saving the International Hotel to finding a cure for sickle cell anemia, all became venues for these bands to play for their fans. While there were many influences of this era, most of the Chinese American dance bands incorporated a soul or rhythm and blues sound that provided wonderful danceable music.
One of the most daunting decisions to be made during this time was what to wear to the dance. Even the guys would be very fashionable, wearing suits or sports coats with ties. As the rhythm and blues influences became stronger in the dance bands, so did the clothing styles. Shirts with 4” long collars or “hi-boys” were starched so heavily it could scrape your neck raw. You would wear your hair in a pompadour to appear taller, add rhinestone cuff links, alpaca sweaters, and shiny black pointed shoes with pimp socks. All you needed was a splash of Jade East cologne to complete the ensemble. Not to be outdone, the girls would sport beehive hair-dos, or rat their hair high to match their date's pompadour. Mini skirts and dresses were in style, complemented with fish net or black stockings and heavy mascara. Dances became a special place to express your individuality and fashion style.
The Asian American dance bands of this era came in many different configurations including those with full horn sections, multiple keyboard players, rhythm and lead guitars, and multiple singers. Some of the musicians had formal training, but most were self-taught. To be in a band or one of their “groupies” provided a sense of belonging, a feeling of community and fellowship. Some of the top Asian American groups at that time include the Bold Rebels, Brass Drops, Soulusions, ESP's, Lady Red, Concessions, Pearl, Brass Horizons, and Maharlika. Dance promoters utilized a “battle of the bands” concept to allow dancers and audiences to hear new bands and compare their favorites. It was at these dances where musicians and singers could hear others play, and provided the opportunity to plan and dream of other future musical collaborations.
San Francisco 's Chinese community always enjoyed their music and dancing. Family associations, Chinese American Citizens Alliance, and others, would hold regular dance lessons to teach the latest moves. It is not surprising that Chinatown also became a spawning ground for many of the dance bands of this era, including the eight band honorees being recognized tonight. And, as the Chinese American population expanded beyond the confines of Chinatown , groups like the Agents from the “Avenues” (Richmond District) were also formed.
The crowded living conditions in Chinatown , with homes abutting up against each other, provided quite a challenge for all these garage bands. There are many stories of neighbors complaining about the noise to police, bands booted from garages, and moving several times to find new practice locations. On the other hand, it was encouraging and supportive parents who bought many of the band instruments while putting up with the endless booming bass guitar and drums, screeching guitars, wailing saxophones, and piercing trumpets.
Perhaps a testament to the new freedom and inclusiveness of this generation, most of the dance bands were very diverse. While there were all-Chinese dance bands, most were as diverse as the music played and audiences to whom they performed in front. Clearly the Chinese community supported the dance bands that grew up in and around Chinatown , but their popularity could also be attributable to the limited playing opportunities given to other Asian American dance bands within the community.
As the musicians got older, getting jobs and going away to college led to the breakup of most of the dance bands. A few bands decided to try their hand in writing original material, and those that did became discouraged with how difficult it is to be successful playing only their own songs. While many of the musicians considered going professional (some joined the Musicians' Union and hired managers/agents), most decided to have a “straight” job as a lawyer, doctor, police officer, professor, postal worker, or reverend, with music as a hobby. A number of musicians from these dance bands have continued working today in the music industry as a performer, recording studio owner, professional DJ, or sound system company owner. Over the past few years, a revival of “old school” music has encouraged many of these musicians to dust off their instruments and rebuild their musical chops. Many are still playing music today for private parties and not-for-profit benefit dances, trying to rekindle the excitement of playing their favorite dance tunes.
The honorees' reflections of this exciting time are a little fuzzy perhaps because of their age, memory loss, and too much partying when they were younger. But when those memories became clearer, these musicians reminisce of an era that cannot be duplicated. Yes, pompadours have given way to receding hairlines, miniskirts replaced by loose-fitting tops and slacks, and the adrenaline of asking that special someone to be your dance partner for the last slow dance of the night, all contribute to an innocent era of growing up that we will always be remembered. For these bands and musicians, the greatest joy was not the money they earned, but watching the happy faces of their friends and admirers dancing on the roof…dancing the night away.
(This historical perspective is written by Tim Leong, a former broadcast journalist at KRON-TV and KCRA-TV, and professional musician for fourteen years. He has performed with many of the musicians identified in this article, playing bass guitar and drums, and singing both lead and background vocals.)