OAKLAND — Dance legend Dorothy Toy Fong passed away on July 10 at the age of 102.
Born Dorothy Takahashi in 1917, she grew up in Los Angeles, where her parents’ restaurant was across from the Regent, a vaudeville theater. She studied ballet, jazz and tap.
She first performed with her sister Helen. In 1932, they joined Paul Wing and they called themselves The Three Mah Jongs. While her sister became a solo act as a singer, Fong rose to fame in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s dancing with Wing as Toy and Wing, possibly the most famous Asian American dance duo in history.
They signed with the prestigious William Morris agency, performed on stages around the world, and headlined at the Chinatown nightclubs of San Francisco, most notably Charlie Low’s Forbidden City, which was frequented by such celebrities as Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. All-Asian revues for white audiences were known as the “Chop Suey Circuit.”
Fong, who appeared in a 1939 short musical film, “With Best Dishes,” under her real name, once said that she adopted her stage name because it was “short, snappy and fit in the marquee.” She and Wing married in 1940, but it was more for convenience than romance. They later divorced but continued to perform together.
Nicknamed “the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers,” Toy and Wing also performed on Broadway, at the Palladium in London, and in Hollywood films, including “Deviled Ham” and “Happiness Ahead.” They later appeared in such television programs as “Cavalcade of Stars” and “The Morey Amsterdam Show.”
Fong, who had moved to New York, continued to perform during World War II after Wing was drafted into the Army, but her parents and other relatives were sent to the War Relocation Authority camp in Topaz, Utah.
Fong said in an interview she lost a movie contract when another dancer who was jealous of her fame “outed” her as Japanese. She said this deprived her of an opportunity to work with Chico Marx.
“There were no Asians in show business,” Fong told KPIX-TV. “Yes, it was hard, but Paul and I did all right. We traveled all over and they liked us.”
In 1952, she married businessman Les Fong. They had two children. From the 1960s to the mid-1970s, she managed and performed with her Oriental Playgirl Revue, which traveled throughout the U.S, Canada, Europe, the Caribbean and Japan.
Fong retired from performing in 1971 after 40 years in the industry, while Wing continued dancing. He died in 1997 at age 75.
Fong worked for 25 years as a pharmacy technician before retiring at age 82, and ran a dance studio in the basement of her Oakland home, where she taught generations of children.
She appeared in Arthur Dong’s documentary “Forbidden City USA” and was the subject of Bay Area reporter and filmmaker Rick Quan’s documentary “Dancing Through Life,” which won awards at a number of film festivals.
“I had a lot of those moments,” she said of her years in the limelight. “Because you hit a certain town, see people …. When you take your bows at the end, it hits me…money doesn’t count. You get that pleasure inside your heart.”