From the 1930s up until the bombing of Pearl Harbor in WWII, Cincinnati had a small, but thriving Chinatown. It was located on several blocks of East Fifth Street around Government Square, and was filled with Chop Suey shops, laundries and the tenements of our over 300 immigrant Chinese, who had made Cincinnati their home.
One man, Charlie Yee, was named the unofficial Mayor of Cincinnati’s Chinatown, an office he “held” for over 10 years. He was also known for his famous Cantonese restaurant and nightclub, the Shanghai Inn, on the second floor at 109 East Fifth Street.
Charlie was born in San Francisco, California, where he knew more about Buddha than baseball. He served in the US Navy, starting in 1915, on the USS Missouri, the first battleship to enter the Panama Canal. After his tour of duty he came to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1922, and arrived with his first wife and family in 1926 in Cincinnati. He married twice and had 12 children. His friends described him as effervescent, sincere, and tenacious. He was president of all the local and regional Chinese groups and acted as an ambassador for them.
The Shanghai Inn opened to great fanfare on Chinese New Year, February, 1935, offering guests entertainment, fireworks, and an eight course dinner composed of:
Yim Warr Gai Gonk – Chicken bird’s nest soup; Choo Koo Gai Kell – Chicken with mushrooms; Four App Huey Quet – boneless roast duck; Four App – duck stuffed with water chestnuts, bamboo sprouts, eggs, and ham; Sak Woo App – duck stuffed with sour dressing, Gum Gee- browned roast suckling pig; Hung Ya Gai Dang – chicken chopped suey, and Egg Foo Yung.
There was also large amounts of Ng Ka Py passed around – a reddish brown rice wine, nicknamed liquid dynamite and described as tasting like Tequila.
Charlie started having orchestras with featured entertainers and late night dances at his club. The descriptions are reminiscent of the Club Obi Wak in the beginning of the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It must have been a fantastic setting for a night on the town during Cincinnati’s interwar period.
In 1938, Mr. Yee hired a local blonde Germanic beauty from Evanston, Doris Kappelhoff, to perform with the Chuck Schaefer Orchestra on Saturday nights. She was just recovering from a broken leg she suffered in a local car accident that ruined her dancing career. Doris was the same age as Yee’s daughter, Rose, who also hosted events at the Inn. This was Doris’ first professional gig, and she would make a whopping $5 a night! She of course made a big hit, and became known as the Shanghai Bird.
Charlie would later say of her, “Doris was pretty, and very nice, I was very sorry she left, but I’m glad she became a star.”
Her gig was short-lived with Mr. Yee, as her talent pulled her out of Cincinnati. Her most famous song would be Que Sera Sera, which she performed in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much. She hated the song, thinking of it as a child’s song.
Other acts performed at the Shanghai Inn – the Marsh Sisters and Rita Shanon, but none would rise to be as successful as the shy girl from Evanston, who would become Doris Day. Sadly the building that housed the Shanghai Inn was torn down during our Urban Renewal, but it would be Doris’ Stone Pony, the club that launched her career.