Dorothy Toy

Name Dorothy Toy
Born May 28 1917
Died July 10 2019
Birth Location San Francisco
Generational Identifier


On the black and white screen Dorothy Toy glides across the dance floor in her pointe shoes. With speed and grace, she spins her body making tiny circles and then right on beat she kicks out her right leg. She hops with vigor landing on the very tips of her toes. Her dance partner Peter Wing joins and together they mesmerize audiences with their leaps, turns and intricate footwork in the 1937 film Deviled Ham .

In the decade prior to WWII, the Asian American dance duo Toy and Wing sold out theaters in New York and England, and were featured in three films. While most Asian roles were performed by white actors in yellowface, Toy and Wing broke through barriers constructed by the white entertainment industry and stunned audiences with their undeniable talent. Although she took on a Chinese surname to be more legible to American audiences, Dorothy Toy was born Shigeko Takahashi in San Francisco, California. The Nisei dancer was an exceptional talent, proficient in ballet, tap, ballroom and jazz. Following her film career, Toy performed with Wing as the headlining act in the San Francisco Chinatown nightclubs. Toy was reintroduced to the world in 1989 in Arthur Dong's award-winning documentary Forbidden City, U.S.A. and inspired news anchor Rick Quan to make Dancing through Life: The Dorothy Toy Story in 2017. She is also credited as a mentor to the dancers of the Grant Avenue Follies, a senior Asian American dance company established by former Chinatown Nightclub performers. Leaving behind an impressive legacy, Dorothy Toy passed away July 10, 2019 at 102 years old. [1]

Childhood and Becoming Toy and Wing

Dorothy Toy Fong [2] (1917-2019) was born Shigeko Takahashi in San Francisco, California, on May 28, 1917. Her mother was from Yokohama and her father was from the country side of Wakayama. She had one sister (Chiyo) and two brothers, one of whom remained in Japan. The Takahashi children were give the English names Dorothy (Shigeko), Helen (Chiyo) and Peter. The family lived close to Japantown in San Francisco until 1924, when they moved to Los Angeles. [3] Her parents ran an American food restaurant, the "Cherry Blossom Café," and the family lived near the Los Angeles Coliseum. The Takahashi children were bused to Maryknoll Catholic Grade School, a school exclusively for Japanese children, in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo district.

As a child Takahashi went to the park across from her home and practiced dance and acrobatic moves she learned from watching other people. A theater manager who frequented the family business saw her dancing outside their restaurant and recommended to her mother that she take dance lessons. Takahashi's family could not afford an exclusive ballet school but enrolled her in a general dance program at the Ramsdale Dancing School with a Russian teacher who also taught her Cossack dance. In the early 1930s, Dorothy and Helen began to audition for Hollywood films. In 1932, after several unsuccessful auditions, fellow performer Paul Wing Jew recommended the sisters audition for the Warner Brother's film Happiness Ahead (1934). The Takahashi sisters, Jew, and two other Asian American young woman were featured as tap dancers in a nightclub scene in the film. Motivated by the successful collaboration, Jew created an act with the sisters. The sisters changed their last name to Toy, a more legible name for the American entertainment industry. Paul shortened his last name to Wing and the trio performed as "The Toy Sisters and Wing: The Three Mahjongs."

Determined to be successful in film and theater, the trio worked on tap dancing and also developed the solo portion of their act: Wing perfected a style called "legomania," Dorothy Toy refined en pointe tricks and Cossack dance, and Helen Toy expanded her singing repertoire. In the mid-1930s the trio moved to Chicago to find work but learned they looked too young and childlike to be marketable. They changed their act and made the decision to perform separately, Helen as a solo singer and Dorothy and Paul formed Toy and Wing.

Broadway and Films

Thanks to Paul Wing's persistence, Toy and Wing earned a meeting with the prestigious William Morris Agency in New York City. The agency recognized the potential in their "novelty act"—two Asian dancers perfectly executing American forms of dance—and eventually accepted them as clients. [4] The William Morris Agency booked them a show at the Capital Theater on Broadway. There they gained great popularity and audience support. In a 2010 interview with Trina Robbins, Toy explained:

So we were at the Capital Theater on Broadway and I always remember we were [booked] with a very big-name band that would play for society people. And [when] we finished they [the audience] clapped so much they wouldn’t stop clapping. And he [the bandleader] started his music and they wouldn't stop clapping, so he got so mad, he put his baton down and he called us out to take another bow. [5]

By the late 1930s, Toy and Wing had danced in two more films Deviled Ham (1937) and With Best Wishes (1939). In late 1939 Toy and Wing were also invited to perform at the London Palladium and Holborn Empire Theater as the first Asian American dancing act in London. At the Palladium, Toy and Wing would share the stage with the legendary African American tap duo the Nicholas Brothers. Although Toy and Wing were well received in London, Great Britain's entry into World War II on September 3, 1939 forced theaters to close.

Wartime Discrimination

World War II challenged and interrupted Toy and Wing's career. The duo returned to New York and performed on Broadway until early December 1941 when the United States entered World War II. On the evening of December 7, 1941, hours after the Japanese Imperial Navy bombed Pearl Harbor, Toy and Wing were scheduled to perform. Compounding the issue, a few days prior, columnist Walter Winchell had identified Toy's ethnicity as Japanese. Winchell had made a play on their show's title, "Kicking the Gong Around," which was also a song by jazz singer Cab Calloway in which the phrase was slang for smoking opium. Just as the song alludes to Chinatown as a devious and sinful place, Winchell accused Toy and Wing of being cunning and secretive. He revealed there were "two Orientals" performing on Broadway, one Chinese and the other Japanese. They were dancing together but not "kicking each other," meaning not at war but rather getting along.

The theater owner did not want Toy and Wing to leave, but the two insisted. Toy reflected, "Yeah, I had to leave town. I was so embarrassed. Because people are very prejudice[d] . . I wanted to leave . . . I didn't want my family embarrassed or anybody embarrassed." [6] Toy seemed to be embarrassed by the attention placed on her by Winchell identifying her as a Japanese American performing as Chinese. She was not ashamed of her Japanese ancestry, despite her Chinese stage name, but rather she was uncomfortable with Winchell's accusation that she was hiding and lying about her identity. Despite the risk she faced due to anti-Japanese rhetoric, Toy wanted to protect her dance partner, her family, and the club owners from any potential violence triggered by her Japanese identity in wartime America.

Toy and Wing stayed away from Broadway for a year, abandoning the popularity they had generated over several years of hard work. Furthermore, as a result of the Winchell article, a Hollywood studio retracted its contract with the duo. Toy and Wing had high hopes as they would have danced alongside bandleader Kay Kyser in a film. Toy disclosed, "I think I was mad. . . . When you hear something like that, you say, 'Well, just tell them I'm not going.' I had pride. You talk about my nationality, that's what I am. I think I got very angry about that, I didn't like it." [7]

With the signing of Executive Order 9066, Toy's parents, the Takahashi family, were uprooted from Southern California and incarcerated in Topaz , Utah. Toy was in New York and her sister was in Chicago at the onset of war. Their parents insisted that they not return to California in order to avoid incarceration. Toy and Wing continued to work and were determined to return to large venues. A year later, in 1943 Toy and Wing were invited to perform at the Roxy Theater in New York City. They worked tirelessly to put together a polished show at the Paramount Theater on Broadway. A few days following the opening night, however, Wing received a draft notice from the U.S. Army. With the assistance of the theater manager the draft board gave Wing permission to finish out his four-week performance commitment. The very next night Paul left for the service. Dorothy moved to Chicago to join her sister and they performed as the Toy Sisters throughout the wartime period. Upon their release from Topaz, the Takahashis reunited with their daughters in Chicago.

Stars of San Francisco's Chinatown Nightclubs

Despite all the challenges of war and the Takahashi family's incarceration, Toy and Wing reunited following Wing's return in late 1945. In 1948 Toy and Wing were invited by Wing's uncle, actor Samee Tong, to be special guests at the famed San Francisco Chinatown nightclub Forbidden City . [8] In 1950 club owner Charlie Low offered them a job at the nightclub and the dynamic duo returned to California. Helen Toy found work as a singer in another club, the Chinese Skyroom , and their mother joined them in San Francisco. Toy established roots in the San Francisco Bay Area. She married businessman Leslie Fong in 1952 and had two children, Dorlie and Peter. Toy and Wing were the featured talents of the Chinatown nightclubs during the 1950s and 1960s, often billed as "America's Greatest Chinese Dance Team." [9]

In 1962, Dorothy Toy and Paul Wing formed a pan-Asian touring group called Toy and Wing's Oriental Playgirl Revue. When Paul Wing left the group in 1965, Toy renamed the group Dorothy Toy's Oriental Doll Revue. On the stage, the young chorus girl dancers complemented the exhilarating dance skills of Toy as their leader and choreographer. Her standards for excellence paralleled those of the commercial industry as a result of her own rigorous training and experience with Broadway. Toy featured all Asian American dancers and sought to prove that such a group could uphold a high level of professionalism. Toy's group found success traveling throughout the United States as well as Canada, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Japan.

Life Beyond the Stage

By the early 1970s, Toy's group stopped touring because the demand for such shows changed. Toy retired from performing in her fifties. Toy later worked as a pharmacy assistant in San Francisco and continued to teach dance to students of all ages. In her nineties, Toy was teaching dance to her hairdresser. Toy's daughter proudly stated that her mother took jobs in a pharmacy, as a hostess in a hotel, and in other areas where she lacked formal training because "she always says, 'I can do it'—that's the way she is." [10]

When Dorothy Toy Fong passed away in 2019, generations of artists and entertainers recognized Toy's profound influence as an Asian American trailblazer in the entertainment industry. At the height of her career Toy was deemed a "novelty act" because white audiences rarely saw Japanese American dancers perfecting American dance forms. As such Toy was never fully credited for her incredible versatility and performance caliber. To be legible by a public steeped in Orientalist stereotypes, she could not distinguish herself as Japanese American and instead passed as Chinese. She had to embrace reductive titles such as the "Chinese Ginger Rogers," that, although complimentary, standardized white performers thereby never allowing Toy to be valued for her own unique abilities. As footage of Toy’s performances resurface, however, new generations of audiences are enthralled by Toy’s energetic performances and sheer talent. Over eighty-five years have passed since her first film in 1934 and Toy refuses to be invisible. As Asian American dancers find more success in the mainstream media, we honor Dorothy Toy Fong as a legendary Nisei dancer who set the stage for many to follow in her prolific footsteps.

Authored by Mana Hayakawa

For More Information

Dong, Arthur. Forbidden City U.S.A. Chinese American Nightclubs, 1936-1970. Los Angeles, Deep Focus Production, 2014.

Forbidden City, U.S.A. DVD. Directed by Arthur Dong. 1989. Harriman, N.Y.: DeepFocus Productions, 2002.

Hayakawa, Mana. "Stepping Onstage and Breaking Ground: Asian American Dancers Complicate Race and Gender Stereotypes, 1930s -1960s." In Our Voices, Our Histories: Asian American and Pacific Islander Women . Eds. Shirley Hune and Gail M. Nomura. New York: New York University Press, 2020. 106-22.

Quan, Rick. Dancing through Life: The Dorothy Toy Story . San Francisco, Rick Quan Productions, 2017.

Rusty, Frank E. Tap!: The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and their Stories, 1900-1955 . Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1994.


  1. Research funding to conduct an interview with Dorothy Toy Fong was provided by the University of California, Los Angeles's Graduate Summer Research Mentorship Program. Research was conducted under the faculty mentorship of Valerie Matsumoto. Portions of this biography can be found in Mana Hayakawa, "Stepping Onstage and Breaking Ground: Asian American Dancers Complicate Race and Gender Stereotypes, 1930s -1960s" in Our Voices, Our Histories: Asian American and Pacific Islander Women , Eds. Shirley Hune and Gail M. Nomura (New York: New York University Press, 2020), 106-22.
  2. Dorothy Toy performed with her dance partner, Paul Jew, who changed his name to Paul Wing, and they performed as Toy and Wing. She later married Leslie Fong. She is known as Dorothy Toy Fong, nee Takahashi.
  3. Trina Robbins, The Golden Age of Chinese Nightclubs: Forbidden City (New Jersey: Hampton Press, 2010), 66.
  4. For greater analysis and critique of how Asian American performers were dismissed as a novelty see SanSan Kwan, "Performing a Geography of Asian America: The Chop Suey Circuit," The Drama Review 55.1 (Spring 2011): 120–36.
  5. Dorothy Toy Fong in Robbins, The Golden Age , 73.
  6. Dorothy Toy Fong, Interview by Mana Hayakawa, Oakland, August 25, 2012.
  7. Dorothy Toy Fong, Interview by Mana Hayakawa, Oakland, August 25, 2012.
  8. For further discussion on the San Francisco Chinatown nightclubs see Arthur Dong, Forbidden City U.S.A. Chinese American Nightclubs, 1936-1970 (Los Angeles, Deep Focus Production, 2014); Lorraine Dong, "The Forbidden City Legacy and its Chinese American Women" in Chinese America: History and Perspectives, 1992 , edited by Chinese Historical Society of America (Brisbane, California: Fong Brothers Printing, 1992), 125-148; Forbidden City, U.S.A. DVD, directed by Arthur Dong, 1989 (Harriman, N.Y.: DeepFocus Productions, 2002); Gordon H. Chang, "Forbidden Fruits," Amerasia Journal , 17.1 (1991): 181-86; Judy Yung, Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
  9. For further discussion of the irony of the title "America's greatest Chinese dance team," see Kwan, "Performing a Geography of Asian America," and Hayakawa, "Stepping Onstage and Breaking Ground."
  10. Dorothy Toy Fong, Interview by Mana Hayakawa, Oakland, August 25, 2012.

Last updated Jan. 8, 2021, 5:01 p.m..