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Madera and the ‘Forbidden City’

June 15, 2019

Madera County Historical Society

Young Ah Mooey (Leong Ah Len) is shown here in this government affidavit showing that she was born in Borden. She later married and became the mother of Dorthy Sun, who became a famous dancer at the San Francisco nightclub, “The Forbidden City.”

During the 1930s and 1940s, Charlie Low’s Forbidden City was in its heyday. Chinese American entertainers who performed at the San Francisco nightclub packed the house and drew such notables as Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman. One of the most popular dancers at the Forbidden City was a woman named Dorothy Sun who gave up fame and fortune to join the USO and entertain the troops during World War II. I remember Dorothy Sun and was saddened when I learned of her passing a few years ago. She was a great lady.

 

My introduction to Dorothy came in a rather roundabout way. In the late 1980s, while doing research into Madera’s past, I came across an unusual article in an old issue of the Madera Mercury. It told a tale of such intrigue that I never forgot any of the salacious details. 

 

It seems that in the summer of 1906, there lived in Madera’s Chinatown one Lum Hing who was better known as “Shorty the Slop Man.” Shorty earned his living by gathering swill from the alleys of Madera and feeding it to his hogs, making a respectable profit from his pork in the process. 

 

Also living in Madera’s Chinatown was the Widow Chung. In 1902, her husband, Yee Chung had died, leaving her with seven children to raise. Shorty, being an old friend of the late Mr. Chung’s, began calling on his family, ostensibly to see that they were not living in want of the necessities of life. Herein lay the genesis of Shorty’s problem. 

 

No resident of Madera’s Chinatown could fail to take note of the beautiful Ah Mooey (Leong Ah Len), 12 year-old daughter of the Widow Chung. In time Shorty struck a deal whereby the “slop man” would furnish food and money to the Chung family in return for the hand of Ah Mooey, when she reached a marriageable age. By 1906, Shorty decided the time had come for him to claim his bride. Unfortunately for the hog man, the Widow Chung had been negotiating behind his back with someone else. 

 

Up in the gold mining town of Coulterville lived 31 year-old Sun Kow, owner of the Sun, Sun, Woo merchandise store. Sun Kow was well known in Madera as a “rich Coulterville merchant” who also had cast covetous eyes in Ah Mooey’s direction. While Shorty was preparing to call on the Widow Chung to make the necessary arrangements for his marriage to her daughter, Sun Kow paid a visit to the Chung home and outbid Shorty by 300 dollars. In December of 1906, an angry Shorty was left holding the bag, while Ah Mooey left Madera with Sun Kow. The next day they were married in Coulterville. 

 

While they were living in Coulterville, Sun Kow and Ah Mooey had four children. The youngest of these was Dorothy Sun, who would dance her way into the hearts of thousands and onto the pages of Life Magazine in 1940. 

 

In 1920, Sun Kow moved his wife and children to Isleton where he opened a restaurant. Dorothy attended school there and in Rio Vista. Both Sun Kow and Ah Mooey died in 1935, and Dorothy finished her education in San Francisco. It was during this time that she began her life in entertainment, but World War II came along, and she gave up the spotlight to help in the war effort. From the Forbidden City, Dorothy went to Hawaii with the U.S.O. That’s where she met and married John Murray. 

 

On August 11, 2007 Dorothy Sun Murray died in Sacramento, and with her went a piece of Madera history. Her maternal grandfather, Yee Chung, had been the most prominent member of Madera’s Chinese community. After his death in 1902, Dorothy’s grandmother, Mrs. Yee Chung held the family together in Madera. Dorothy’s mother, Ah Mooey, was an alumnus of Alpha School and a familiar sight around town before she was taken to Coulterville by Sun Kow. From stories told to her by her grandmother and her parents, Dorothy Sun Murray was a vast storehouse of knowledge about life in pioneer Madera. I know; I took good notes when I visited her in her Sacramento home. 

 

It was such an enriching experience to know Dorothy and her family, and as historian, it was especially meaningful to meet the past on its own terms. 

 

I am grateful that the events of 1906 turned out like they did. If Shorty had won out in the race for Ah Mooey’s hand in marriage, we would never have had Dorothy Sun Murray, Madera’s unique contribution to the past.

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