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Arts + CultureCulture'Never too late': Grannies of Grant Avenue Follies dance...

‘Never too late’: Grannies of Grant Avenue Follies dance onto the airwaves

PBS highlights the Chinatown-based cabaret troupe of 11 spirited grandmothers keeping local history alive.

Gangway for granny glamor: The Grant Avenue Follies, a Chinatown-based cabaret troupe comprised of 11 spirited Asian American grandmothers, will be featured in the first episode of a new PBS series, The Express Way with Dule´Hill. Actor Hill is perhaps best known for his roles in The West Wing and The Wonder Years. In his new four-part series airing April 23—May 14, Hill explores how a variety of artists in different parts of the country use their creativity for expression and positive change. 

It’s not surprising that in California, his quest for inspiring, creative seniors led him to the Follies. Ranging in age from 67 to 88, the group led by Cynthia Yee stays busy performing at various organizations and events throughout the Bay Area. They also take their act on the road and have entertained folks in cities such as Houston, Las Vegas, Honolulu and Seattle. Outside of the US, they’ve performed in Cuba and China. 

When 48 Hills asked Yee—known as The Empress by her friends—what she hopes viewers will take away from their segment of The Expressway, she didn’t hesitate to respond: “I want them to know it’s never too late to start anything. Eighty percent of our dancers were at least 70 when they started.”

The multi-talented Cynthia Yee doing some magic tricks during a Follies show. Photo by Dorothy Odonnell

Yee, who grew up in Chinatown, was also eager to support and show off her beloved community. It was important to her that The Expressway capture the Follies outside among the fluttering red lanterns, vintage buildings, and mysterious alleyways that make Chinatown so magical. Director Danny Lee achieves this beautifully. Yee noted that working with him and the down-to-earth Hill was a pleasure. 

The youthful 78-year-old got her start as a dancer when she was a child. Back then, she lived in the same apartment building as tap-dancing phenom Dorothy Toy, who dazzled audiences at Chinatown’s famed Forbidden City nightclub with her partner, Paul Wing.  

“I used to see Dorothy walking around the lobby with her toe shoes and this wonderful vanity case,” Yee shared. “It was so glamorous. I knew I wanted to be a dancer.”

She told her mother about her desire. Her mother then talked to Toy, who convinced her to let Yee take ballet lessons. Getting to them required Yee to leave Chinatown and travel solo by bus to her instructor’s studio on Franklin and Sacramento, a pretty big deal for a 10-year-old girl in the ’50s. Yee went on to dance at Forbidden City and spent a decade touring the US and Canada in a yellow Checker Cab stretch limo as part of Toy’s traveling burlesque group, an experience she relished.

Yee and crew honor 98-year-old Penny Wong, the first Miss Chinatown, during a special cabaret show last year. Photo by Dorothy O’Donnell

She formed the Follies in 2003. At the time, she was president of the Chinese Hospital Auxiliary. Asked to come up with entertainment for one of the hospital’s fundraisers, she wanted to do something more exciting than the snore-inducing fare such events are often known for. She figured a cabaret number might spice up the evening’s festivities. So she recruited three friends who’d also danced at Forbidden City—they included Pat Chin, the only other original Folly and the group’s oldest member— and put a routine together.

“We came out with feathers, fishnet stockings and tap shoes, and we did our number,” Yee recalled.  “Everybody dropped their chopsticks. They were like ‘What’s going on? Who are these ladies?’”

After bringing down the house at the fundraiser, the Follies were soon in demand to perform at other events. Yee began recruiting more women to join the group. Some were friends, others were in her tap-dancing class.

“I’d get whoever I could grab off the street,” she joked.

In 2021, the Follies gained national recognition when they released their first music video—”The Gai Mou Sou (chicken feather duster) Rap.” Yee and fellow Folly Clara Hsu, executive director of Clarion Performing Arts Center, cooked up the idea for the rap over dinner one night while preparing to participate in a protest against anti-Asian hate crimes, especially those targeting seniors. Hsu, a poet and playwright, went home and wrote lyrics for the rap and shared them with Yee. 

“I thought they were great,” Yee said. “We didn’t want to just show up at the protest with signs that said, ‘don’t hit grandma.’ We wanted to create a number, and we wanted it to be entertaining.” 

They succeeded. The rap was a hit, especially after the Follies raised money to produce a professional video of it that quickly went viral. They dropped a second video, “Glammas Wrap,” a playful tribute to their special sisterhood and shared love of fashion, dance, fun, and adventure in 2022. (Hsu again wrote the lyrics.) And last year, they partnered with AARP and Los Angeles-based rapper Jason Chu to create “That Lunar Cheer.” Chu wrote the funky lyrics and also performed alongside the women in the video.

Yee hopes the Follies’ future includes more music videos. In the meantime, they’re excited to gather at the Clarion with friends and family to watch The Expressway on Tuesday. And in June, they’re flying to Vegas to be honored as living legends at the Burlesque Hall of Fame.   

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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