Leslie Zemeckis

A Showgirl You Should Know: Noel Toy

A Showgirl You Should Know: Noel Toy

Noel Toy the “Chinese Sally Rand”

She was unfairly called the “Chinese Sally Rand.” She was much more than an imitation fan dancer.

Born Ngun Yee in 1918 in San Francisco to Chinese parents who emigrated from Canton, Ngun Yee was one of more than a half a dozen siblings.

As a young student at UC Berkeley (where ironically another fan dancer, Faith Bacon’s great grandfather was a founder and even had a library named after him) the pretty teen was studying journalism when, needing money, she leaped at an offer of employment at Treasure Island during the 1939 World’s Fair.

Sally Rand, already famous for her fan dance, first presented at the Chicago 1933 World’s Fair, was herself performing at Treasure Island.

It was claimed, either the young journalism student did little besides wear a traditional Chinese dress and greet people, or she posed in the nude depending on which story you believed.

Compared to school this was exciting and Ngun Yee soon ditched college for a life in front of fans (soon to be a life behind a different kind of fan).

Business man Charlie Low offered the gorgeous girl a job at Forbidden City, just one block outside of San Francisco’s Chinatown, located on Sutter Street it was the only Chinese club in the country. Though billed as having all Chinese performers (it wasn’t really, there were Japanese, Korean and Filipino performers) the audience was a mix of white and Asian. The first of its kind. Ngun Yee chose the stage name of Noel Toy, at least in part because she claimed to love Christmas. No doubt also to save her family from any embarrassment.

Because of Toy and her ethereal beauty Lowe’s business boomed. Because of Sally Rand’s fame, Lowe billed Noel as the “Chinese Sally Rand.” At the time Sally’s “Nude Ranch” was drawing thousands to Treasure Island. Cowgirls were posing in the nude, wearing holsters and bandanas. On stage Toy danced with a giant opaque balloon, as Sally sometimes did. Soon Toy took up a pair of giant ostrich fans and flew her way to even higher accolades.

Noel, like many performers, would later tell different versions of the reaction to her unusual career by her family. In one version she claimed her mother had a fit when she learned Noel was working in a club. Noel had kept her employment from her mother, but eventually her mother saw her picture in the paper and got over the shock. Whatever the truth, Noel’s mother did come to accept her daughter’s new career, a mostly naked one, waiving giant fans for packed houses earning her nationwide acclaim and putting Forbidden City on the map. She was only 5 feet (like Sally Rand) but packed a powerful punch. She did much to change the stereotype about the perception of docile, retiring Chinese women.

Toy would go onto other clubs including the Stork Club, the Latin Quarter (for Barbara Walter’s father Lou), Leon & Eddies in New York where she stayed an astounding, record-smashing 26 weeks.

It was at the Latin Quarter in 1945 where she met a young soldier, Capt. Carleton Young. He fell hard. The two married December 19, 1945.

Though Carleton fell in love with her when she was on stage, he soon asked her to give up performing that kind of work. She did and found work in movies opposite Clark Gable, Gene Tierney, Humphrey Bogart and Betty Grable.

An outspoken advocate for Chinese women, Noel did not like the types of roles Hollywood forced on her and largely gave it up for a career in real estate, sometimes appearing on television.

This woman who loved the Christmas season so much died on Christmas Eve in 2003. She was 84.

Noel’s 5 Spice Cocktail (specially made by Chef David Verzello in celebration of the showgirls featured Feuding Fan Dancers)

Noel’s 5 Spice Cocktail
Recipe for Noel’s 5 Spice Cocktail — specially created by Chef David Verzello

Ingredients Include:

2 oz. Chinese 5 Spice rum*

Ginger Beer


Mint leaves for garnish

Whole Star Anise — Dried.

What to do:

Pour the 2 oz. of spiced rum into a tall glass filled with ice. Fill to the top with the ginger beer squeeze a lemon wedge into the cocktail. Garnish with the mint and Star Anise.

*To make the Chinese 5 Spice Rum. Pour 1 cup of dark rum into a mason jar. Take ½ teaspoon of Chinese 5 spice powder and add to the rum. Place the lid on the jar and shake vigorously. Let set for 2–24 hours.

Zemeckis current book, Feuding Fan Dancers will be published October 2nd, 2018 about Sally Rand, Faith Bacon and the golden age of the showgirl. @Lesliezemeckis, www.lesliezemeckis.com Follow Leslie Zemeckis on IG and Twitter.