The burlesque dancer Coby Yee began her stage career in San Francisco, in the nineteen-forties. She rose to popular acclaim at night clubs like the Chinese-themed cabaret Forbidden City, which was staffed and run entirely by Asian-Americans—and which Yee herself, along with her family, later bought and operated. Even as, in the late sixties, burlesque began to be crowded out by the arrival of San Francisco’s full-nudity strip clubs, Yee continued to dance. (Forbidden City closed in 1970.) Although, practically speaking, Yee’s stage shrunk, she herself didn’t lose the glamour and pizzazz that had made her a renowned night-club entertainer, nor her desire to dance and perform. In the early two-thousands, at a dancing night for seniors held at a San Francisco pizza restaurant, Yee, by then in her early seventies, met Stephen King. A gangly, courtly man nearly twenty years her junior, King had been an aspiring experimental filmmaker and a holdover from the city’s countercultural, antiwar movement. “It was so natural, despite our huge differences,” King says, in the documentary presented above. “As soon as we started dancing, it’s all we needed to do, you know? To be close, to fall in love, even to make a life together.”
In “Coby and Stephen Are in Love,” the co-directors, Carlo Nasisse and Luka Yuanyuan Yang, movingly recount the story of this unlikely pair. Separated by age, cultural milieu, and temperament—he romantic and unconventional, she no-nonsense and more focussed—King and Yee nonetheless forged a lasting bond, on the dance floor and off. Yang, who is based in Beijing, first met Yee in 2018, when Yang began shooting “Women’s World,” a feature-length documentary about a group of elderly Chinese women who had worked as burlesque dancers in San Francisco in the nineteen-forties and fifties, during the so-called Golden Age of the city’s Chinatown. (Currently in post-production, the film is set to be released in 2022.) At the time of their meeting, Yee was ninety-one. “I was immediately like, ‘Oh, my God, this woman is just amazing!,’ ” Yang told me, when I recently spoke with her and Nasisse over Zoom. Nasisse, who is based in the States, joined the project after meeting and befriending Yang at a UnionDocs workshop. Nasisse, Yang, and the subjects of her feature, including Yee, travelled to Havana for a shoot. “When we went to Cuba, Coby and Stephen wanted to go out dancing every night,” Nasisse told me. “So we’d go out and drink Coke and rum and try to find places for them to dance. We all became very close very quickly. Coby and Stephen are both artists in a very fundamental way, and that sensibility made sense to me and Luka.”
On returning to the States, Yang and Nasisse decided to collaborate on a short that would document Yee and King’s relationship, as well as their sense of life lived as art. The camera captures Yee as she works tirelessly at her sewing machine, constructing intricate ensembles for the two of them, and documents King’s art works, for which he cuts out silhouettes of Yee in her Forbidden City glory days, pasting them in a variety of baroque, sometimes fantastic assemblages. The co-directors shot the film quickly, in just a few weeks, following the two dancers to Las Vegas—where they receive a standing ovation while performing at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, dressed in matching spangly outfits sewn by Yee—and to their modest home in San Pablo, north of San Francisco, where every surface is crowded with pictures and mementos, a maximalist mosaic of their preoccupations and obsessions. We see Yee thumbing through scrapbooks of old advertisements, in which her alluring, elaborately adorned figure is accompanied by exoticizing, orientalist epithets: “The Dragon Lady,” “China’s Most Daring Dancing Doll.” The scene calls into question how glorious those glory days really were, and serves as a reminder of the anti-Asian racism that, far from disappearing, has actually been on the rise in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, specifically in the Bay Area, where Asian-American seniors have recently been attacked. (“These are things I like to forget,” Yee says dryly, and closes the scrapbook.)
As Yee and King twirl and sway, walk down the streets of San Francisco, or simply sit at home, talking, King’s soft eyes never stray far from his partner. “I guess we’ve done a pretty good job of living our lives and going with what passion we had,” he says. “We’re totally different people, and yet when you put us together we’re a good combination.” A bit later, in an especially touching moment, a teary King thanks Yang and Nasisse for making the movie. “People . . . want to be remembered. They want to have their lives mean something. . . . We’ll be gone when the film still goes on. And that’s very much you two,” he says, his gaze moving from Yee to the filmmakers. “I did a very bad job filming this scene, because I was so moved,” Nasisse told me. “Making the movie was a beautifully collaborative experience between the four of us.” Yang agreed: “It was like dancing,” she said. In August of 2020, Yee died, at ninety-three. “Coby and Stephen Are in Love” is dedicated to her memory.