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This is a contributing entry for Raids, Riots, and Gay Liberation in San Francisco and only appears as part of that tour.Learn More.

Still in operation today, Li Po was a “discreet” Chinatown gay bar that survived the raids of the World War II era, and often served as a refuge from raids at nearby bars. Beginning around the turn of the century, Chinatown became a key part of the growing tourism industry in San Francisco. As with venues like Finochhio’s, many Chinatown establishments combined a growing America fascination with the "exotic," popularization of female impersonation in bars and nightclubs, and racialized entertainment that flourished in venues like Finocchio’s. The Li Po and other establishments in Chinatown, the Tenderloin, and North Beach became the center of wartime “vice crackdowns” in which many gay bars in the area were raided and temporarily or permanently closed.

Though the preceding years leading up to World War II saw growing anti-homosexual policies in the military, the outset of war and volume of conscription meant that many gay men and lesbians still entered the military. Mobilization set off a massive migration around the country, one that brought queer people into close contact with many others “like them” perhaps for the first time in their lives, especially in urban centers like San Francisco. When gay and lesbian military personnel were able to get off the military bases and go into town, they “discovered and contributed to the rich gay nightlife—parties, bars, and nightclubs—that flourished in the war-boom cities” (Bérubé 5).

The Li Po is an important touchpoint in exploring the birth of queer bars and nightclubs in San Francisco, and the fraught space they occupied (and would continue to occupy) as a relatively essential part of the city’s culture and reputation, but also as vulnerable places to police activity and violence. According to Allan Berubé in his history of gay men and women during World War II, Coming Out Under Fire, military police used congressionally-authorized wartime vice powers to “police cities and shut down businesses if local authorities did not clean up prostitution and other forms of vice,” including open displays of homosexuality and crossdressing (Bérubé 121). MPs followed soldiers and sailors around and reported establishments that then became posted as off limits to GIs.

While in many establishments, gays and lesbians could find themselves in the majority and be relatively open, gay life during the war period often existed just under the surface, with a complex set of codes and language gay servicemen and women, and civilians, used to interact. Those who more visibly and obviously fit gay stereotypes thus often “blew a gay crowd’s cover and became sacpegoats for any trouble with outsiders” (Bérubé 118).

The management of the Li Po thus had to contend with what to do with more openly gay patrons as several nearby bars, including the popular Forbidden City and the Rickshaw were shut down during a crackdown in 1943. Indeed, since the Li Po ownership began to refuse to allow some of the more openly queer, campy, or “swishy girls” in, this may have prevented raids from taking place. This illustrates another key point about queer establishments during the 30s and 40s: those that “ran things straight” and toed the line of being “exotic” enough to be an integral part of San Francisco tourist culture, while yet maintaining a level of discretion to avoid police activity, flourished. In this way, establishments like the Li Po and Finocchio’s had a level of longevity, garnering a clientele that included more tourists and fewer locals.

Bérubé, Allan. Coming Out Under Fire : The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two. University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Boyd, Nan Alamilla. Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. University of California Press, 2003.

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