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Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s-1920s

Krystyn R. Moon

Publication Year: 2004

Music and performance provide a unique window into the ways that cultural information is circulated and perceptions are constructed. Because they both require listening, are inherently ephemeral, and most often involve collaboration between disparate groups, they inform cultural perceptions differently from literary or visual art forms, which tend to be more tangible and stable.

In Yellowface, Krystyn R. Moon explores the contributions of writers, performers, producers, and consumers in order to demonstrate how popular music and performance has played an important role in constructing Chinese and Chinese American stereotypes. The book brings to life the rich musical period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this time, Chinese and Chinese American musicians and performers appeared in a variety of venues, including museums, community theaters, and world’s fairs, where they displayed their cultural heritage and contested anti-Chinese attitudes. A smaller number crossed over into vaudeville and performed non-Chinese materials. Moon shows how these performers carefully navigated between racist attitudes and their own artistic desires.

While many scholars have studied both African American music and blackface minstrelsy, little attention has been given to Chinese and Chinese American music. This book provides a rare look at the way that immigrants actively participated in the creation, circulation, and, at times, subversion of Chinese stereotypes through their musical and performance work.


Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi

Several people have made this project possible and deserve recognition. My husband, Howard, and our families have always been unyielding in their love and support throughout my education and career. Ronald G. Walters, my adviser, and several faculty...

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pp. 1-9

The synchronized plate throwing of the Wesselys, a troupe of five jugglers, received an enormous round of applause as they bowed and walked off the stage. With the stage completely empty, Lee Tung Foo, arguably the first Chinese American in vaudeville, stepped out and positioned himself in front of the primarily white...

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Chapter 1: Imagining China: Early Nineteenth-Century Writings and Musical Productions

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pp. 10-29

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Americans and Europeans struggled with how to understand Chinese music and how to portray the Chinese in their own traditions. The majority of Western visitors to China drew on a long and relatively...

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Chapter 2: Toward Exclusion: American Popular Songs on Chinese Immigration, 1850–1882

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pp. 30-56

The discovery of gold in 1849 sparked a tremendous worldwide wave of migration to California that included numerous songwriters and performers. Some came as part of the Gold Rush but found music to be more profitable than mining. Others saw an opportunity among the mining camps and growing cities and came...

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Chapter 3: Chinese and Chinese Immigrant Performers on the American Stage, 1830s–1920s

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pp. 57-85

Although pushed to the margins of the music and theater industries, Chinese and Chinese immigrant performers were present on the American stage throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. American entrepreneurs who hoped to find commercially lucrative novelty acts introduced Chinese performers as...

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Chapter 4: The Sounds of Chinese Otherness and American Popular Music, 1880s–1920s

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pp. 86-111

By the 1880s, with the number of opportunities for Americans to hear Chinese music, American songwriters began to incorporate Chinese-inspired sounds into their music. To some extent this development was a continuation of the racist discourse that saw the Chinese as foreign and inferior, with the American composer...

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Chapter 5: From Aversion to Fascination: New Lyrics and Voices, 1880s–1920s

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pp. 112-142

At the end of the nineteenth century, the musical expression of American popular music changed in ways other than notation and instrumentation. By the mid-1880s, lyricists and performers had begun to produce an assortment of songs, skits, and...

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Chapter 6: The Rise of Chinese and Chinese American Vaudevillians, 1900s–1920s

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pp. 143-162

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Chinese and Chinese American performers began to appear in vaudeville throughout the United States, moving beyond community theater houses, world expositions, and human displays. Many of these vaudevillians avoided magic and acrobatics, which white audiences...

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pp. 163-168

In 1990, the news that Cameron Macintosh’s London hit, Miss Saigon, was coming to the United States was received with both great enthusiasm and sharp criticism from Asian Americans and the theatrical community. Miss Saigon, an updated...

Appendix A. American Popular Songs with Chinese Subjects or Themes

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pp. 169-179

Appendix B. Musicals, Revues, and Plays Produced in the United States with Chinese Songs, Scenes, or Characters

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pp. 180-182


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pp. 183-210


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pp. 211-220

About the Author

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pp. 221

E-ISBN-13: 9780813541228
E-ISBN-10: 0813541220
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813535067

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2004