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Journal of Asian American Studies 8.1 (2005) 23-48

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Lee Tung Foo and the Making of a Chinese American Vaudevillian, 1900s–1920s

On January 7, 1897, Margaret Blake Alverson wrote in her journal, "Tried Frank Lees voice."1 This particular entry marked the beginning of a thirty-year relationship between Alverson and Frank Lee, better known as Lee Tung Foo—the first Chinese American vaudevillian. Alverson, whose family had migrated to California with the Gold Rush, was a well-known voice teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area by the turn of the century. In her memoir, Sixty Years of California Song, she boasted that she had performed in concert halls and churches throughout California and Massachusetts, and had worked with more than 1,000 vocal students over a forty-year period. Throughout her long career, Alverson considered Lee one of her "greatest achievements in the art of voice culture."2 Lee's development as a singer, however, was important to Alverson not only because of his ability and success, but also because of her perceptions of Chinese Americans and their musical ability. Lee and Alverson's interactions provide insight into the difficulties of a pioneering Chinese American, who struggled to find success on the stage in an era noted for its hostility towards Chinese immigrants and their offspring. More interestingly, it sheds light on the dynamics of race in the early twentieth century and reveals a relationship that broke racial barriers but never transcended their limitations.

The appearance of Chinese American vaudevillians such as Lee Tung Foo at the beginning of the twentieth century marked an important shift [End Page 23] in the portrayal of race and music on the popular stage.3 Previously, Chinese actors were found primarily in community theater houses, world expositions, human displays, and acrobatic troupes, where they helped immigrants maintain connections with their heritage or fulfilled European American curiosity as displays of a foreign culture.4 Emerging in the 1880s as a more refined version of variety, vaudeville thrived by offering a number of different "clean" acts (which meant avoiding profanity, lewd gestures, and references to religion) in an evening's program. For the period, it was unusually democratic and opened up opportunities for the children of many immigrants—most notably Al Jolson—who wanted to break out of the narrow musical and theatrical opportunities of their immigrant communities and participate in more mainstream venues.5 Novelty was also key to bringing in audiences, and stage managers and agents were looking constantly for who would be the next, big sensation.

The sight of someone of Chinese descent singing an American popular song was something new and exciting for European American audiences at the beginning of the twentieth century. This may seem strange to us today with the success of so many Asian and Asian American musicians—Yo-Yo Ma, the Ahn Trio, and Jon Jang to name a few—but such was not the case when Lee first appeared in vaudeville. Since the late eighteenth century, Europeans and, later, European Americans had tried to discover why there was such great variation in the musical practices of the world. These writers, however, did not support the idea that there existed a variety of sophisticated musical traditions based on different sets of principles; instead, they created a musical hierarchy that coincided with pre-existing racial taxonomies and helped to build a more totalizing image of European cultural supremacy. Influenced by popular and scientific racism, most European Americans (including Alverson) extended this belief to music comprehension, which led to doubts about the ability of men and women of Chinese descent to participate in the Western performing arts tradition.6 For Lee Tung Foo and other Chinese Americans, however, the emphasis on novelty in vaudeville was an opportunity to fulfill their artistic desires, as well as potentially to challenge racist attitudes at the turn of the century.

European American audiences also expected Chinese Americans on the stage to reaffirm the caricatures that they previously had seen produced...


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