- Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850–1920s, and: Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945–1961
In the last ten years or so, humanities scholars across a range of fields have embraced the transnational turn in their work, emphasizing the manner in which cultural production transcends the national borders artificially imposed by academic specialization. Cultural forms, in this thinking, are created through dynamic processes of change informed by interactions both material and imaginative that explicitly acknowledge and refer to other nations, cultures, and peoples in order to define themselves. These two recent books, which should be of enormous interest to Americanist theatre scholars, embrace this turn in different ways.
Krystyn Moon's Yellowface examines depictions of Chinese and Chinese Americans across a variety of popular musical and theatrical conventions. Providing a treasure trove of archival material (from sheet music to lyrics to production images) of performances largely ignored by contemporary scholars but popular in their own time, Moon carefully dissects the primary tropes through which notions of Chineseness were constructed on a wide scale. Including performances by Chinese nationals on tour in the US as well as white American depictions, she organizes her material chronologically, largely by reference to US-China immigration policy. Beginning with the initial wave of Chinese immigration in the wake of the Opium Wars in the 1850s to the period of wholesale Asian exclusion beginning in the 1920s, Moon charts in separate chapters the alterations in ways Americans thought about China and the Chinese, and how the formal structures of music and drama shifted to accommodate those changes. She gives us a background in pre-immigration depictions, moves to an analysis of popular songs in the period leading up to the first exclusionary laws (1882), a history of Chinese and immigrant performers up to the 1920s, the creation of Chinese vaudeville in the early twentieth century, and shifts in musical depictions from the 1880s to the 1920s. In other words, Moon achieves the tricky balance between external depictions of Chineseness within dominant US culture and documenting the lives of performers who lived within those depictions on- and offstage.
The sheer amount of material Moon collects and analyzes here is impressive; her volume is valuable if for no other reason than that she treats material only lightly examined (if at all) in the current scholarship on representation of Chinese in America. She tops off the extensive data she discusses in the chapters with two appendices that list all the songs and musicals that include representations of China or the Chinese from the period her book covers, which should prove invaluable to the next generation of scholars wanting to analyze this period. However, I found myself wishing for both a richer account of the larger political and cultural world in which her material circulated, and a more creatively theorized analysis of the relationship between the two. Moon's analysis tends to be a bit redundant. She argues that the majority of these depictions are racist and anti-Chinese, that they are imbued with both repulsion and fascination, or that they reinforce those sentiments. All of these are undeniable claims. However, I found myself wishing that Moon had engaged more aggressively with the ever-proliferating scholarship on racial representation generally (her endnotes suggest that [End Page 529] she has read it), and on racial impersonation in particular. This work has grappled with the impact that racial representation makes on how Americans conceive of themselves in terms of both their individual and their national identities; I found myself slightly frustrated that Moon consistently misses the opportunity to activate the relationship between entertainment and larger, supposedly weightier, political dynamics more forcefully. She does argue that this material constructed the Chinese as inherently non-American, as inassimilable into US national life, and possibly even...