Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s-1920s
Krystyn R. Moon's compact study, Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s–1920s, is a recent addition to an expanding body of work that examines the emergence, popularization, and lamentable persistence of Asian stereotypes in American performing and literary arts. In this reworking of her doctoral thesis in history from Johns Hopkins University, Moon follows the leads of Elaine Kim's groundbreaking Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings in Their Social Context (1984), James Moy's Marginal Sights: Staging the Chinese in America (1994), Josephine Lee's Performing [End Page 217] Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage (1998), Dave Williams' Misreading the Chinese Character: Images of the Chinese in Euroamerican Drama to 1925 (2000), Robert G. Lee's Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (2000), and John Kuo Wei Tchen's New York Before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776–1882 (2001), to cite a number of worthy precedents.
America's film industry popularized images of Chinese arch-villains, Confucius-quoting nebbishes, dagger-nailed "Dragon Ladies," and sexually available "Lotus Blossoms." Such troubling images have even appeared in contemporary rap music—Bloodhound Gang's odious Yellow Fever (2000) is a case in point. As Moy and Tchen demonstrated, these images did not spontaneously appear with moving pictures in the early twentieth century, but descended from images deeply rooted in American popular culture. Moon sets the record straight by identifying the roles American theatre artists and musicians played in creating what would become enduring, ugly images of Chinese.
Yellowface is divided into six chronologically organized chapters in which Moon investigates the initial stirrings, consolidation, and popularization of images of Chinese people. She starts with fundamental assumptions held by Western Europeans during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example, that "nasal, guttural, groaning and hideous" Chinese singing was akin to the "caterwauling [of a] tom cat" (p. 13) (a popularly accepted attitude held by no less an authority than the French composer Hector Berlioz [p. 64]). Moon travels through nineteenth-century sheet music, stage spectacles, and minstrelsy to twentieth-century Tin Pan Alley and ultimately the Broadway musical to demonstrate the how performances of Chinese roles were eventually assumed by the theatre-going public to be of "real" and therefore "true" Chinese characters.
Concomitant with the nearly universal Western distaste for legitimate Chinese music was the establishment of Chinese as mysterious, exotic, and "othered" in American "oriental" extravaganzas. Revived repeatedly throughout the nineteenth century wherever theatre companies and circuses toured, such images of the Chinese were reinforced to the delight and wonder of thousands of Caucasian Americans. Marketing Chinese exoticism was a cash cow for the producers, writers, and performers who promoted these shows. Though the Chinese were initially an object of fascination, the anti-Chinese anxiety that swept the United States in the aftermath of the Gold Rush caused a shift. Now performing artists propagandizing the Chinese portrayed them not as desirable exotics but as fundamentally and unconditionally inassimilable aliens. Songwriters, minstrel performers, and vaudevillians spoke pidgin English and feminized Asian males to highlight the inability of Chinese to become "real Americans." The work of Bret Harte, Harrigan and Hart, and C.T.Parsloe is already known to students of this period, and Moon introduces to the reader an expanded cast of artists who made careers of "yellowface": John "Chinee" Leach, Ackland Von Boyle, and a whole raft of minstrel performers. Indeed, Moon's discussion of the marginalization of Chinese by [End Page 218] other immigrant populations, especially the Irish and African Americans—who portrayed Chinese stereotypes in order to identify themselves as "more" American than the Asian immigrants—is an insightful consideration of themes of shifting racial and ethnic loyalties.
Two chapters devoted to Chinese immigrant performers and Chinese American vaudevillians represent Moon at her strongest. Here she describes the earliest Asian and Asian American performers, pioneers forced to perform "yellowface-style" (and, in some cases, to don yellowface makeup) onstage or be confined to performing only at Asian traditional festivals. In recounting the stories of a generation of courageous Asian American performers who, despite the odds, set out to prove that they could sing, tell jokes, and hoof it with the best of black and white thespians, the reader meets Lee Tung Foo, Rose Eleanor Jue, the Chung Hwa Comedy Four, and Yen and Chan. Though these are not the familiar names of film stars Anna May Wong, who found favor with American audiences as the "dragon lady," and Sessue Hayakawa, who portrayed conniving males, their stories make for some of the most exciting writing in the book. Moon has done well to recognize these performers whose careers suffered unfairly for no other reason than that they were of Asian descent.
Transforming one's doctoral thesis into a published scholarly work is a widely practiced academic endeavor, but it is here that Yellowface falls short. As regards style and organization, the book adheres to a graduate school format wherein each chapter is divided into a number of subsections. At the end of each, as well as at the end of each chapter, Moon reiterates, in condensed form but very often verbatim, the contents of the preceding section, in order to remind the reader that she is coming to the end of a unit. Readers who simply want a general sense of what happened can cut to the chase by limiting their reading to these plentiful reiterated paragraphs. And though students falling behind in assigned readings might consider this a boon, serious scholars will find the constant repetition dull.
Moon fails to overcome the challenge of writing outside her academic area. When discussing historical events and personages and identifying cross-cultural and intercultural influences, Moon is in her element. She is on far more shaky ground, however, when she must address specifically theatrical or musical concepts. Her discussion of theatrical realism derives from, according to her own endnotes, the most introductory texts available, and in her discussions of music, she resorts to ineffective generalizations and wholesale reproductions of sheet music in the text. Even a reader who can read music will get lost in the sheet music without some magnified inserts to call attention to the specific measures and notes to which Moon refers. Rendering discursively that which is intended to be interpreted aurally is no mean feat. Still, for a discussion to be useful to musicians and nonmusicians alike, short of including a CD with the text, some visual mode of rendering information must be found. (Readers would do well to consult musicologist's Charles Hiroshi Garrett's outstanding article "Chinatown, Whose Chinatown? Defining America's Borders with Musical Orientalism" in Journal of American Musicological Society [End Page 219] 57: 1 (2004): 119–173, a must read for anyone interested in the "musical vocabulary of race," as Moon terms it.)
The book concludes with two appendices: one listing American pop tunes circa 1800–1929 that feature Chinese references and one listing musical revues and plays with Chinese themes. Unfortunately, the first is listed chronologically, and the second is listed alphabetically, which makes comparison difficult, and the second omits a notable number of relevant scripts.
Despite its shortcomings Yellowface is a useful and accessible study for students and teachers, and at $23.95 a reasonable buy. Musicologists and theatre historians will also find Yellowface to be an interesting incentive to investigate further an area of American performance history that continues to affect popular stereotypes of the Chinese in the United States.