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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 430-431
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The Chinese Other, 1850-1925:
An Anthology of Plays
Asian American Culture on Stage:
The History of the East West Players
The Chinese Other, 1850-1925: An Anthology. By Dave Williams. Lanham: University Press of America, 1997; pp. 452. $66.00 cloth; $39.50 paper.
Asian American Culture on Stage: The History of the East West Players. By Yuko Kurahashi. New York: Garland, 1999; pp. 200. $62.00.
Dave Williams has rescued from obscurity several plays that testify to the history of the numerous legal, institutional, and social efforts to control Chinese access to the literal and imagined borders of the United States during the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From short amateur vignettes to full-length professional works, each provides insight into the place of the Chinese immigrant in a changing American racial hierarchy and into the uses of the stage as a means of focusing and altering public opinion. Rife with infantile, demonic, and/or exotic characterizations, these plays serve as powerful reminders of how theatre articulates race through the language of distorted physicality (in stereotypes such as Bret Harte and Mark Twain's Ah Sin, popular for his "grotesque gestures of roguish delight") (31) or through spectacular Oriental fantasies (as embodied in the "splendid Chinese tent" of the Ravel family's pantomime Kim--Ka! or the Misfortunes of Ventilator ) (2).
Worries over the Chinese male immigrant as a threat to white masculine dominance in the labor market and in the home fuel these exaggerated representations. Henry Grimm's The Chinese Must Go (1879) and Joseph Jarrow's The Queen of Chinatown (1899) depict Chinese characters as opium pushers and enslavers of white women, who gleefully foresee an economic takeover: "By and by, no more white workingman in California; all Chinaman--sabee?" (The Chinese Must Go, 99). Those more sympathetic to the Chinese, such as Ambrose Bierce (whose Peaceful Expulsion satirizes the Anti-Coolie clubs and other rabidly anti-Chinese movements) generate more benign stereotypes. Harte and Twain's Ah Sin (1876) is perhaps the most influential of these plays; the mischievous, gibberish-speaking Ah Sin, the comic accessory to the white male romantic lead, served as the model for many other "yellowface" performances.
Perhaps most threatened by the Chinese were male Irish immigrants, who also occupied an uncertain place in the social hierarchy. Numerous works in Williams's collection address this tension, such as George M. Baker's New Brooms Sweep Clean (1871), which features an Irish character impersonating a Chinese cook, who is then chastised by his fellow Irishman: "O Pat, Pat! How could yez? . . . Ye's sowld yer birthright for a mess of broken china" (22). The Irish as well as the Chinese male immigrant was figuratively emasculated by his lack of social power and consignment to lowly domestic labor. But though the Anglo-Saxon racial hierarchy excluded the Irish as "Celts" and as Roman Catholics, the more ready incorporation of the Irish immigrant into the body politic and into "whiteness" contrasts with the continued alienation of the Chinese, as is portrayed in T. S. Denison's 1895 farce Patsy O'Wang. The title character, "born of an Irish father and a Chinese mother," becomes the "true Irishman" when he drinks whiskey but transforms into the Chinese Chin Sum when he drinks tea. Ultimately Chin Sum sees the advantages of remaining as Patsy; outfoxing all efforts to make him drink tea, he declares his intention to go into politics: "Me ambition is to be an alderman and die beloved and respected by all" (147).
Williams includes many such examples; he also illustrates how the depiction of Chinese characters might play in a different key. Dramas set in China, such as George C. Hazelton and Harry J. Benrimo's The Yellow Jacket (1912), Paul Carus's K'ung Fu Tze (1915), Jean H. Brown's The Honorable Mrs. Ling's Conversion (1920), or Clare Kummer's Chinese Love (1922), construct...