- Yangmen Nüjiang (Heroines of the Yang Family), Baishe Zhuan (Legend of the White Snake), Bawang Bieji (Farewell My Concubine), Guifei Zuijiu (The Drunken Beauty)
In 1930, Mei Lanfang entered the City of Angels after a long, tumultuous ship ride across the Pacific and was embraced by a wildly enthusiastic crowd. This marked the entrance of the Chinese celebrity whose name was already well known to the international theater community well before he had even set foot on the Los Angles stage. Mei Lanfang's illuminating performance, as well as his encounter with Hollywood luminaries Charlie Chaplin, Anna May Wong, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford would all become a part of Mei's legend to be reminisced and researched long after the iconic actor's return to China.
Almost eighty years later, the same troupe, led by Mei Lanfang's youngest son Mei Baojiu (b. 1934), performed to an enthusiastic audience who flocked to the Kodak Theater in Hollywood to witness the historical return of this legendary troupe to a place where the original legend maker once conquered the stage. The performance marked not just a celebration of the consummate art of jingju (Beijing opera), but also brought out impressive crowds from the ever growing Southern California Chinese community.
Much has changed since Mei Lanfang's visit to Los Angeles in 1930. In 2008, Chinese Americans are no longer powerless individuals without rights to citizenship, nor are they the economically disadvantaged minority group [End Page 352] they once were. Their pronounced visibility and political power in the Los Angeles area today, as seen in the congratulatory remarks placed in the performance program by California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and other elected officials, constitute a far different notion of Chinese Americans than the impoverished and discriminated-against assembly of laborers of the 1930s. Perhaps Rosana Hsu, the president of the California Institute of the Chinese Performing Arts (CICPA) and a sole sponsor of the tour, which rented the Kodak Theater in Hollywood for two nights in a row, best exemplifies this shift in the status of Chinese Americans. As a dedicated patron of traditional Chinese opera, she has spared no resources in introducing these genres to the Chinese American community as well as a certain cross section of the mainstream American public. Born into a wealthy family in China, she was able to enjoy a wide spectrum of the jingju repertoire from an early age in private performances at her house and learn arias from the guest singers. Her passion and taste for the extravagant jingju obviously has lasted a lifetime, culminating in the establishment of CICPA in 1994, which, since its founding, has been inviting numerous opera performers from mainland China to perform in a 275-seat theater in El Monte, California.
It was Hsu's insistence on bringing the Mei Lanfang Troupe as soon as possible to the Los Angeles area that set the performance date in 2008 instead of a few years later. As one anonymous organizer told me, an event of this magnitude, with over fifty performers, thirteen orchestra members, and numerous other crew and technical staff, and with sets and costumes for six different plays, often takes several years to organize and publicize. But with blinding persistence, Hsu has made it possible for fortunate Southern California audience members to bear witness to the historic return of the star-studded troupe, which has not performed in the United States since Mei Lanfang's appearance in 1930. The seats in the Kodak Theatre were filled mostly by Chinese Americans for the two-night extravaganza, but also attending were a few non-Chinese, such as academics like myself and other curious spectators.
On the opening night (10 October) at the reception before the performance Mei Baojiu appeared to the excited crowd. Bearing a striking resemblance to his much photographed father (see Kim 2006: 37-53 for a brief overview of how Mei Lanfang has...