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(Re)cycling Culture: Chinese Opera in the United States Cecilia J. Pang For over two hundred years, Chinese opera has been the essential and supreme expression ofChinese culture.Audiences all over the world have enjoyed its lavish concoction of colorful costumes, painterly visages , melodious music, and titillating acrobatics.Yet in the face of such worldwide appreciation and reception, it is losing its audience at home, particularly among the young. The influx of popular culture from McDonald's to Madonna has changed the attitudes and tastes of a new generation, who now consider Chinese opera to be too slow and out of touch with reality when compared with the dazzling products ofWestern film and television. The Chinese government has tried to revitalize the genre by devising creative approaches to audience development—by slashing the length of each production, by adding spiffy special effects, even by subsidizing the cost oftickets.1 Despite these efforts at innovation and reform, however, the Los Angeles Times (23 May 1997) has reportedthat"Ravagedbythe 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution andlargely ignoredbytoday'syouth,Pekingoperais fastdisappearingfromthe stages it once ruled throughout China. Its audience is dropping by as much as 5% a year by one estimate. Ifthe trend continues, experts fear, one ofthe world's great art forms for two centuries is in danger ofvanishing within a generation."2 In what maybe perceived as a desperate or at least ironic maneuver, in December2002 the Chinese government sent a delegate to New York City to study how Broadway musicals could succeed in attracting such large audiences.3 In view of the Chinese government's interest in American musical theater one might thinkthat Chinese opera would have found a collaborative partner in the Broadway theater community or in the American 361 362Comparative Drama music scene at large,but that is not precisely the case.What is the case is that Chinese opera is slowlygaininginterest andbuilding momentum in America despite what some scholars regard as a prohibitively strong racial identity. Nancy Yunhwa Rao claims that the marginalization of Chinese opera in the United States was"framed by ... a pre-constructed concept of Chineseness" deeply ingrained in American culture. But, I would argue that Rao's assumptions about what it is"to be Chinese" and "not American" are no longer true.4 Chinese opera has arrived on the American cultural scene,not through music,as one might have expected, but rather through film and theater. In this study, I examine how Chinese opera in the United States has evolved from a recreational entertainment provided by touring Chinese artists and intended primarily for Chinese immigrants to a vocation engaged in by Chinese-American immigrants and directed more specifically toward a diverse American audience. This development coincides with the sociological evolution of Chinese ethnic/immigrant identity; while the first wave of immigrants often maintained an attachment to the motherland and the second wave tended toward acclimatization and assimilation, the third wave appears to be spawning a new kind of hybridity that combines both the old and the new worlds. Likewise, the germinal Chinese opera artists discussed in this essayhave worked hard to create additional diversity in the mosaic culture of contemporary America with their art form while simultaneously living their own versions of the American dream. There are four major phases in the history of Chinese opera in the United States.The firstwas initiatedbythe arrival ofthe HongTookTong, who, as cultural nurturers,provided entertainment for the Chinese immigrantsfarawayfromhomeinthe 1850s.SecondwasthevisitofMeiLanfang, who acted as a cultural ambassador and introduced Chinese opera to the American audience in the 1930s. Third was the influx of Hong Kong kungfu stars such as Jackie Chan andYuenWo Ping,who penetratedthe American screen in the 1980s and 1990s with their hybrid cultural acts. Last is the rise of the Qi Shu Fang Peking Opera Company, which has been steadily carving a niche and contributing to the diverse culture of America in the twenty-first century. Cecilia J. Pang363 Most discourses on Chinese theater refer specifically to "Peking/ Beijing opera," the premiere national opera form studied in China and in Taiwan.All the books written on this subject also use Peking opera as the reference point, when in actuality there are over one hundred different...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 361-396
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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