- H. T. Tsiang's Proletarian Burlesque:Performance and Perversion in The Hanging on Union Square
Horizontally, in any space,Things must be done.—H. T. Tsiang (Hanging 161)
In January 1941, novelist, poet, performer, and playwright H. T. Tsiang used a roll of toilet paper to write a letter to the well-known and politically progressive artist Rockwell Kent from an Ellis Island deportation cell, where Tsiang was being detained on immigration charges. Tsiang, a Chinese American writer who had achieved some notoriety following his publication of three leftist novels and a volume of poetry, was being held by the US government as Case Number 56019/532, and he was biding his time while the judicial system decided whether he was eligible to stay in the country where he had resided since 1926. Tsiang's detention was hardly unique; the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 had sent many of his fellow immigrants to meet a similar fate. Yet his unorthodox response to his conditions was a predictably bizarre supplement to his offbeat literary career: in spite of his vulnerable circumstances, Tsiang refused to behave as a model US citizen, offering friends and colleagues evidence of neither his respectability nor his decorum. Instead, Tsiang sent Kent's letter on the most vulgar signifier of his conditions imaginable, his small cell transformed into a stage upon which he could perform his radical gesture of refusal. As though to reinforce the intentionality of his scatological performance, Tsiang also included a traditional typewritten transcript of his letter. The enjoyment of low culture was always at the forefront of Tsiang's economy of pleasure.
Tsiang's profane scroll, now collected and microfilmed in the US Archives of American Art, stands as a testament to his transgressive literary performances. His letter recounts the banalities of life at Ellis Island with a sharp sense of humor and quirky eye for irony. "Everything is fine [End Page 87] and gay," he assures Kent on his toilet paper scroll, "but the locked door, guard and uniform." Written in the deceptively simple language Tsiang used with tremendous sensitivity to double meanings, puns, and the hidden logic of words, Tsiang remarks upon how he created a writing table by folding blankets atop his toilet (redoubling his scatological staging); his discomfort having to interact "with all white people"; his infatuation with Kent's eyes ("your eyes as if something carrassing [sic] or some sort—I have no words to express"); and his endless amusement at a photograph Kent sent of himself, in response to which Tsiang tabulated the number of hairs he could count on Kent's "shinely balled" pate: "4+8=11" (Letter, 18 Jan.). Yet language constituted but one aspect of Tsiang's artistic expression, and his correspondence having been written from atop a toilet on such paper was as significant as any of the mundane thoughts he recorded. Throughout Tsiang's career as a writer and actor, his public and private cultural production emphasized performance as much as description, and paratext was always as important as diegesis. In Tsiang's hands, a quotidian form such as a letter could be transformed into a pungent performance of insubordination, just as under his pen a novel could become a dramatic production of proletarian burlesque, a peculiar sexual radicalism that combined a commitment to leftist politics with a perverse celebration of sexual misbehavior's revolutionary potential.
Tsiang's Ellis Island letter encapsulates his penchant for curating performative scenes that were multilayered, obscene, challenging, campy, nasty, and provocative. In this article I study Tsiang's novel The Hanging on Union Square (1935) to consider how he used textual and paratextual performances embodying each of these characteristics to articulate leftist politics in his Depression-era radical fiction while refusing to meet the heteronormative expectations often assigned to proletarian literature. Tsiang strategically deployed an aesthetic and ethics of performance that both queered radicalism and radicalized sexual categories by emphasizing political, literary, and sexual performativity.1 His profound sense of the ironies in American life was uniquely attuned to the difficulties confronting those who wished to challenge the repressive sexual mores, oppressive economic conditions, and racial and ethnic prejudices that made a...