- Chinatown Opera Theater in North America by Nancy Yunhwa Rao
Grounded in extensive research involving immigration records, interviews, and collections of playbills, this new volume in the University of Illinois Press’s “Music in American Life” series explores the history of Chinese theaters in San Francisco, Vancouver, New York, Havana, and elsewhere during the 1920s. More broadly, the author, Nancy Yunhwa Rao, looks at how performers, theater owners, patrons, and audiences formed a transnational network where actors, advertisements, opera records, and Chinese products promoted through the theaters, such as herbal medicines, flowed between America’s East and West Coasts, as well as to and from Canada, the Territory of Honolulu, Mexicali, and Cuba. With twelve body chapters organized into five parts, Chinatown Opera Theater in North America provides a comprehensive history of a theatrical genre Rao situates in American and Chinese-American history as well as transnationally.
The reader is struck by the seamless nature of Rao’s narrative, which positions these theaters in multiple contexts, framing them both as “local and transnational” (p. 296). On the one hand, Rao ties the development of Cantonese opera in North America to trends emerging in southern China and [End Page 187] Hong Kong. She shows how a rise in female Cantonese opera performers and troupes in China led to the establishment of mixed troupes in the United States. She also documents how a Canton–Hong Kong labor strike from 1925 to 1926 in response to an “incident involv[ing] Sikh police under British command opening fire on a crowd of anti-imperial Chinese protesters in Shanghai’s foreign territory” (p. 178) meant that more performers were available to make records in southern China and to travel abroad for performances. Many of those records and performers eventually ended up in the Chinatown theaters explored in this book.
At the same time, Rao highlights the uniquely American contexts of these theaters. Not only do we see Western influences on stage design and competition from circuses, yellowface performances, and Chinese vaudeville, but Rao also describes ways in which traditional themes were adapted to new immigrant experiences. A contemporary opera entitled In Search of Father in the United States, Lament at the Immigration Office tells the story of “a son overcoming all obstacles to be united with his long-lost father . . . set against the backdrop of U.S. immigration” (p. 286). The creation of new narratives relevant to the American immigrant experience echoes songs composed by the New York Chinatown-based singer recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts as a National Heritage Fellow in 1992, Uncle Ng, whose performances adapted traditional muk’yu Cantonese narrative songs to his experience of immigrating to the United States.1
One particularly important aspect of the North American context was the effect of American and Canadian immigration policies and exclusionary practices regarding Chinese citizens. Given the harsh stipulations of the Chinese Exclusion Acts in the United States (1882) and Canada (1923), these theaters turned to immigration attorneys to expand, justify, and maintain sufficient quotas of actors and personnel from China to sustain theater-based troupes and continue innovating new performances for eager audiences. By defining performers as “non-immigrant aliens . . . who visited the country temporarily to conduct business” (p. 72), the theaters’ lawyers were able to circumvent arguments that the actors should be considered laborers competing with American citizens. Although the Chinese performers were not eligible for American citizenship and the theaters had to contend with the three-year turnovers of visiting performers, Rao explores ways in which performers eluded such time constraints by border-crossing to Canada, Cuba, and the Territory of Honolulu, in order to return to the U.S. mainland and continue to perform. The theaters’ savvy in dealing with strict immigration quotas, in turn, paved the way for the iconic Peking opera star Mei Lanfang’s widely touted American tour together with his entourage in 1930.
In addition to the pressures of...