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  • Chinatown Opera Theater in North America by Nancy Yunhwa Rao
  • Xing Fan
CHINATOWN OPERA THEATER IN NORTH AMERICA. By Nancy Yunhwa Rao. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2017. 415 pp. Paperback, $29.95.

In an engaging manifesto, Nancy Yunhwa Rao states that to chronicle the history of Chinatown theatres "is to challenge the invisibility of opera performers, to hear and watch them through the words left by its fans, to reimagine it in its full richness and complexity, to relocate Chinese opera theater in both local communities and transnational circuits, to reconstruct its image, and to build a bridge between the past and the present" (p. 320). Chinatown Opera Theater in North America is a thorough success in fulfilling these tasks. Rao examines Cantonese opera in North American Chinatowns during the 1920s at the intersection of theatre history, North American music history, diasporatic cultural studies, gender studies, media studies, and ethnomusicology. This book is an invaluable source for educators, students, and general readers.

Rao constructs a five-part narrative. Part 1 includes three chapters, featuring the social, cultural, and political context of Chinatown theatre. In chapter 1, she weaves a multi-layered background for the golden period of Chinatown theatre during the 1920s: the national histories on both sides of the Pacific; the increasingly diversified musical and entertainment milieu of cosmopolitan cities as transnational contact zones in both southern China and North America; and the intricate connections between theatre as cultural capital and Chinese communities' transnational commerce and growing social power. In chapter 2, Rao offers a survey of Chinatown theatre in the context of the immigration policies in the United States from the open immigration policy of the 1850s to the increasingly stringent exclusionary laws during the 1880s, and then to the admission of Chinese performers, based on popular demand, during the early [End Page 502] 1920s. Chapter 3 focuses on the Mandarin Theatre's harrowing fight for legitimacy during 1923–1925. Rao depicts this as an integral part of the Mandarin Theatre's everyday life: dealing with and surviving immigration regulations.

Part 2 includes two chapters on Cantonese opera's genre-specific practices. In chapter 4, Rao reconstructs the practices of Chinatown Cantonese opera in North America in the context of traditions and changes in Cantonese opera in China during the 1920s. In addition, Rao introduces fundamental practices in three areas: Cantonese opera music (its orchestra and aural dimensions), origins of repertoire, and playbills. Chapter 5 provides a close examination of master performer Li Xuefang's performance of "Shilin Jita" (Shilin Paying Respects to the Pagoda), a fanxian erhuang slow-metered aria. Rao illustrates the master performer's creativity and improvisational skills and discusses use of the sliding tones as a powerful dimension of Li's performance and expression.

Part 3 includes chapters 6–8, paying attention to Pacific Northwestern connections. In chapter 6, Rao reconstructs the picture of Cantonese opera in British Columbia, Canada, from 1910 to the early 1920s, with Victoria and Vancouver as the two centers of Chinatown theatre. Chapter 7 chronicles the San Francisco-based Lun On Company and Lun Hop Company during 1922–1925. These critical years witnessed increased attention from the general public; star performers from China; the broadening of repertoire featuring warrior roles and new operas; the publication of aria anthologies; and the grand opening of San Francisco's Great China Theatre. Chapter 8 presents the Great China Theatre in its heyday from 1926 to 1928. As one of the finest Cantonese opera houses, it hosted star performers, top dramatists, leading instrumentalists, and scene painters. It presented a novel, balanced, and comprehensive repertoire appealing to various audiences, housed new sets and lighting effects aided by modern technology, expanded its influence through firm bonds with the Oriental Record Company, and nurtured the participation of new generations of native-born Chinese Americans.

Part 4 includes two chapters focusing on the Mandarin Theatre, also in San Francisco. Chapter 9 recounts its early years during 1924–1926, as the powerful rival of the Great China Theatre. Surviving early staffing challenges caused by the limiting immigration policies, the theatre established its strengths in young belle type operas. Soon after the increased...


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