(Re)cycling Culture: Chinese Opera in the United States

Article excerpt

For over two hundred years, Chinese opera has been the essential and supreme expression of Chinese 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 of Western 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 of tickets. (1) Despite these efforts at innovation and reform, however, the Los Angeles Times (23 May 1997) has reported that "Ravaged by the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution and largely ignored by today's youth, Peking opera is fast disappearing from the stages it once ruled throughout China. Its audience is dropping by as much as 5% a year by one estimate. If the trend continues, experts fear, one of the world's great art forms for two centuries is in danger of vanishing within a generation." (2) In what may be perceived as a desperate or at least ironic maneuver, in December 2002 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 think that Chinese opera would have found a collaborative partner in the Broadway theater community or in the American music scene at large, but that is not precisely the case. What is the case is that Chinese opera is slowly gaining interest and building 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 essay have 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 first was initiated by the arrival of the Hong Took Tong, who, as cultural nurturers, provided entertainment for the Chinese immigrants far away from home in the 1850s. Second was the visit of Mei Lanfang, who acted as a cultural ambassador and introduced Chinese opera to the American audience in the 1930s. Third was the influx of Hong Kong kung fu stars such as Jackie Chan and Yuen Wo Ping, who penetrated the American screen in the 1980s and 1990s with their hybrid cultural acts. …