Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s-1920s

Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s-1920s

Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s-1920s

Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s-1920s

Synopsis

Krystyn R. Moon explores the contributions of writers, performers, producers, and consumers in order to demonstrate how popular music and performance has played an important role in constructing Chinese and Chinese American stereotypes. The book brings to life the rich musical period of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Excerpt

The synchronized plate throwing of the Wesselys, a troupe of five jugglers, received an enormous round of applause as they bowed and walked off the stage. With the stage completely empty, Lee Tung Foo, arguably the first Chinese American in vaudeville, stepped out and positioned himself in front of the primarily white audience. The band struck up Dave Reed Jr. and Ernest R. Ball's “Love Me and the World Is Mine” (1906), a popular ballad that year, and Lee began to sing: “I wander on as in a dream …” From what we know of Lee's act from reviews and his own writings, he then gave a comedic monologue, sang an unnamed song in Cantonese, and broke out into an Irish brogue for his rendition of another 1906 hit, William Jerome's “My Irish Molly, O” (1906). His act ended with “Im Tiefen Keller” (In the Deep Cellar), a drinking song he sang in the original German.

During the last week of December 1906 and into January 1907, Lee Tung Foo performed at Keith's Theater in Providence, Rhode Island, and received fulsome praise. Local critics in New England dedicated whole columns to Lee's act not only because it was original but also because it was a direct challenge to American perceptions of the Chinese. Lee, however, was not from China. As an American of Chinese descent, he knew what it meant to be Chinese only through what he saw in immigrant communities and in American caricatures, and he combined this material to create an image of what it meant to be Chinese. But it was all an “act” (see ill. 1). Novelty was important to Lee, and through it he drew attention to the incongruity between fixed preconceptions of race and his capacity to impersonate non-Asian characters, speak English without an accent, and sing American and European popular songs. As one critic wrote, “Not only has he an excellent voice, which he uses with such amazing intelligence, that one almost forgets his race, but he sings and speaks fluently in English and with an evident sense of humor that is surprising.” By all accounts, audiences were stunned at witnessing firsthand a Chinese American performing in an American idiom, a feat they had to see to believe. Indeed, his very presence on the stage challenged widely held beliefs about performers of Chinese descent and heralded the emergence of scores of other Chinese American vaudevillians.

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