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

Krystyn R. Moon
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Music and performance provide a unique window into the ways that cultural information is circulated and perceptions are constructed. Because they both require listening, are inherently ephemeral, and most often involve collaboration between disparate groups, they inform cultural perceptions differently from literary or visual art forms, which tend to be more tangible and stable.

    InYellowface, 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. During this time, Chinese and Chinese American musicians and performers appeared in a variety of venues, including museums, community theaters, and world's fairs, where they displayed their cultural heritage and contested anti-Chinese attitudes. A smaller number crossed over into vaudeville and performed non-Chinese materials. Moon shows how these performers carefully navigated between racist attitudes and their own artistic desires.

    While many scholars have studied both African American music and blackface minstrelsy, little attention has been given to Chinese and Chinese American music. This book provides a rare look at the way that immigrants actively participated in the creation, circulation, and, at times, subversion of Chinese stereotypes through their musical and performance work.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4122-8
    Subjects: History, Performing Arts, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    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...

  6. Chapter 1 Imagining China: Early Nineteenth-Century Writings and Musical Productions
    (pp. 10-29)

    By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Americans and Europeans struggled with how to understand Chinese music and how to portray the Chinese in their own traditions. The majority of Western visitors to China drew on a long and relatively stable practice that described Chinese music as “noise” and, more broadly, saw this particular aspect of China’s culture as inferior to that of Europe. Industrialization, contact with Chinese people (including performers), and the rise of scientific racism reinforced how these commentators understood the distinction between music and noise and between European and Chinese culture in general. Although travelers and other...

  7. Chapter 2 Toward Exclusion: American Popular Songs on Chinese Immigration, 1850–1882
    (pp. 30-56)

    The discovery of gold in 1849 sparked a tremendous worldwide wave of migration to California that included numerous songwriters and performers. Some came as part of the Gold Rush but found music to be more profitable than mining. Others saw an opportunity among the mining camps and growing cities and came as part of professional minstrel troupes from major East Coast cities. There were a few talented individuals who wrote music in their spare time, which they later published. Chinese immigrants, attracted by many of these same opportunities, began arriving in California in substantial numbers. This historic convergence of people...

  8. Chapter 3 Chinese and Chinese Immigrant Performers on the American Stage, 1830s–1920s
    (pp. 57-85)

    Although pushed to the margins of the music and theater industries, Chinese and Chinese immigrant performers were present on the American stage throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. American entrepreneurs who hoped to find commercially lucrative novelty acts introduced Chinese performers as human curiosities; Chinese agents also organized troupes to tour the United States, although with somewhat different motives and results. These acts traveled throughout the country, including cities and towns of the hinterland outside both New York City and San Francisco, and disseminated Chinese culture, sometimes for American audiences but also for Chinese immigrant communities. Most importantly, it...

  9. Chapter 4 The Sounds of Chinese Otherness and American Popular Music, 1880s–1920s
    (pp. 86-111)

    By the 1880s, with the number of opportunities for Americans to hear Chinese music, American songwriters began to incorporate Chinese-inspired sounds into their music. To some extent this development was a continuation of the racist discourse that saw the Chinese as foreign and inferior, with the American composer, through the use of musical notation and instrumentation, becoming just another mechanism in the marginalizing of a group of people. Yet the borrowing of Chinese musical traditions allowed songwriters to expand their understanding of music and break down the rules of music composition that many found restricting. Some composers believed that, as...

  10. Chapter 5 From Aversion to Fascination: New Lyrics and Voices, 1880s–1920s
    (pp. 112-142)

    At the end of the nineteenth century, the musical expression of American popular music changed in ways other than notation and instrumentation. By the mid-1880s, lyricists and performers had begun to produce an assortment of songs, skits, and musicals with Chinese themes, which were combined with emerging Chinese musical motifs. This development was tied in part to the consolidation of the American music industry into Tin Pan Alley, the name given to several streets in New York City that were the center of music publishing in the United States from the 1890s through World War II. New sites and modes...

  11. Chapter 6 The Rise of Chinese and Chinese American Vaudevillians, 1900s–1920s
    (pp. 143-162)

    By the beginning of the twentieth century, Chinese and Chinese American performers began to appear in vaudeville throughout the United States, moving beyond community theater houses, world expositions, and human displays. Many of these vaudevillians avoided magic and acrobatics, which white audiences had highly praised, and produced acts that incorporated popular songs, dance routines, comedic skits, and impersonations. In fact, their routines were very similar to those performed during the same time period by Euro-Americans and African Americans. Chinese and Chinese American acts, however, also challenged racial beliefs. Using strategies similar to those employed by African Americans in minstrel shows...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 163-168)

    In 1990, the news that Cameron Macintosh’s London hit,Miss Saigon, was coming to the United States was received with both great enthusiasm and sharp criticism from Asian Americans and the theatrical community.Miss Saigon, an updated version of Puccini’sMadama Butterfly(1904) by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, tells the story of an American G.I. named Chris who falls in love with a Vietnamese prostitute, Kim, only days before the fall of Saigon and the withdrawal of American troops. Chris, through circumstances beyond his control, is forced to leave Kim behind during the evacuation of the U.S. embassy. Three...

  13. Appendix A. American Popular Songs with Chinese Subjects or Themes
    (pp. 169-179)
  14. Appendix B. Musicals, Revues, and Plays Produced in the United States with Chinese Songs, Scenes, or Characters
    (pp. 180-182)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 183-210)
  16. Index
    (pp. 211-220)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 221-221)