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Chin Chun Chan: The Zarzuela as an Ethnic and Technological Farce

Summary and Keywords

Chin Chun Chan premiered at the Teatro Principal in Mexico City on April 9, 1904, to an enthusiastic audience. The first Mexican zarzuela written by José F. Elizondo and Rafael Medina with music by Luis G. Jordá initiated a new current in Mexican lyric theater that moved away from the Spanish zarzuelas and the operas popular during the Porfiriato: the teatro de revistas, or revistas. With the subtitle of “A Chinese Conflict in One Act and Three Scenes,” Chin Chun Chan is a story about mistaken identity in which a fed-up man attempts to escape his jealous partner by disguising himself as a Chinese dignitary at a grand hotel in Mexico City. Chin Chun Chan was a significant move away from Spanish productions, attempting to create a local entertainment that could be defined as Mexican through popular characters, dialogues, music, and colloquialisms. This formula set the stage for later revistas particularly during the armed struggle of the Revolution (1910–1920). Through a closer examination of the music numbers and the dialogue, Chin Chun Chan offers new readings on the position of ethnicity, nationalism, and sexuality during this contemporary period of political and social instability and initiates an important period in Mexican theatrical history.

Keywords: zarzuela, revistas, Teatro Principal, Mexicanization, Porfiriato, tiples, exoticism, Mexican National Cinema, época de oro

Zarzuelas, Revistas, and “Mexicanization” in Mexico

Chin Chun Chan, the first Mexican zarzuela, premiered at the illustrious Teatro Principal in Mexico City on April 9, 1904, and was an immediate success, leading to repeated performances across Mexico and across the border in the United States. Subtitled as a “conflicto chino en un acto y tres cuadros” (Chinese conflict in one act and three scenes), this staged work combined several popular theatrical and musical practices that appealed to a large and socially diverse audience. The libretto was written by the journalist and dramatist José L. Elizondo and Rafael Medina with music composed by Spanish zarzuela composer Luis G. Jordá. This was the second work that the Sociedad Mexicana de Autores (Society of Mexican Authors) had funded.1

Chin Chun Chan is often categorized by theater historians and critics as both a zarzuela and as an example of teatro de revistas (theater of “revues”), or simply revista.2 The revista began as a theatrical entertainment from the Porfiriato, the roughly thirty-five-year dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911) that was marked as a period of modernization, foreign investment, and economic progress as well as corruption and oppression.3 As an example of cultural hybridity, the revista synthesized several popular stage entertainments from the early 20th century, such as the French revue, the Spanish zarzuela, vaudeville, burlesque, and satire. Although influenced by these practices, it was the Spanish zarzuela, a staged lyrical production from Spain, generally featuring a comedic or romantic narrative with performed music, that maintained the strongest influence. During the development of the revistas from the mid-1900s to the 1910s, the Spanish zarzuela was the most esteemed form of entertainment for Porfirian audiences. Because of its popularity, Mexican librettists and composers borrowed from the structure and the function of the Spanish zarzuela so much so that the terms Mexican zarzuela and revista became interchangeable.

The revista is typically organized into one act that is divided into cuadros, or scenes, including a prologue and musical numbers. The vogue of the revista took place at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), when revista performances were perceived as an escape valve for the audience during this violent and socially unstable period. Written almost exclusively by journalists in Mexico City, who kept abreast of the cultural, social, and political pulse of the nation, these theatrical endeavors were built upon current events, exhibiting periodical information on stage, linking theater and journalism together.4 This theatrical hybrid featured social and political commentary that criticized many elements of contemporary Mexican culture. During the 1910s, the revista broke off into several specific subgenres: revista costumbrista (revista of local customs), revista frivola (frivolous revista), revista política (political revista), and the short lived 1930s subgenre revista de evocación (evocative revista).5 Each revista category provided criticism on contemporary political and social situations, and scathing commentary on societal expectations, gender roles, and Mexican culture in general.

As previously mentioned, Chin Chun Chan premiered at the Teatro Principal, which was led by the Moriones sisters. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the Teatro Principal, also known as “La catedral de las tandas” (The cathedral of the tandas) was the main site for the performance of Spanish zarzuelas. Mexican productions featuring Mexican performers and librettists were permitted, but because vernacular entertainment was perceived as lowbrow, these productions were highly supervised by the Moriones sisters.6 Until Chin Chun Chan, “The Tandas of the Principal . . . were only Spanish diversions, sung and danced by Spanish actors, written and composed by Spanish authors, produced by Spanish businessmen.”7 Following in the influence of other turn-of-the-century Mexican-produced zarzuelas such as La cuarta plana (The fourth page, 1899), Chin Chun Chan exhibited characters and situations from a Mexican context that would be relatable and understandable to the national audience. Librettist José F. Elizondo was one of the leaders of this movement that wanted to depart from imported theatrical entertainment.8 To create something that could be considered more “homegrown,” revista librettists and composers borrowed and appropriated from their early Spanish counterparts and recycled these elements to fit within a Mexican context, creating an intimate link between the two lyric traditions.9 Rather than presenting mirror copies from the Spanish productions, narrative and music elements underwent a process of “Mexicanization” in which specific characteristics of the productions were reinterpreted to exhibit local, popular Mexican culture and practices.

Two elements that helped define the revista were the use of popular dialogue and colloquialisms, and the musical performance of tiples (female sopranos) and vice tiples (female mezzo sopranos). Dialogues were typically written in the libretto, much like their Spanish counterparts, but they deviated considerably to include the practice, accents, and mode of speaking in Mexico considered to be more popular, and often featured quick improvisations. The other central component of the revistas was the chorus line of tiples and vice tiples, who sang and danced musical numbers, particularly during the interludes of the cuadros. These chorus lines specialized in performing lyrics with sexual evocations and double-entendres that the audience thoroughly enjoyed, bringing a piquant and risqué flavor to the revistas.

Chin Chun Chan: Narrative, Character Types, and Music

Chin Chun Chan recounts the story of the countryman from Chamacuero, Columbo, who arrives at a posh Mexico City hotel disguised as a Chinese man.10 The purpose of his disguise: Columbo is hiding from his jealous wife, Hipólita, who keeps catching him ogle and flirt with other women. Every time she finds out, she proceeds to hit and beat him. After donning the disguise, a nameless hotel administrator confuses Columbo with a dignitary from Imperial China named Chin-Chun-Chan, whom the grand hotel is expecting. The hotel employees proceed to pamper him while essentially ignoring the real dignitary, who has also just arrived. With the help of an agent, Hipólita eventually uncovers the ruse and seeks out Columbo in Mexico City. At a welcoming party at the hotel, Chin-Chun-Chan is removed from the festivities after Hipólita enters and accuses him of being her husband in disguise. When this confusion is cleared, Chin-Chun-Chan is restored to his position as dignitary and Hipólita beats up Columbo for the deception. The show ends with everyone, including Hipólita and Columbo, dancing to a cakewalk.

Following the structure of the revista, Chin Chun Chan is organized into one act and three cuadros, some of which feature musical numbers that have no actual impact on the narrative. These cuadros are separated into short scenes, organized by back-and-forth dialogues and music. Chin Chun Chan features a relatively small cast of characters with the tiples and vice tiples performing in several chorus lines. A description of the cast of characters and their function in the narrative follows.

  • Cast of Characters:

    • Espiridón and Mónica: young Porfirian couple, newlyweds and upper-class social climbers

    • Ladislao and Eufrasia: Mexican couple from the countryside

    • Hotel Administrator: Authority of the hotel; is not given a name

    • Doña Hipólita: Jealous wife of Columbo; also known affectionately as “Lita”

    • Don Columbo: Native of Chamascuero, who disguises himself as a man from China

    • Chin-Chun-Chan: Dignitary from Imperial China

    • Borbolla: Works in the hotel

    • Argimiro: Hotel chef

    • Policarpo: Works in the hotel

    • Telésforo: Mexican working-class character (peladito)

    • Ponciano: Mexican working-class character (peladito)

    • Ricardo: Singer in hotel

    • Chantteusses: Songstresses; chorus line of tiples

    • Polichinelas: Burlesque performers; chorus line of tiples

    • Telefonistas: Telephone operators; chorus line of tiples

    • Charamusquero: Vendor of charamuscas (a twisted caramel candy)

    • An agent: Assists Hipólita in locating Columbo

    • Waiters: Workers in hotel

The music was composed and arranged by Luis G. Jordá and principally performed by the chorus line. Several of the pieces are written into the libretto and the cuadros.

  • Music List

    • “Preludio y Cuarteto de los Payos” (Prelude and quartet of payos)11

    • “Chantteusses y Coro” (Chantteusses and chorus)

    • “Coplas de los Polichinelas” (Coplas by the polichinelas)

    • “Coplas del Charamusquero” (Coplas by the charamusquero)

    • “El Teléfono sin hilos” (The telephone without cables)

    • Cake Walk: “A Bunch of Blackberries” by Abe Holzmann

Theater historian and critic Armando María y Campos indicates that the music composed for Chin Chun Chan consisted of a variety of memorable melodies that continued to be a part of the Mexican song tradition during the 20th century. Building from zarzuela musical practice, Jordá included coplas, a Spanish popular song that is based on the poetic form of the same name. This form generally consists of four verses of four lines each with eight syllables a line. The language used in coplas is typically colloquial and often contains double entendres, which heightens its popularity. According to a 1904 review in El Imparcial, the “Coplas de Polichinelas,” “El teléfono sin hilos,” and the cakewalk were the most applauded musical numbers.12

Ethnicity, Exoticism, and Space in Chin Chun Chan

A revista based on a character from China visiting Mexico at the turn of the 20th century exposes some of the cosmopolitan currents that swept through the Porfiriato. The periodical El Imparcial notes that a massive population of Chinese citizens immigrated to Mexico seeking work and business opportunities. As previously mentioned, the Porfiriato was a period of modernization and economic growth due in large part to the influx of foreign investors who settled in Mexico City. Because of the investment in foreign money, new consumer cultures developed that promoted an atmosphere of cosmopolitanism. The immigration of the Chinese became an essential part of the modernization plan for Porfirian elites, as they were seen as “a source of cheap labor needed to build railroads and exploit mines and plantations.” The influx of Chinese immigration, however, received ample criticism, particularly from Mexican periodicals that accused the Chinese of depressing wages and taking jobs from women. They were also viewed as physically inferior and unwilling to assimilate.13 Due to mounting xenophobia and chauvinism during the remaining years of the Porfiriato, many advocated for the expulsion of Chinese immigrants from across Mexican territory.14 In was in this heated climate that Chin Chun Chan premiered. In the production, exoticism, cosmopolitanism, and even nationalism in Mexico City are addressed, featuring contemporary perceptions about foreigners and Mexican nationals in a burgeoning society.

The cuadros of Chin Chun Chan take place in three spaces: the first cuadro is located on the “principal patio in an elegant hotel,” the second cuadro takes place on a street in Mexico City, and the action of the third cuadro is back in the hotel’s grand salon. Within these locations, we are introduced to a wide variety of characters that speak in varying accents to amplify their ethnicity and their social class. María y Campos states that “Every line is a turn of customs, of modes and fashions of that era, in which one does theater of everything: for business, for affliction, for custom or tradition, for gallantry.”15

In the first cuadro, second scene, Columbo enters for the first time, disguised as a Chinese national. In the revista’s libretto, his disguise is detailed as follows: “checkered trousers, jacket, and straw hat” as well as glasses and a “Chinese wig” (which consists of a long braid).16 As Columbo enters the hotel, the socialites Mónica and Espiridón comment on his appearance. Mónica is alarmed at first but is then consoled by Espiridón, who describes the Chinese as being drastically different from Mexicans and unable to understand what he is saying. Columbo responds abruptly.

ESPIRIDÓN: No te mortifiques; los chinos no son gentes como nosotros; ni oyen, ni ven, ni entienden; y si no, ahora verás; (a don Columbo.) ¡Adiós, salvaje!

ESPIRIDÓN: (Don’t be mortified; the Chinese are not people like us; they do not listen, they do not see, they do not understand, you’ll see now; (to Don Columbo) Goodbye, savage!)

COLUMBO: ¡Adiós, idiota!17

COLUMBO: (Goodbye, idiot!)

This scene exposes the feelings of prejudice against Chinese nationals that the El Imparical article addresses, and demonstrates the xenophobia intimated by upper-class Mexicans of the Porfirian era. Mónica is initially afraid of Columbo just because she believes him to be from China, but Espiridón attempts to calm her and exposes his own ignorance. Columbo ultimately surprises them by responding to Espiridón’s insults in Spanish but later reveals his own ignorance as well. Although Columbo dons the disguise to hide from his wife, it becomes quickly apparent that he knows nothing about Chinese culture or language. After his short interaction with Espiridón, Columbo launches into a monologue that explains exactly why he must dress and act this way, pointing out the many women he has flirted with in front of his dear Hipólita. He even mentions her violent reactions to his flirting. After his monologue, he returns to his disguised performance for the third scene. In his introduction with the hotel administrator, Columbo attempts to speak to him in Chinese, which is articulated in the libretto as follows:

COLUMBO: Tzcanchin-lai-chú la . . . la la . . . ran . . . lan . . . lay

The hotel administrator admits to not understanding him, but the directions in the libretto reveal his odd response to communicating with Columbo instead, detailed in the first cuadro, third scene:

ADMINISTRATOR: Su excelencia me perdone (levantando el antebrazo, poniendo los puños cerrados, los índices en alto y bailando a uno y otro lado), pero . . . no entiendo el chino.

ADMINISTRATOR: (Your excellency forgive me [raising his forearm, closing his fists, his index fingers high and dancing from one side to the other], but . . . I don’t understand Chinese.)

COLUMBO: (Aparte.) Ni yo tambor. (Bailando lo mismo)

COLUMBO: (Apart) I don’t either. (Dancing the same way)

This dancing action becomes a visual signifier in the production for the representation of Chinese culture. Columbo performs this clumsy movement when walking and when attempting to talk with anyone in his fake Chinese. He further articulates his foreignness when he speaks in Spanish as well, amplifying his fake Chinese accent by replacing “r” for “l” in several words and speaking in fragmented Spanish:

COLUMBO: Quele sopa come, cualto descansa, cama duelme.

COLUMBO: (I want soup to eat, when I rest, bed to sleep.)

When Columbo is eventually confronted with the actual Chin-Chun-Chan, they both communicate through the absurd finger dance, and Columbo once again fakes his way through Chinese in the third cuadro, second scene:

CHIN-CHUN-CHAN: Yut-mot-fu-tzu-ya. (Saludando. Todos se inclinan, hacinedo una reverencia. Chin-Chun-Chan se para frente a don Columbo, levantando los brazos y los dedos índices, y le hace un bailecito a guisa de saludo. Don Columbo contesta en igual forma. A don Columbo.) ¿Yta-mu-fu-tzu-jim?

CHIN-CHUN-CHAN: (Yut-mot-fu-tzu-ya. [Greeting him. All bow down. Chin-Chun-Chan stands in front of Don Columbo, lifting his arms and his index fingers, and he dances in the manner of greeting. Don Columbo responds in the same fashion. To Don Columbo] Yta-mu-fu-tzu-jim?)

COLUMBO: (Aparte) Y ¿qué le digo yo?

COLUMBO: (Aside) (And what do I say?)

BORBOLLA: (A don Columbo) Conteste, su excelencia.

BORBOLLA: (To Don Columbo) (Answer, your excellency.)

COLUMBO: ¡Ah! ¿Fo-fo? Sí, fo-fo.18

Chin-Chun-Chan and Columbo attempt to speak in Chinese several times, which grows frustrating for Chin-Chun-Chan and which is dictated in the libretto. In the end, it is revealed that Columbo is not the Chinese dignitary and everything is put to right, but only after Chin-Chun-Chan is mistakenly beaten by Hipólita. The visual and aural construction of a Chinese national in the production reinforces an exoticist and even satirical interpretation of Chinese immigrants and the Chinese language in Mexico.

Representing mexicanidad

In addition to exoticist constructions, Chin Chun Chan conveys several elements of Mexican popular culture that encourage a nationalist interpretation or, mexicanidad—the culture identity of the Mexican people. This is most present in the second cuardo, which takes place on a street in Mexico City. Here, more indications of Mexican popular culture are presented through the articulation of popular dialogue and slang, communicated by working-class and traditional Mexican character types. The characters that represent more of the traditional versions of Mexican popular culture are Ladislao and Eufrasia, a married couple who are visiting Mexico City from the countryside. While having no direct impact on the narrative, Ladislao and Eufrasia add local color. Photographs printed in the libretto show these characters in stereotypical traditional clothing with Ladislao in a charro suit and Eufrasia in a rebozo and long skirt with her hair in braids. In the second cuadro, second scene, Ladislao and Eufrasia engage in a quick back and forth repartee that exposes Ladislao’s more popular articulation of Spanish. Here, Ladislao and Eufrasia detail their list of expenses, which shocks Ladislao:

LADISLAO: ¡Ah, chispas! Cómo se va la plata aquí, güera. ¿Ya vites que traiba cien pesos? Pos mira; no me queda más que éste da viente. Y aquí traigo mi listita, no creas que me han tantiado. Mira: ocho días en el meson. . . .

LADISLAO: (Oh, my! How the money goes here, güera. Have you seen that I have already spent one hundred pesos? Well, look; I am only left with nothing more but this twenty. Here I have my little list; don’t think I have been tainted. Look: eight days in the inn. . . .)

EUFRASIA: Es hotel, tú.

EUFRASIA: (Oh, you, it is a hotel.)

LADISLAO: Bueno, allá se llaman mesones. Ocho días, a tres pesos diarios, con dos camas, veinteicuatro pesos.

LADISLAO: (Well, over there they call them inns. Eight days, three pesos daily, with two beds, twenty-four pesos.)

EUFRASIA: ¿Y pa qué quieres lotra cama? Que te quiten una.

EUFRASIA: (And why do you want the other bed? Take one away).

In this exchange, a common, everyday use of the Spanish language is used to create an atmosphere and a dynamic that can be interpreted as “typically Mexican,” once again, moving away from a strictly Spanish theatrical practice. There are several expressions used by the characters that lead to this interpretation: for instance, “chispas!” (“sparks!”), which is a popular exclamation that indicates the state of being surprised; “vites” rather than “viste”; the use of “mesón” rather than hotel; “lotra” instead of “la otra”; and Ladislao affectionately calling Eufrasia “güera,” which is both a term of endearment and a social class signifier.19

“Coplas de Charamusquero” and the United States

“Coplas de Charamusquero” (Couplets of the charamusco vendor) offers another interpretation of foreigners in Mexico, this time focusing on the presence and the influence of the United States. During the Porfiriato, the United States and several Western European countries established electric power, steam, and water industries, and contributed to advancements in transportation, which included the railroad boom. The United States maintained a strong position in the development of cosmopolitan culture in Mexico, due to its close proximity and the growing prevalence of American culture in Mexico. Its presence was so influential that popular theater productions, which included the revistas, would include characters based on stereotypical perceptions of the neighbors to the north. This would later be recycled into the national film industry during the 1930s and 1940s.

The “Coplas de Charamusquero” takes place during the second cuadro, sixth scene. This scene features Don Columbo, the hotel servant Borbolla, the popular peladitos Ponciano and Telésforo, and the charamusqueros, vendors of a popular Mexican caramel candy. The influence of American culture and the use of English is apparent in the first verse of the coplas:

CHARAMUSQUERO: Como el yanqui nos invade el inglés hay que aprender, para que con Nuestros primos nos podamos entender. Mí vender el charamusco en la lengua del Tío Sam. Much bueno palanquetas piloncilos, veri fain. Guan cen di pastel, guan cen di merengues, y todo guan cen. ¿Guat du yo uis ledi? An yu gentelmán. Óiganme guan copla que ay go to cantar. Hace poco días.

CHARAMUSQUERO: (Like the Yankee we have been invaded by English that we must learn, so that our cousins will understand us. I sell charamusco in the tongue of Uncle Sam. Very good palanquetas piloncilos, veri fain.20 Guan cen di pastel, guan cen di merengues, y todo guan cen. Guat du yo uis ledi? An yu gentelmán. Listen to my guan copla that ay go to sing. It has only been a few days.)21

The charamuqueros combine Spanish and poorly pronounced English, spelled out in the libretto to intimate that they will be using English to sell charamusco and other sweets. Their English is purposely broken with accentuated misspellings (or spelled phonetically for the charamuquero) to augment poor pronunciation and a Mexican accent. Veri fain translates to “very fine.” Guan cen di translates to “one cent for.” Guat du yo uis ledi? translates to “What do you use lady?” or a rather informal way of asking “What would you like, miss?”

The peladitos, or shabbily dressed men that represent the urban working class, Ponciano and Telésforo interject during the “Coplas de Charamuqueros” and continue to showcase their use of language by engaging in a conversation in both Spanish and English in the seventh scene of the same cuadro:

PONCIANO: ¿Qué opines de este Grocery Store?

PONCIANO: (What do you think of this Grocery Store?)

TELÉFORO: Pos que no cortó nuestra interview. Y como t’iba diciendo, ya tengo de bride a Remigia, que ora está sirviendo en Chiconautla street, y es un cuero very good.

TELÉFORO: (Well hopefully it does not cut short our interview. And like I have been saying. I have as a girlfriend Remigia that now is serving on Chiconautla street and she is very attractive.)22

This back and forth dialogue features a strong concentration of popular Spanish and English to demonstrate the prevalence of American culture as it penetrates popular Mexican culture. An April 10, 1904, review from El Imparcial indicates that the repartee between the peladitos was well received, particularly in performances at the Teatro Iris and the Teatro Vivanco.23 The uses of language and different accents combined with the exoticist interpretation of foreigners synthesized with elements of Mexican popular culture, constructing a widening interpretation of Mexican society at the turn of the 20th century. Although strictly labeled as Mexican revista, Chin Chun Chan offers more insight into the absorption of foreign cultures on their homeland, revealing a changing cosmopolitan landscape and soundscape.

Sexuality Masked as Technological Progress

There are several references to technology and transportation in the production, which include electricity and the use of the trolley. The focus on the telephone is another crucial reference to modernity and progress, but offers more than one interpretation. As previously mentioned, a crucial component to the revistas was the presence of sexuality and provocativeness. The revista dialogue often amplified these elements, but sexuality and seduction were best represented in the musical performances. The main diffusion of sexuality in Chin Chun Chan is the presence of the tiples. The tiples maintained a notable presence through the production, featured as Chantteusses in the “Chantuses y Coro” musical number, as Polichinelas, or burlesque performers, in “Coplas de Polichinelas,” and finally as telephone operators in “El teléfono sin hilos” (A wireless telephone). All three performances by the tiples contain many elements of risqué and sexual content often masked by other forms of dialogue. The most well-known number of Chin Chun Chan is “El teléfono sin hilos,” also known as “El teléfono inalámbrico” performed during the third cuadro, third scene.

“El teléfono sin hilos” features the chorus of tiples with a recently invented, turn-of-the-20th-century telephone intriguingly attached to their torso and without wires. The telephone operators of the first Chin Chun Chan performance included Esperanza Iris, Pilar Leredo, Emilia Plaza, Alicia Rojas, Carmen Bonorís, and Sara Muñoz, all popular tiples during this period.24 Initiating one of the more common characteristics of the Mexican revista, this scene exhibits some references to the Spanish zarzuela El año pasado por agua (The last year for water, 1899) by Ricardo de la Vega and Federico Chueca. This zarzuela features a musical number entitled “Cuplé de la bombilla y la electricidad,” (Variety song of the lightbulb and electricity), which highlights the postivite outcomes on “the progress of technology with grace and charm.”25

The “progress of technology” was not the intended meaning for “El teléfono sin hilos.” The song is performed after Columbo and the real Chin-Chun-Chan meet. Believing Columbo to be a national from China as well, Chin-Chun-Chan attempts to converse with him. Columbo, at a loss, plays off the dignitary’s meaning to the administrator and then dismisses Chin-Chun-Chan entirely. After this awkward interaction, the hotel administrator insists that the party must begin and exclaims “Van a ver puesto en música uno de los inventos más sorprendentes de nuestro siglo. El teléfono sin hilos”/“We will see in musical form one of the most surprising inventions of our century. A wireless telephone.” After this introduction, several tiples enter and begin their earnest directions for communicating with a young woman through this new device:

TELEFONISTAS: Para comunicarse con una señorita Se acerca al aparato y se repica así, Y llega la corriente frontando la bocina Con dulce cosquillo que hace repetir.26

TELEFONISTAS: (To communicate with a young woman Get close to the apparatus and it rings like this And the current arrives running the horn With a sweet tickle that repeats.)

The lyrics indicate that the concentration of the song will be on the new and exciting apparatus of the telephone. A closer look at the lyrics reveals that another interpretation is warranted, this one based on sex and methods of seduction, which becomes more evident in a following verse:

TELEFONISTAS: ¡Ay, qué sensación, tan particular, Deje usté el botón, no lo apriete más! Ya basta caballero; deje de tocar Que si no la corriente se me va a acabar.27

TELEFONISTAS: (Oh what a particular sensation! Leave the button, don’t push it anymore Enough, sir; stop touching Because if you don’t, the current will run out.)

The song’s lyrics point to a common and highly popular practice in revista culture: double entendres or a play on words, statements with a hidden meaning that often contain sexual undertones. This practice was made popular especially by the soprano performer María Conesa, also known as “La gatita de oro” in performances of the revista frívola. These musical performances brought eager audiences from all walks of life to the theater, while also receiving considerable negative criticism from journalists, critics, and even politicians.

In Las tandas del Principal, Armando María y Campos indicates that with this scene, librettist Elizondo anticipated radio diffusion and states that this musical number was “a surefire success and a success for a revista number.”28 In effect anticipating the structure of the revistas, “El teléfono sin hilos” has no impact on the developing narrative of Chin Chun Chan. This work functions as almost a suspension in the narrative and is introduced as such, interwoven as “the entertainment for the party” for Chin-Chun-Chan. Despite its lack of function in the storyline, the musical number was an immediate success and influenced the development of the revistas in later decades.

Porfirian Nostalgia in Mexican National Cinema’s Epoca de oro

Chin Chun Chan successfully demonstrated that Mexican librettists, composers, and performers could produce a significant theatrical production for national audiences. This work opened the doors for more theatrical opportunities, particularly at the Teatro Principal, which, along with Teatro Virginia Fábregas among many others, quickly became the hotspots for popular theater in Mexico City. With the rise of recorded synchronized sound cinema during the 1930s, the revista ceased to be the major source of political and cultural diffusion and, during the 1940s and the 1950s, declined in popularity. At the end of the revista era, Chin Chun Chan had received an estimated ten thousand performances nationwide.29

Revistas continued to be produced well into the 1930s, introducing a new subgenre of revista labeled revistas de evocación. During the six-year presidential term, or sexenio, of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940), this subgenre developed that utilized the Porfiriato and fin-de-siècle Mexico as a backdrop. Beginning with En tiempos de Don Porfirio (In the times of Don Porfirio, 1938) and other revistas from this year including Aquellos 35 años (Those 35 years), Recordar es vivir (To remember is to live), Las fiestas del centenario (The centennial celebrations), and Parece que fue ayer (It feels just like yesterday), these revistas looked back nostalgically on the Porfiriato by incorporating actors and actresses from the older guard. Although the revistas included the figure of Porfirio Díaz, they avoided any reference to his politics and policies. In fact, these revistas, moving contrary to the controversial revista política, avoided politics, past and present, altogether. To recreate the appropriate Porfirian atmosphere, librettists and composers arranged a variety of music popular during that epoch, which included música de salón (salon music) and melodies from popular Spanish zarzuelas in addition to contemporary popular music such as boleros. These theatrical endeavors were favored by audiences, particularly middle- and upper-class audiences, as they remembered the Porfiriato with fondness.30

In keeping with the new technology and the tastes of the public, the structure and defining characteristics of the revistas were transferred to the silver screen. Building on the popular following of the revistas de evocación, writer and director Juan Bustillo Oro and Producciones Grovas developed a new film genre during Mexican cinema’s epoca de oro (Golden age, roughly 1936–1952). The cine de añoranza porfiriana (films of Porfirian longing) picked up where the revistas left off, featuring primarily romantic and comedic narratives, accompanied by selections from zarzuelas and música de salón. Films from this genre include Yo bailé con don Porfirio (I danced with Don Porfirio, 1942, dir. Gilberto Martínez Solares) and México de mis recuerdos (Mexico of my memories, 1944, dir. Juan Bustillo Oro). These films are significant because they both include musical selections from Chin Chun Chan, which magnifies the relevance the revista had on the film industry and contemporary Mexican popular culture. Each film showcases one musical number that conveys different messages for the overall understanding of the film.

Yo bailé con don Porfirio is a romantic musical comedy starring popular revista actor and comedian Joaquín Pardavé. In this film, Pardavé plays two Porfirian gentlemen with two separate families: Don Severo and Don Placido. He hides his respective identities from his families, particularly his two daughters, Rosa and Violeta (Mapy Cortés), who have identical features but do not know each other. While Rosa follows the path of a proper Porfirian socialite, Violeta becomes a famous tiple with the help of her music teacher and love interest, Alberto Villanueva (Emilio Tuero). The film features several musical sequences from other revistas, including the last musical number in Chin Chun Chan. Labeled as “Cakewalk” in the film, this last piece of the revista was composed by Abe Holzmann and entitled “A Bunch of Blackberries” and was published in 1900. This piece is marked as a Cakewalk and a Two Step, which is performed in both the revista and the film. Intriguingly, this work, much like the interlude musical numbers of the revistas, has no bearing on the film’s plot and suspends the narrative. Rather than showing couples paired off and dancing the cakewalk, the film features one male actor in blackface who is later joined by the tiples. The use of Holzmann’s cakewalk and the performance of blackface, which was more prevalent in Hollywood feature films, point again to the influence of North American culture and the cosmopolitanism that helped define reinterpretations of the Porfiriato.

Much like Yo bailé con don Porfirio, the 1944 film México de mis recuerdos centers on double identities. Rosario (Sofia Álvarez) is a young socialite who seeks the affections of Pablo (Luis Aldás), who places his attention on the tiples of the Teatro Principal. Rosario disguises herself to become a tiple and in the end wins over the object of her affection. In keeping with the structure of cine de añoranza porfiriana, the film features a wide variety of musical performances of works composed and performed during the Porfiriato, including a reenactment of the “El teléfono sin hilos” segment from Chin Chun Chan. Building from its piquant and risqué interpretation, this musical number is meant to amplify the sexual prowess of Pablo and his fondness for tiples. Director Juan Bustillo Oro and the film’s composer Federico Ruiz recreated this scene from the revista, utilizing the telephones hooked onto the torsos of the singers. The main tiple, Adelina Roca, flirts on stage with Pedro, which incites other men in the audience to jealousy. Because of the romantic tastes of Pablo, the scene successfully utilized “El teléfono sin hilos” to convey the amorous and seductive nature of their relationship. This scene also promotes the relevance of the Teatro Principal during the Porfiriato, using the premiere of Chin Chun Chan as an opening for more revista performances throughout the film.

Discussion of the Literature

Locating information on Chin Chun Chan is somewhat tricky. In histories on the revista, the zarzuela, and the teatro de género chico in Mexico, some descriptions and critiques of the production can be found. Unfortunately, scholarship is limited. Texts written by theater historian and critic Armando María y Campos provide the most material. Las tandas del principal features a short interview with librettist José F. Elizondo in which he describes rehearsing the music and some details leading up to the first performance. Because María y Campos’s text focuses on the Teatro Principal, several chapters are dedicated to Chin Chun Chan that detail the impact the revista had on others that followed. Another prominent work of María y Campos is El teatro de género chico en la revolución Mexicana, which also provides minimal details on the production as the precursor to the revista politica during the Mexican Revolution.

Pablo Dueñas and Jesús Flores y Escalante’s text Teatro mexicano, historia y dramaturgia. Vol. 20, Teatro de revista (1904–1936) provides an overview of the revista from its precursor of the Spanish zarzuela. Dueñas and Flores y Escalante position Chin Chun Chan as the first revista that showcased popular Mexican culture. Their text concentrates more on the subdivisions of the revista from the 1910s through the 1930s, but they include the full libretto of Chin Chun Chan in a section entitled “Antología de textos.” Also included in the anthology are other influential revistas: El país de la metralla (The country of shrapnel), Méxican rataplán, and Amor de mis amores (Love of my loves).

Other texts on popular theater in Mexico have some discussions of Chin Chun Chan, including John Nomland’s Teatro mexicano contemporáneo 1900–1950 and Pablo Dueñas’s Las divas en el teatro de revista mexicano, both of which include minor production details about the revista and its impact on the Teatro Principal. In recent years, more research on Chin Chun Chan has been published by theater scholars. Paving the way on this research is Alejandro Ortiz Bullé Goyri’s work on the theater and the revistas in Mexico. His essay “Orígenes y desarollo del teatro de revistas en México” is included in the edited volume Un siglo de teatro en México. He has published one article that focuses specifically on the premiere of Chin Chun Chan and the influence of José F. Elizondo entitled “José F. Elizondo y el estreno de la zarzuela Chin Chun Chan (conflict chino en un acto) en 1904,” which examines some of the exoticist and modernist characteristics of the production.

Another valuable source is El país de las tandas: Teatro de revistas 1900–1940. Much like the María y Campos sources, this text situates Chin Chun Chan historically, examining the significant elements that defined the cultural practice of the revista. The text provides a detailed summary of the revista and discusses how Chin Chun Chan changed the path of theatrical entertainment for the Teatro Principal, which, in the past, catered only to Spanish productions.

Primary Sources

Piano and vocal arrangements of the musical works can be found at the University of New Mexico Latin American sheet music collection and the Mexican sheet music collection located in their Special Collections.

Periodicals from the period that published reviews and critics of Chin Chun Chan include El Imparcial, which can be located at the Hemeroteca Nacional at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and the Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada located in Mexico City. Select periodical reviews have been published in Luis Reyes de la Maza’s El teatro en México durante el porfirismo Tomo III (1900–1910). De la Maza includes several 1904 excerpts about the premiere of Chin Chun Chan in El Imparcial.

Further Reading

Alonso, Enrique. María Conesa. Mexico City: Océano, 1987.Find this resource:

    Dueñas, Pablo. Las divas en el teatro de revista mexicano. Mexico City: Asociación mexicana de estudios fonográficos, A.C., 1994.Find this resource:

      García Riera, Emilio. Historia documental del cine mexicano. Vol. 1. Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1992.Find this resource:

        Gunckel, Colin. Mexico on Main Street: Transnational Film Culture in Los Angeles before World War II. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

          Isabel Serna, Laura. Making Cinelandia: American Films and Mexican Film Culture before the Golden Age. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

            Johns, Michael. The City of Mexico in the Age of Díaz. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.Find this resource:

              Mañón, Manuel. Historia del teatro principal de México, 1753−1931. Mexico City: Editorial Cultural, 2009.Find this resource:

                de María y Campos, Armando. El teatro de género chico en la revolución mexicana. Mexico City: Biblioteca del Instituto Nacional de Estudios Históricos de la Revolución Mexicana. 1956.Find this resource:

                  Miranda, Jorge, comp. Del rancho al Bataclán: Cancionero de teatro de revista 1900–1940. Mexico City: Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares, 1984.Find this resource:

                    Ortiz Bullé Goyri, Alejandro. “Orígenes y desarollo del teatro de revista en México (1869−1953).” In Un siglo de teatro en México. Edited by David Olguín, 40–53. Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 2011.Find this resource:

                      Pulido Llano, Gabriela. “Empresarias y tandas.” Bicentenario: El ayer y hoy de México 2.6 (2009): 14–21.Find this resource:

                        Tenorio Trillo, Mauricio. Historia y celebración: México y sus Centenarios. Mexico City: Tusquets Editores México S.A. de C.V., 2009.Find this resource:

                          Young, Clinton D. Music Theater and Popular Nationalism in Spain 1880−1930. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016.Find this resource:


                            (1.) Luis Reyes de la Maza, El teatro en México durante el porfirismo, Tomo III (1900–1910) (Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1968), 241.

                            (2.) These popular theater practices were also referred to as teatro de género chico (theater of a short show) and tandas (shows or performances). See John Nomland, Teatro mexicano contemporáneo 1900–1950 (Mexico City: Ediciones del Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, Departamento de Literatura, 1967), 133.

                            (3.) From 1880 to 1884, Manuel González served as president. Once his term was up, Porfirio Díaz returned to the presidency.

                            (4.) Leonora Saavedra, “Urban Music in the Mexican Revolution,” paper read at the national meeting for the Society for Ethnomusicology, Columbus, OH, 2007.

                            (5.) See Pablo Dueñas and Jesús Flores Escalante, Teatro Mexicano, historia y dramaturgia. Vol. 20, Teatro de revista (1904–1936) (Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 1995).

                            (6.) Paulo Dueñas, Las divas en el teatro de revista mexicano (Mexico City: Asociación Mexicana de Estudios Fonográficos, 1994), 45.

                            (7.) “Las Tandas del Principal hasta entonces habían sido divertimentos españoles, cantados y bailados por actores españoles, escritos y musicalizados por autores españoles, producidos por empresarios españoles,” Armando María y Campos, Las tandas del Principal (Mexico City: Editorial Diana, 1989), 18.

                            (8.) Nomland, Teatro mexicano contemporaneo, 142.

                            (9.) Jacqueline Avila, “El espectáculo: The Culture of the Revistas in Mexico City and Los Angeles (1900–40),” in Recuerdos de un cine en español: Classic Latin American Film in Los Angeles, eds. María Elena de la Carreras, Colin Gunckel, Jan-Christopher Horak and Paulina Suarez-Hesketh (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, (in process).

                            (10.) As a title, Chin Chun Chan bears sonic similarities to the city in Michoacán Tzintzuntzan, which was the capital of the Purépecha nation.

                            (11.) “Payos” is a popular nickname for someone of Mexican descent. It is a regionalism that is generally applied to someone with indigenous ancestry.

                            (12.) Reyes de la Maza, El teatro de México durante el porfirismo, 241.

                            (13.) Elliot Young, Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 198.

                            (14.) Alejandro Ortiz Bullé Goyri, “José F. Elizondo y el estreno de la zarzuela de Chin Chun Chan,” Temas y variaciones de literatura 29 (2007): 47.

                            (15.) “Cada línea es un girón de costumbres, de modos y de modas de aquella época, en que se hacía teatro por todo: por negocio, por afición, por costumbre o tradición, por galantería.” María y Campos, Las tandas del Principal, 177–178.

                            (16.) José F. Elizondo, Chin Chun Chan, libretto included in Pablo Dueñas and Jesús Flores Escalante, Teatro mexicano, historia y dramaturgia. Vol. 20, Teatro de revista, 43.

                            (17.) Elizondo, Chin Chun Chan.

                            (18.) Elizondo, Chin Chun Chan, 50.

                            (19.) Güera typically means “white female” or “pale or blond” female. Because white skin was privileged in Mexican society, the label of “güera” even if you are not “pale or blond” was and is considered a sign of a higher social class.

                            (20.) There is no direct translation of palanquetas piloncilos. This is a type of sweet with peanuts mixed with a dark, unrefined sugar.

                            (21.) Libretto included in Dueñas and Flores y Escalante, Teatro mexicano, historia y dramaturgia. Vol. 20, Teatro de revista, 47–48.

                            (22.) Dueñas and Flores y Escalante, Teatro mexicano, 49.

                            (23.) Reyes de la Maza, El teatro en México durante el porfirismo, 241.

                            (24.) María y Campos, Las tandas del Principal, 193.

                            (25.) Alejandro Ortiz Bullé Goyri, “Orígenes y desarrollo del teatro de revista en México (1896–1953),” in Un siglo de teatro en México, coor. David Olguín (Mexico City: Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 2011), 44.

                            (26.) Libretto included in Dueñas and Flores y Escalante, Teatro Mexicano, historia y dramaturgia. Vol. 20, Teatro de revista, 51.

                            (27.) Dueñas and Flores y Escalante, Teatro Mexicano.

                            (28.) “Un verdadero éxito, y un acierto para un número de revista.” María y Campos, Las tandas del Principal, 93–194.

                            (29.) Dueñas and Flores y Escalante, Teatro Mexicano, historia y dramaturgia. Vol. 20, Teatro de revista, 18.

                            (30.) See Jacqueline Avila, “México de mis inventos: Salon Music, Lyric Theater, and Nostalgia in cine de añoranza porfiriana,” Latin American Music Review 38. no. 1 (2017): 1–27.