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Asians and Asian Americans and the Performing Arts Prior to World War II

Summary and Keywords

Performers of Asian ancestry worked in a variety of venues and media as part of the American entertainment industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some sang Tin Pan Alley numbers, while others performed light operatic works. Dancers appeared on the vaudeville stage, periodically in elaborate ensembles, while acrobats from China, India, and Japan wowed similar audiences. Asian immigrants also played musical instruments at community events. Finally, a small group lectured professionally on the Chautauqua Circuit.

While on the stage, these performers had to navigate American racial attitudes that tried to marginalize them. To find steady work, performers of Asian ancestry often had to play to stereotypes popular with white audiences. Furthermore, they faced oversight by immigration authorities, who monitored their movements in and around the country and made it difficult for foreign entertainers to work in the country for long periods of time.

Despite these hurdles, Asians and Asian Americans have appeared in the performing arts in the United States for over one hundred years.

Keywords: pre–World War II, performing arts, vaudeville, circuses, dime museums, human curiosities, world expositions, Chautauqua, yellowface, night clubs

Tracing the history of Asians and Asian Americans in entertainment prior to World War II is a daunting task. For actors of Asian descent in the United States at that time, orientalism limited opportunities for employment and recognition of their artistry. It also led to their typecasting as exotic foreigners or threats to white dominance. Furthermore, the musical, dance, and theatrical traditions of Asia were presumed to lack the artistic and representational sophistication of Western performance, reflecting the belief in Asian racial inferiority. This hierarchy appeared in travel literature, musicological analyses, and historical monographs and was used to justify the marginalization of Asian arts within American society. By the 1940s, the pervasiveness of these beliefs and casting practices—what became known as yellowface—impacted every aspect of the performing arts, requiring entertainers of Asian ancestry to find novel ways to maintain their creativity while simultaneously subverting stereotypes.

The types of sources available in the early 21st century compound the problems tied to the racialization of American entertainment. Out of the major archival resources devoted to the performing arts prior to World War II, none focus on persons of Asian ancestry.1 Nineteenth- and early-20th-century newspapers, broadsides, playbills, and sheet music contain some information on performers. However, these sources must be read with attention to their orientalist perspective; these texts must be analyzed carefully, not only because they use racialized language to marginalize and demean Asian and Asian American actors but also because they sometimes contain inaccurate information. To complicate this research even further, actors created false identities, making it difficult to verify whether they were of Asian ancestry or not. Because of laws severely restricting Asian immigration, the Immigration Bureau, later known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, maintained detailed records on the movements of performers of Asian ancestry, including those born in the United States who crossed international borders. These materials are part of Record Group 85 at the National Archives and are one of the most useful resources available for gaining insight into these distinctive artists.

Despite these hurdles, scholars from a variety of disciplines have begun to reconstruct this early history, starting with the antebellum period when the American public interacted with Asian performers through the display of human curiosities. The arrival of large numbers of Asian immigrants, commencing with the Chinese in the 1850s, also brought a variety of musical, theatrical, and dance traditions to the United States. Immigrants, however, were more interested in practicing the craft of these communal traditions than in entertaining outsiders. By the early 20th century, Asians along with a number of Americans of Asian ancestry worked in the increasingly heterogeneous American entertainment industry. These performers found opportunities in Chautauqua, vaudeville, taxi-dance halls, nightclubs, and film. They often replicated stereotypes to find work; however, Asian and Asian American entertainers also hoped to sustain their artistry and undermine the racial status quo. By World War II, Asians and Asian Americans had participated in the American entertainment industry, despite innumerable hurdles, for over a century.

Nineteenth-Century Asian Acts

The majority of Americans had never met someone of Asian ancestry until American sea captains brought the first Asian acts to the United States in the early 19th century. These white entrepreneurs did not highlight a common humanity among entertainers and audiences, but displayed Asians like objects, playing to notions of exoticism that were already circulating in other forms of media. In a handful of cases, American entrepreneurs hired people with physical differences to emphasize what Americans perceived to be the oddities of the performer’s homeland.2 During the antebellum period, Asian acts appeared primarily in museums, which served both educational and entertainment purposes. As the entertainment industry expanded, Asian acts also played much larger venues, such as circuses and world expositions. The artistry of such acts captivated audiences, but they continued to foster prevalent racial stereotypes of the time.3

The first Asian acts reflected what Jack Tchen in New York before Chinatown has called “commercial orientialism,” a less overly political form of exoticism that existed in the early republican and antebellum periods.4 The majority of these acts were displayed as curiosities because their physical “reality” was viewed as foreign; they did not necessarily have extraordinary talents. Two of the most famous human curiosities to appear in this period were Chang and Eng Bunker, popularly known as the Siamese Twins. Brought to Boston from Siam (present-day Thailand) in 1829 by Captain Abel Coffin and Robert Hunter, a Scottish merchant, they traveled throughout the country drawing large audiences fascinated by their corporal differences as conjoined twins and as Asian men.5

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Figure 1. Afong Moy Broadside, c. 1842.

Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Over the next three decades, American entrepreneurs hired several Chinese men and women to work as curiosities, including Afong Moy, a woman with bound feet (1834–1837; possibly 1847); The Keying, a Chinese ship with crew (1847); Barnum’s Chinese Family (1850–1853); and the Chinese Artistes, an acrobatic troupe (1852–1854) (see figure 1).6

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Figure 2. Carte de Visite of Hamaikari Sadakichi, lead performer in Risley and Maguire’s Imperial Japanese Troupe, c. 1867.

Courtesy of the Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library.

In response to the legalization of international travel in Japan in 1866, American and British entrepreneurs recruited Japanese acts to tour Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America. Americans—like most outsiders—knew very little about Japan, and attitudes fluctuated greatly between admiration and derision. For the majority of the country, the arrival of Japanese acrobatic troupes was a novelty, both in terms of their nation of origin and acrobatic skills (figure 2). The first Japanese acrobats arrived in San Francisco in December 1866, followed by six additional troupes within the next year. Most of these acts initially appeared in museums or under tents in rural areas; however, as their popularity increased, they also found work in circuses and on the vaudeville stage. Edison Manufacturing Company in New York City even made a short film of unnamed Japanese acrobats who performed in vaudeville in 1904.7 Until World War II, the American entertainment industry recognized their appeal among American audiences and regularly hired Japanese acrobats.8

By the late 19th century, American circuses and world expositions tapped into an emerging global network of entertainment entrepreneurs to hire individuals and troupes from overseas. Chinese and Japanese acts continued to be popular with audiences; however, improvements in communication and transportation technologies enabled the recruitment of performers from other parts of Asia, especially the Indian subcontinent. The New York Times in 1896 reported extensively on the arrival of South Asian musicians, dancers, acrobats, and actors to join Barnum and Bailey Circus. The anonymous reporter wrote about the extraordinariness of their arrival: “[t]he party was about the strangest that ever landed from Ellis Island.” He also noted the number of onlookers who watched them move into their Manhattan lodgings, which caused a “great stir” and local “police had to clear the thoroughfare.”9 A handful of other South Asians came to work for American circuses or world expositions in the late 19th century too.10

At the same time, organizers of world expositions recruited Asian acts to work at both educational and entertainment venues at the fairgrounds. Again, these acts played to American notions of exoticism, particularly in the entertainment sections; however, late-19th-century racial attitudes also impacted the experiences of specific groups. For example, the Midway Plaisance at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 included “villages” representing various peoples from around the world. In one day, visitors could watch a Chinese operatic production, listen to a Javanese orchestra, and shop at a South Asian bazaar. Chinese American merchants organized the Chinese portions of the Plaisance, trying to demonstrate the sophistication of Chinese civilization and promote more positive attitudes toward Chinese immigrants. The Chinese government—in response to the renewal of the Chinese Exclusion Act (which banned Chinese laborers from entering the country and required all Chinese to carry certificates of identity)—had refused to participate.11 Meanwhile, educational displays were used to reinforce racial hierarchies that circulated in both popular and intellectual circles. These displays portrayed Asians as either backward-looking or trapped in the past, which justified European and American colonialization.

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Figure 3. Samal Maranao Orchestra, 1904. From Report of the Philippines Exposition Board in the United States (1905).

This practice became particularly important after the U.S. took possession of the Philippines in 1898. The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair showcased four Filipino ethnolinguistic groups on the Philippine Reservation along with the Philippine Constabulary Band (figure 3). Writers noted that the band’s performances, which included American marches, demonstrated the positive influence of the United States on the Philippines. At the same time, they believed that the primitiveness of residents at the Reservation justified US control of the archipelago and the need to uplift certain segments of the Filipino people.12

Since the late 1820s, entrepreneurs had brought Asian acts to the United States to entertain local audiences, hoping that, by playing to American notions of exoticism, the performances could be turned into profits. The increase in the number of entertainment opportunities after the Civil War—along with improvements in communication and transportation—facilitated not only the migration of Chinese and Japanese acts but also the recruitment of entertainers from other parts of Asia. By the end of the 19th century, the entertainment industry realized that Asian performers were central to its success, and a steady stream of foreign talent was integral. Unfortunately, the passage of immigration restrictions, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), made it difficult (although not impossible) for entrepreneurs working in the United States to recruit Asian performers.

Asian and Asian American Performers and Immigration Law

The racialization of American society and culture in the 19th and early 20th centuries impacted every aspect of the entertainment industry, and led to stringent restrictions on Asian performers. While their acts navigated stereotypical representations on the stage, Asian performers were also targets of nativism generated by racists and artists’ unions, which viewed them as threats to job security. Immigration officials had to strike a balance between the industry’s demand for foreign entertainment and their presumed duty to protect the American body politic from individuals who were perceived as threats to white supremacy. Although most entertainers were able to travel in and out of the United States, they faced increasing regulation of their movements by the American government throughout this period.13

Chinese entertainers were the first to experience the comprehensive inspections that eventually applied to all foreign acts. During the late 19th century, immigration authorities and the courts struggled to decide whether the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), which barred laborers from legal entry, included performers. With the arrival of Ho King, an opera singer, in 1883, an Oregon District Court judge ruled Ho’s work was mental rather than physical in nature and, therefore, did not fit the popular definition of a laborer.14 Five years later, the US Congress amended the Chinese Exclusion Act to further limit legal entry, and entertainers were no longer permitted to come into the country. While this amendment hurt immigrant communities, which supported theatrical companies from China, it also negatively impacted white entrepreneurs who recognized the popularity of certain Chinese acts among non-Chinese audiences. In 1893, the US Congress passed special legislation to address complaints from coordinators of the Columbian Exposition to permit opera singers and acrobats into the country. It allowed entertainers to enter legally if they worked only at the fair and left the country when the exposition closed.15

By the early 20th century, immigration authorities also established new procedures for American citizens of Chinese ancestry who worked in entertainment too. Like other performers, Chinese Americans in vaudeville traveled to Canada or Europe as part of their employment. Immigration authorities, however, required that these performers—because of their ancestry—go through a lengthy interrogation process to prove their American citizenship upon re-entry. The procedure took days and sometimes months to complete, which meant vaudevillians missed upcoming engagements. Through the negotiations of theatrical agents, performers, and immigration inspectors, a system was created in which Chinese American vaudevillians proved their citizenship to federal authorities before leaving the country. After establishing their citizenship, performers or their agents needed to contact immigration authorities in advance of any international travel. Despite the amount of correspondence required, this process sped up border crossings for Chinese American vaudevillians.16

A few years later, immigration authorities changed their policies toward Chinese acts. In 1912, Ching Ling Foo, a well-known magician, and his troupe arrived in the United States under contract with New York impresario Oscar Hammerstein I to perform in vaudeville. Instead of deporting Ching and his troupe, immigration authorities established a bonding system to ensure that they came to the United States only to perform and left after a set period of time. Authorities extended the process to other Chinese acts, but only white entrepreneurs were given the privilege of bringing entertainers into the country under bond. In 1922, after a decade of political pressure, the federal government allowed Chinese immigrant theater companies to recruit opera singers from China to work in the United States on a temporary basis.17

While many of the earliest anti-immigrant federal policies affected performers of Chinese ancestry, soon the federal government passed additional laws targeting other Asian populations. The Immigration Act of 1917 (also known as the Barred Zone Act) excluded all immigrants from Asia (except Japan and the Philippines), the Arabian Peninsula, and the islands of the South Pacific. Performers were exempted under this law, and could still reside in the United States for as long as they desired; however, they were also expected to pass a literacy test and pay a head tax, two components of the 1917 law added to exclude those perceived to be undesirable immigrants from outside the barred zone.18

The Johnson-Reed Act (also known as the National Origins Quota Act) of 1924 placed additional limits on the immigration of Asian entertainers. Besides creating elaborate racial and national classifications, it expanded and codified the system of temporary admittance first created by the Immigration Bureau to accommodate Chinese performers. All performers of Asian descent had to apply for temporary admittance with a contract in hand specifying performance dates along with their departure. The new law surprised some performers. In the summer of 1924, the Yokai Acrobatic Troupe traveled to Canada after performing in Chicago, only to discover later that they could no longer return to the United States. The troupe applied to enter temporarily so that they could make their next performance in Pennsylvania.19

With the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act, the Immigration Bureau established an elaborate bureaucracy to police the movement of Asian entertainers working in the United States. White audiences enjoyed Asian acts, and entrepreneurs recognized the potential profits in hiring them. Their popularity on the stage, however, did not mean that most Americans wanted Asian entertainers to have the opportunity to become permanent residents or (if other laws changed) naturalized citizens. In recognition of this conflict, immigration authorities focused on admitting acts that worked in mainstream American theatrical spaces, and not immigrant communities.

Immigrant Communities and the Performing Arts

The arrival of Asian immigrants, starting with the Chinese in the 1850s, introduced a variety of performing arts traditions to the United States. Like other immigrant groups, Asians used music, dance, and drama not only to bring people together, but also to reaffirm their shared ties to their homeland, language, and religion. For Asian immigrants and their American-born children, the arts also registered their resistance to the nativist and racist attitudes that denied them access to American citizenship, social acceptance, and economic security. Thus, entertainment served multiple purposes, allowing Asian Americans to express their feelings about living in the United States and constructing alternatives to the anti-Asian representations found in mainstream American culture.20

Sometimes, performances were private affairs among close friends and family members. Immigrants often performed in the evening after dinner when chores and work for the day were done. For example, Chinese immigrants in the 19th century played instruments and sang in the back rooms of their shops.21 Angeles Monrayo, who had traveled to Hawaii and California from the Philippines, wrote in her diary repeatedly about playing the ukulele and singing in the evening with friends.22 The cultivation of music also functioned as a way to maintain connections with one’s heritage or express upward social mobility. San Francisco’s Japanese American Yearbook, published in 1914, included listings for music teachers, varying from koto (thirteen-string zither) to piano, the latter of which marked middle class status.23

Scholars have also documented folk songs among Asian immigrants that combined musical aesthetics from specific homelands with lyrics based on experiences in the United States. Chinese immigrants and their loved ones who were left behind produced Gamsaan Go (in Mandarin, Jin Shan Ge), or “Gold Mountain Songs,” which described the immigrant experience, including work in the gold fields and anti-Chinese discrimination.24 Holehole bushi, sung by Japanese immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mixed regional musical traditions with stories of hardships on Hawaiian sugar plantations.25 Folklorists have also recorded protest songs among South Asians in the early 20th century, which were published in booklets by the Ghadar Party in California. These songs focused on Indian patriotism and independence from Great Britain.26 Sometimes, musical accompaniment evolved as the result of experiences in the United States. Filipinos sung the Tagalog ballad, “Dahil Sa Iyo,” in California’s agricultural camps by the 1920s; however, instrumentation changed to reflect American musical practices, shifting from a guitar to a band or orchestra. Periodically, the song was even translated into English.27

Restaurants, theaters, and community centers were important places where immigrants and their American-born children enjoyed various types of entertainment. In his memoir, Pardee Lowe recalled attending a banquet in San Francisco’s Chinatown with his father. These familial or communal events were usually held in large restaurants and frequently included musical accompaniment. At this particular dinner, five of the seven musicians were women, which surprised Lowe. Most Chinese immigrant musicians were male until the 1920s, when female Chinese opera stars started to perform in the United States.28 In Nisei Daughter, Monica Sone describes a picnic in Seattle for her Nihon Go Gakko (Japanese Language School). In preparation for the picnic, all of the children learned Japanese folk songs, dances, and marching drills. Later in the day, parents and teachers sang among themselves, a nostalgic reminder of their youth in Japan.29 In response to Japanese colonialism, Korean immigrants living in Hawaii in the early 20th century promoted musical and dance traditions as a way of maintaining their heritage. Ha Soo Whang established the Hyung Jay Club in Honolulu to teach Korean dance and music. In spite of the fact that entertainers were at the bottom of the social ladder in Korea, Hyung’s classes were popular, and students performed at the Honolulu Academy of Art for ethnically diverse audiences.30

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Figure 4. Florence Ahn leaving Hawaii, 1936.

Courtesy of Korean American Digital Archive, University of Southern California.

In the late 1930s, Florence Ahn—a Korean American singer who went on to train at Juilliard and perform professionally for at least two decades—held one of her first recitals in Honolulu sponsored by the Hyung Jay Club (see figure 4).31

Religious services and annual festivals, which varied widely among Asian immigrants, also incorporated music and dance. Some brought traditions that were deeply embedded in their sense of community and, by extension, identity. The annual O-Bon festival, a Buddhist celebration to honor ancestors, was one of the most important events of the year for Japanese Americans. It included chants, folk songs, and dances, accompanied by a takebue (flute), gong, taiko, and shamisen.32 Only a small number of Korean immigrants lived in the United States during this period, and many had converted to Protestant Christianity. Mary Paik Lee recalled her father holding Sunday services at their home in California for seven local families. They sang American-style hymns, although they had no musical accompaniment.33 In Stockton, California, Filipinos also joined local Protestant churches. The accessibility of the services—including the music—made them popular with Filipinos who had grown up attending Catholic Mass in Latin, which no one understood.34

Asian Americans also created new cultural events, highlighting their community’s contributions to the United States. Music and dance were central, particularly American genres. By the 1910s, Filipino migrants celebrated Rizal Day (December 30) with speeches condemning Spanish colonialism and implicitly the United States’ recent acquisition of the archipelago. The simple affair evolved into elaborate day-long series of events, which culminated with a formal ball where audience members danced with candidates for the queen of Rizal Day. The ideal person—based on her manifestation of gendered ideals of Filipina womanhood—would be crowned “Miss Philippines” at the end of the evening.35 In 1934, merchants in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo along with the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) invented a new tradition, “Nisei Week,” to promote Japanese American businesses. Organizers hoped the celebration would highlight the Americanization of the nisei (second generation) and promote positive attitudes toward Japanese immigrants among whites. Catering to outsiders, Nisei Week included music, dance, food, fashion, and displays of Japanese goods.36

The most controversial entertainment spaces, however, were taxi-dance halls. By the 1920s, taxi-dance halls emerged in newly hybridized cultural spaces located in Little Manilas or Chinatowns and catered to largely Filipino and sometimes Mexican immigrant men. They charged the largely working-class clientele a dime or quarter to enter and then an additional ten cents to dance for one minute with a woman of their choosing.

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Figure 5. Filipino Serenaders, c. 1925.

Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

The bands, which included Filipinos, had to have 500 songs in their repertoire, and usually played 300 songs in any given night (see figure 5). Because of their musical range, bands—such as the Manila Serenaders—were quite successful and often traveled, playing a variety of venues. These dance halls hired working-class, white women, usually from the South or Midwest, and sometimes the children of Eastern European immigrants, to work as possible dance partners. For these women, the work provided good money, especially during the Great Depression. The intermingling of white women with Filipino men, however, upset the white middle class (as well as some conservative Filipinas), who demanded the closure of locations permitting interracial dancing. Not all halls, however, closed. In 1937, Demetrio Ente, originally from Bohol province, relocated his Rizal Social Club from Seattle to Stockton, California. Like other taxi-dance hall owners, he carefully navigated local racial attitudes about miscegenation. To protect his business, Ente re-created his dance hall into a private club, which required a membership to enter. He also hired security to keep white men out and paid off local police.37

Like other immigrant groups, Asians brought their performing arts traditions with them to the United States and often fostered their appreciation among descendants and, in some cases, outsiders too. These productions evolved to reflect Asian immigrant experiences, and sometimes incorporated American forms of musical, dance, and theatrical expression. By the early 20th century, this mix of traditions reached beyond immigrant communities as Asians and Asian Americans became part of the American entertainment industry.

Early-20th-Century Entertainment Industry

By the beginning of the 20th century, the American entertainment industry became more diversified and embraced new performance styles and technologies. The types of acts seen in the 19th century continued; however, audiences enjoyed them in new ways. Chautauqua, vaudeville, nightclubs, and motion pictures were popular places of entertainment that included routines by both Asians and Asian Americans. For American audiences, social constructions of racial difference would inevitably inform perceptions of performers of Asian descent, including their ability to sing, dance, speak, act, and play musical instruments. Many entertainers—well aware of these attitudes—used their theatrical and musical skills to counter popular perceptions and, when possible, break down stereotypes.

By the late 19th century, South Asians traveled to the United States to give lectures on religion, politics, and history. The establishment of English schools, which Protestant missionaries had opened for conversion purposes, became the training ground for South Asian lecturers who spoke on the need to reform both American and Indian society. The first speakers arrived in the 1880s. In 1884, Gopalrao Joshee lectured on the similarities and differences between the United States and India, while his wife, Anandibai Joshee, attended medical school in Philadelphia.

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Figure 6. Portrait of Pandita Ramabai, c. 1887. The High-Caste Hindu Woman (1887).

A few years later, Pandita Ramabai (figure 6) toured the United States and spoke on the need to educate Indian women, especially widows.38 The opening of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 brought Vivekananda to attend the World Parliament of Religions, where he was noted for his charisma on the stage. After the exposition, he gave hundreds of lectures to fund his religious work and established the United States’ first Vedanta School of Hinduism.39

By the early 20th century, educational lectures by South Asian speakers became commonplace at universities and community lecture halls. Many of these speakers attended American universities, and a handful were faculty members. Dhan Gopal Mukerji, one of the most well-known South Asian intellectuals in the United States, traveled the country lecturing on Indian history, literature, politics, and religion for the general public and college students. After leaving Stanford University, he also became a prolific writer, producing two English-language plays. Layla-Majnu: A Musical Play in Three Acts and The Judgment of Indra were published early in his literary career; it is unknown whether they were ever performed.40 Redpath Chautauqua, which organized traveling lecture series for smaller cities and towns, hired several South Asian speakers by the 1910s and 1920s. Sudhindra Bose, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa, spoke frequently about India and the Middle East for Chautauqua audiences.41

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Figure 7. Bhaskar Pandurang Hivale brochure, c. 1920s.

Courtesy of Special Collections Department, University of Iowa.

Theologian Bhaskar P. Hivale, who spoke on South Asian religions, had attended Harvard University; he and his spouse, Ruthbai Hivale, reportedly gave 831 lectures in the United States and Canada on the Chautauqua Circuit by the 1920s (see figure 7). His wife also played the sitar.42

By the early 20th century, performers of Asian ancestry appeared on the vaudeville stage, and like lecturers, not only entertained American audiences but also challenged racial attitudes. Novelty was central to vaudeville’s success, and theatrical agents were constantly looking for sensational acts to bring in audiences. Many vaudeville circuits hired Asian acrobatic and magic acts, similar to those of the previous century. Long Tack Sam, world famous magician and acrobat, and his troupe performed on the Keith-Albee Circuit starting in the 1910s after a successful European tour. Despite its popularity, Long’s troupe could stay in the U.S. for only a three-year period without facing deportation proceedings. Nevertheless, they returned repeatedly before World War II.43

Vaudeville was also a relatively democratic form of entertainment, and a place where the children of immigrants often found success. The sight of someone of Asian descent working in an American idiom was something new and exciting for audiences, which theater owners recognized as lucrative. Influenced by popular and pseudo-scientific racism, most whites doubted the ability of men and women of Asian descent to participate in Western performing arts traditions.

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Figure 8. Portrait of Lee Tung Foo in a Scottish costume, c. 1910s.

Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library.

Yet Chinese Americans, starting with Lee Tung Foo in 1905, made a career working on the vaudeville stage, countering yellowface stereotypes found in American popular culture (see figure 8). He sang operatic and popular songs, gave ethnic impersonations, and exchanged comedic patter.44 Other Asian Americans similarly participated in vaudeville. The Meyakos, a Japanese American trio consisting of two sisters and one brother, first appeared in vaudeville in 1914. The sisters performed a combination of acrobatics, which most audiences expected of a Japanese act, and sang popular Tin Pan Alley numbers. Their brother also counteracted stereotypes by playing the violin.45

With the decline of vaudeville in the 1930s, performers alternatively found work in the Chop Suey Circuit, a network of nightclubs and bars that hosted Asian American revues. The first and most famous club was the Forbidden City, which Chinese American entrepreneur Charlie Lowe opened in San Francisco in 1938. Other cities soon followed, which gave entertainers steady work during the Great Depression. Most casts were Chinese American (Dorothy Takahashi of the dancing duo, Toy and Wing, and Florence Ahn were notable exceptions), but audiences were overwhelmingly white. Like vaudevillians, these acts played to popular notions of Chinese exoticism through costumes and stage props, while simultaneously performing modern American dances, skits, and songs. Asian Americans working in European American and African American performance idioms—after thirty years of similar acts in vaudeville—were still considered novel for white audiences. The Chop Suey Circuit continued to provide jobs for Asian American entertainers through the 1940s and 1950s.46

The heterogeneity of the American entertainment industry in the early 20th century became an opportunity for both Asians and Asian Americans. Moving beyond the human curiosities of the previous century, they used their voices and bodies to engage American audiences, particularly white ones, in ways that not only entertained but also questioned the racial status quo. The experiences during this period set the metaphorical and literal stage for future Asian and Asian American actors in other forms of entertainment.

Impact on the Future

By the beginning of World War II, Asians and Asian Americans had appeared in a variety of entertainment venues—singing, dancing, acting, lecturing, and playing music. Unfortunately, few scholars and even fewer members of the general public are aware of this history. While American exclusionary legislation, which banned most Asian immigration during this period, did not cut off the flow of Asian acts, their liminal status meant that entertainers were under constant monitoring by immigration authorities and were forbidden from pursuing permanent residency. The marginalization of these entertainers has created a false impression that they were not there. When Asian and Asian American performers did gain notice, racialized attitudes informed American perceptions of their artistic abilities. Not only did Asians and Asian Americans in American entertainment face constant discrimination, but also they had to counter the racist stereotypes that dominated representations within the performing arts through their work.

Their invisibility in the past has impacted the ways that yellowface acting and orientalist stereotypes are still unfortunate realities in the early 21st century. Part of the struggles for visibility that Asian and Asian American performers face are tied to these legacies of racism in the American entertainment industry.

Further Reading

Feng, Peter X. Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

    Garrett, Charles. “Chinatown, Whose Chinatown? Defining America’s Borders with Musical Orientalism.” Journal of American Musicological Society 57.1 (2004): 119–173.Find this resource:

      Hamamoto, Darrell Y. Monitored Peril: Asian Americans and the Politics of TV Representation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.Find this resource:

        Klein, Christina. Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945–1961. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.Find this resource:

          Kondo, Dorinne. About Face: Performing Race in Fashion and Theater. New York: Routledge, 1997.Find this resource:

            Kwan, SanSan. “Performing a Geography of Asian America: The Chop Suey Circuit.” TDR: The Drama Review 55.1 (Spring 2011): 120–136.Find this resource:

              Lee, Esther Kim. A History of Asian American Theatre. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                Lee, Josephine. Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

                  Lee, Josephine. The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.Find this resource:

                    Lopez, Lori Kido. Asian American Media Activism: Fighting for Cultural Citizenship. New York: New York University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

                      Marchetti, Gina. Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.Find this resource:

                        Mihara, Aya. “Professor Risley and Japanese Acrobats II: Their Provincial Tour in England, 1867–1868.” Japanese Language and Culture 17 (1991): 39–50.Find this resource:

                          Mihara, Aya. “‘Little All Right’ Took the Stage: A Tour of the Japanese Acrobats in Western Europe.” Ohtani Women’s University Studies in English Language and Literature 23 (1996): 99–114.Find this resource:

                            Moon, Krystyn. “‘There’s No Yellow in the Red, White, and Blue’: The Creation of Anti-Japanese Music during World War II,” Pacific Historical Review 72 (August 2003): 333–353.Find this resource:

                              Robertson, Marta. “Ballad for Incarcerated Americans: Second Generation Japanese American Musicking in World War II Camps.” Journal of the Society for American Music 11.3 (2017): 284–312.Find this resource:

                                “Rose Yuen Ow, Cabaret Dancer.” In Unbound Voices: A Documentary History of Chinese Women in San Francisco. Edited by Judy Yung, 278–308. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.Find this resource:

                                  Schodt, Frederik L. Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troup: How an American Acrobat Introduced Circus to Japan—and Japan to the West. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                                    Scott, Derek B. “Orientalism and Musical Style.” Musical Quarterly 82 (Summer 1998): 309–335.Find this resource:

                                      Shimakawa, Karen. National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

                                        Tsou, Judy. “Gendering Race: Stereotypes of Chinese Americans in Popular Sheet Music.” Repercussions 6 (Fall 2001): 25–62.Find this resource:

                                          Williams, Dave. Misreading the Chinese Character: Images of the Chinese in Euroamerican Drama to 1925. New York: Peter Lang, 2000.Find this resource:

                                            Wong, Helen Jean. “Playing the Palace Theatre: A Chinese American’s Recollections of Vaudeville.” Chinese America: History and Perspectives 3 (1989): 111–116.Find this resource:

                                              Yoshihara, Mari. Embracing the East: White Women and American Orientalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

                                                Yoshihara, Mari. Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007.Find this resource:


                                                  (1.) The two most useful collections are found at New York Public Library’s Billy Rose Theatre Division and the Harvard University’s Theatre Collection. Collections at the American Antiquarian Society, Huntington Library, Library of Congress, and the University of Iowa also contain important collections.

                                                  (2.) Robert Bogdan, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); and Andrea Stulman Dennett, Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America (New York: New York University Press, 1997).

                                                  (3.) Robert W. Rydell, All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876–1916 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

                                                  (4.) John Kuo Wei Tchen, New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776–1882 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 63–166.

                                                  (5.) Joseph Andrew Orser, The Lives of Chang and Eng: Siam’s Twins in Nineteenth Century America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

                                                  (6.) Robert G. Lee, Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999); and Krystyn Moon, Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Music and Performance (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004), 57–85.

                                                  (7.) “Japanese Acrobats” (1904), Edison American Memory, Library of Congress.

                                                  (8.) Krystyn Moon, “Paper Butterflies: Japanese Acrobats in Mid-Nineteenth-Century New England,” in Asian Americans in New England: Culture and Community, ed. Monica Chiu (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2009), 66–90; and Daivd C. S. Sissons, “Japanese Acrobatic Troupes Touring Australasia, 1867–1900,” Australasian Drama Studies 35 (1999): 73–107.

                                                  (9.) “‘Freaks’ from India,” New York Times (March 28, 1896), 9. Sometimes, African Americans pretended to be South Asian on the stage, making it difficult for scholars to discover the identity of certain acts. “Showmen’s Secrets,” Boston Daily Globe (January 14, 1883), 10.

                                                  (10.) Vivek Bald, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

                                                  (11.) Robert W. Rydell, “The Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition: ‘To Work Out the Problem of Universal Civilization,’” American Quarterly 33 (Winter 1981): 587–607; and Curtis M. Hinsley, “The World as Marketplace: Commodification of the Exotic at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893,” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, ed. Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990), 344–365.

                                                  (12.) Paul Kramer, “Making Concessions: Race and Empire Revisited at the Philippine Exposition, St. Louis, 1901–1905,” Radical History Review 73 (Winter 1999): 74–114; and Krystyn Moon, “The Quest for Music’s Origin at the St. Louis World’s Fair: Frances Densmore and the Racialization of Music,” American Music 28 (Summer 2010): 191–210.

                                                  (13.) Moon, Yellowface, 30–56 and 143–162; and Krystyn Moon, “On a Temporary Basis: Immigration, Labor Unions, and the American Entertainment Industry, 1880s–1930s,” Journal of American History 99 (December 2012): 771–792.

                                                  (14.) Moon, “On a Temporary Basis,” 774–775.

                                                  (15.) Moon, “On a Temporary Basis,” 775.

                                                  (16.) Moon, Yellowface, 144–145.

                                                  (17.) Moon, “On a Temporary Basis,” 775–778; and Nancy Yunhwa. Rao, Chinatown Opera Theater in North America (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2017), 21–76.

                                                  (18.) The head tax and literacy test seemed to affect Mexican entertainers who had crossed the border frequently to perform in Spanish-language theaters in the American Southwest. Moon, “On a Temporary Basis,” 779–782.

                                                  (19.) Moon, “On a Temporary Basis,” 780–783.

                                                  (20.) Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996).

                                                  (21.) Ronald Riddle, Flying Dragons, Flowing Streams: Music in the Life of San Francisco’s Chinatown (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983), 104–105.

                                                  (22.) Angeles Monrayo, Tomorrow’s Memories: A Diary, 1924–1928, ed. Rizaline R. Raymundo (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003), 54, 87, 99.

                                                  (23.) Susan Miyo Asai, “Transformations of Tradition: Three Generations of Japanese American Music Making,” Musical Quarterly 79.3 (Autumn 1995): 429–453; and Susan M. Asai, “The Cultural Politics of Issei Identity and Music Making in California, 1893–1941,” Journal of the Society for American Music 10.3 (2016): 304–330.

                                                  (24.) Marlon K. Hom, Songs of Gold Mountain: Cantonese Rhymes from San Francisco Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

                                                  (25.) Yukuo Uyehara, “The Horehore-Bushi: A Type of Japanese Folksong Developed and Sung among the Early Immigrants to Hawai’i,” Social Process in Hawai’i 28 (1981): 110–120; Aaron Kingsbury, “Music in the Fields: Constructing Narratives of the Late 19th Century Hawaiian Plantation Cultural Landscape,” Yearbook of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers 70 (2008): 45–58; and Franklin Odo, Voices from the Canefields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai’i (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

                                                  (26.) Ved Prakash Vatuk and Sylvia Vatuk, “Protest Songs of East Indians on the West Coast, U.S.A.,” Folk-lore 7.10 (October 1966): 370–382.

                                                  (27.) Linda España Maram, Creating Masculinity in Los Angeles’s Little Manila: Working Class Filipinos and Popular Culture, 1920s–1950s (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 1–2.

                                                  (28.) Pardee Lowe, Father and Glorious Descendent (Boston: Little, Brown, 1943), 43–48; and Rao, Chinatown Opera Theater in North America, 243–266.

                                                  (29.) Monica Sone, Nisei Daughter (1953; Reprint: Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995), 71–77.

                                                  (30.) R. Anderson Sutton, “Korean Music in Hawaii,” Asian Music 19.1 (Autumn–Winter 1987): 99–120.

                                                  (31.) “Hideo Anzai, “Florence Ahn Takeuchi, Pioneer Asian-American Singer,” Korea Times (Los Angeles) (August 31, 2001), 24; and “Song Debut” (n.d.).

                                                  (32.) Asai, “The Cultural Politics,” 321.

                                                  (33.) Sucheng Chan, ed., Quite Odyssey: A Pioneer Korean Woman in America (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990), 53.

                                                  (34.) Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, Little Manila Is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 201–203.

                                                  (35.) Arleen de Vera, “Rizal Day Queen Contests, Filipino Nationalism, and Femininity,” in Asian American Youth: Culture, Identity, and Ethnicity, ed. Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou (New York: Routledge, 2004), 67–82.

                                                  (36.) Lon Kurashige, Japanese American Celebration and Conflict: A History of Ethnic Identity and Festival in Los Angeles, 1934–1990 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 42–74.

                                                  (37.) Linda España Maram, Creating Masculinity in Los Angeles’s Little Manila: Working Class Filipinos and Popular Culture, 1920s–1950s (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 105–133; and Bohulano Mabalon, Little Manila Is in the Heart, 133–138.

                                                  (38.) Pandita Ramabai, Pandita Ramabai’s American Encounter: The Peoples of the United Sates (1889), trans. and ed. Meera Kosambi (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2003), 22, 241, n 3; Caroline Healey Dall, The Life of Dr. Anandabai Joshee, A Kinswoman of the Pundita Ramabai (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1888), 135–143, 160; and Gopal Vinayak Joshee, A Hindoo’s Impressions of America. A Lecture Delivered in Rochester, N.Y., Aug. 19, 1886 (Lunenburg, NY: Firefly Print, 1886).

                                                  (39.) Carl T. Jackson, Vedanta for the West: The Ramakrishna Movement in the United States (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 22–33.

                                                  (40.) Dhan Gopal Mukerji, Layla-Majnu: A Musical Play in Three Acts (San Francisco: P. Elder, 1916); Dhan Gopal Mukerji, “The Judgment of Indra: A Play,” in Fifty Contemporary One-Act Plays, ed. Frank Shay and Pierre Loving (Cincinnati: Stewart & Kidd, 1920); and Dhan Gopal Mukerji, Caste and Outcast, ed. Gordon H. Chang, Prima Mankekar, and Akhil Gupta (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2002).

                                                  (41.) “Sudhindra Bose, M.A., PhD. of Calcutta, India” (Brochure), Redpath Chautauqua Collection, c. 1920s; Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century. Bose’s papers are also housed at the University of Iowa.

                                                  (42.) “Bhaskar Pandurang Hivale” (Brochure), Redpath Chautaqua Collection, c. 1920s; Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century. There are several brochures for Hivale in this collection.

                                                  (43.) Marie Fleming, The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam [documentary] (Montreal: National Film Board of Canada, 2003).

                                                  (44.) Krystyn Moon, “Lee Tung Foo and the Creation of a Chinese American Vaudevillian,” Journal of Asian American Studies 8 (February 2005): 23–48; and Moon, Yellowface, 143–162.

                                                  (45.) “Vaudeville Reviews by Special Wire,” Billboard, November 7, 1914, 10; “The Billboard Song Chart,” Billboard (November 14, 1914), 4; April 3, 1915, 14. Mari Yoshihara’s research on Tamaki Miura, the only Japanese singer to find success performing European opera in the United States prior to World War II, also demonstrates the ways in which Miura manipulated American Orientalism by playing to notions of her own authenticity while singing Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Mari Yoshihara, “The Flight of the Japanese Butterfly: Orientalism, Nationalism, and Performances of Japanese Womanhood,” American Quarterly 56.4 (2004): 975–1001.

                                                  (46.) Arthur Dong, Forbidden City, U.S.A. (Los Angeles: DeepFocus Productions, 1989); Lorraine Dong, “The Forbidden City Legacy and Its Chinese American Women,” Chinese America: History and Perspectives 6 (1992): 125–148; and “The Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: Toy and Wing,” in Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and their Stories, 1900–1955, ed. Rusty E. Frank (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 102–110.