Chinese opera in America has several intertwined histories that have developed from the mid-19th century onward to inform performances and representations of Asian Americans on the opera stage. These histories include Chinese opera theater in North America from 1852 to 1940, Chinese opera performance in the ubiquitous Chinese villages at various World Fairs in the United States from 1890 to 1915, the famous US tour of Peking opera singer Mei Lanfang from New York to Chicago and San Francisco in 1930, a constellation of imagined “Chinese” opera and yellowface plays from 1880 to 1930, and the more recent history of contemporary opera created by Asian Americans commissioned by major opera houses. Some of these varied histories are closely intertwined, not all are well understood, and some have been simply forgotten. Since the mid-19th century, Chinese opera theater has become part of US urban history and has left a significant imprint on the collective cultural and historical memory of Chinese America. Outside of Chinese American communities arose well-known instances of imagined “Chinese” opera, yellowface works that employ the “Chinese opera trope” as a source of inspiration, or Western-style theatrical works based on Chinese themes or plotlines. These histories are interrelated, and have also significantly shaped the reception and understanding of contemporary operas created by Asian American composers and writers. While these operatic works of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are significantly different from those of earlier moments in history, their production and interpretation cannot escape this influence.
Nancy Yunhwa Rao
Jennifer Ann Ho
Asian American literature was born from two mixed race Eurasian sisters, Edith Maude Eaton and Winnifred Eaton, who wrote in the early 20th century under the pen names Sui Sin Far and Onoto Watanna, respectively. Edith spent her career chronicling, in fiction and non-fiction, the lives of Chinese in North America, and recounted her own multiracial experiences in the autobiographical “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian,” while Winnifred is best known for her popular fiction about the exotica of Japan, novels and stories that include several mixed race protagonists. More than thirty years later, Kathleen Tamagawa penned a mixed race memoir, Holy Prayers in a Horse’s Ear, describing the difficulties of living as a biracial Japanese-white woman trying to assimilate into the white mainstream of US society. The number of mixed race Asian American authors rose in the mid- to late 20th century due to an increase in mixed race marriages and Asian immigration. The turn of the 21st century saw prominent multiracial Asian American authors writing about Asian American lives, mixed race Asian American authors choosing not to write about multiracial Asian American characters, and monoracial Asian American writers who populate their fiction with multiracial Asian American characters. Among these authors, Ruth Ozeki stands out as someone who has consistently focused her attention on multiracial Asian American characters, illustrating the richness of their mixed race experiences even as her fictional storyworlds shine a light on the environmental issues in a globalized world.
New Orleans has long been a city vital to the American imagination, known for its deep colonial and cultural history while, at the same time, evolving into the post-Katrina “city that care forgot.” Shaped by Spanish, French, and British imperialisms and situated at the edge of the American South, the Gulf Coast, and the Caribbean, New Orleans is a geography distinguished by transnational crosscurrents and intense meteorological activity; an economically and politically strategic port town, it is a below-sea-level city continuously vulnerable to environmental disaster. Typically neglected in dominant mappings of the city, however, are the area’s Pacific ties that have also helped to make New Orleans. Ever since the mid-19th century, various Asian and Asian American groups have populated southern Louisiana as immigrants, workers, traders, and refugees. After the Civil War, thousands of Chinese and Filipinos arrived in the region as a supposed replacement for slave labor. In the mid-20th century, the US government dispersed numerous Japanese Americans to the area after internment, while since the late 20th century, New Orleans has been home to one of the densest populations of Vietnam War refugees in the country. These migrations spurred the creation of ethnic enclaves and cultural practices that have directly and tangentially defined New Orleans, providing significant labor pools and offering illustrative narratives of post-disaster rebuilding. Given the region’s rich Pacific history and daily environmental vulnerability, engaging New Orleanian culture compels an Asian Americanist ecocritical approach, or one that engages the relationship among space, matter, culture, and critique, and attends to regional details as well as Pacific contexts. Some of the more prominent portrayals of Asian Louisiana, such as those by Lafcadio Hearn and Robert Olen Butler, have tended to exoticize their subject. By contrast, examining works by Bao Phi, An-My Lê, and Anna Kazumi Stahl reveals alternative ecologies of Louisiana that contribute to a stronger understanding of racial relations in the region, further specifies the Gulf Coast’s transnational dynamics, and foregrounds the value of Asian American studies for ecocriticism (and vice versa). These artists’ portrayals of disaster-oriented landscapes show how attention to overlooked Asian American ecologies reveals the fundamental spatial, economic, and environmental precariousness of our times for marginalized communities.
Andrew Way Leong
Early Japanese American literature is not just the sum total of literary works written by the first persons of Japanese descent in the United States. Nor is it just a set of texts where two pre-existing categories of “Japanese” and “American” national literature happened to overlap. Early Japanese American literature is best understood as an ideological terrain, an arena where later, taken-for-granted ideas about the boundaries of identities and literatures known as “Japanese” and “Japanese American” were first constructed. Due to the enduring legacies of single-nation and monolingual approaches to the study of modern literatures, only a handful of scholars have devoted serious comparative attention to the long history and formal breadth of literary production by persons of Japanese descent who traveled to or resided within the continental United States. In linguistic terms, early Japanese American literary production includes works written in Japanese, English, and other languages, such as classical Chinese, German, and Russian. In historical terms, the emergence of early Japanese American literature extends from travel narratives produced by castaways in the 1820s to the publication of full-fledged literary magazines and newspaper sections in the 1890s. In formal terms, early Japanese American literature includes literary forms that readers more familiar with European contexts might associate with early modernity, such as phrasebooks, essays on education, spiritual autobiographies, and diplomatic guides.
The 19th century featured two opposed yet interconnected historical trends: the growth of a multigenerational and deeply rooted Chinese American community; and the development of the cultural prejudices and fears comprised by the Yellow Peril narrative. Those xenophobic fears produced violence, social and political movements, and legal exclusions, culminating in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and its many follow-up laws and policies, all designed as much to destroy the existing Chinese American community as to restrict future immigration. But out of that period of exclusion and oppression came some of the first Chinese American literary and cultural works published in both Mandarin/Cantonese and English: the personal and collective poems carved into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station by detainees; auto-ethnographic memoirs of Chinese American life and community such as Yung Wing’s My Life in China and America (1909); and the journalistic, autobiographical, and fictional works of Edith Maude Eaton/Sui Sin Far, the first Chinese American professional creative writer. These works both reflect and transcend the realities of the Exclusion era, helping contemporary audiences understand those histories, connect them to later Chinese American writers, and analyze the exclusionary debates and proposals of the early 21st century.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were fascinated by Asian philosophies and religions. The two American philosophers discovered “Asia” in their own Transcendentalist views of nature and human ethics. Beginning with the works of Frederic Carpenter and Arthur Christy in the 1930s, American scholars have undertaken comprehensive studies of the ways in which Oriental ideas and religions, such as Neoplatonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Persian poetry, Confucianism, and Daoism, influenced American Transcendentalism. In this global age, Emerson and Thoreau, as transnational figures, have come to be given a great deal of attention. Few scholars today realize that the works of Emerson and Thoreau were widely read by Japanese intellectuals during the Meiji and Taishō periods (1868–1926). The Japanese highly admired the spirit of independence and freedom advocated by the two Concordians. Although studies of their reception in Japan have been made, and many of their writings have been translated, the strength of Emerson’s and Thoreau’s influence on Japanese readers may not yet be fully understood. Suzuki Daisetsu made a significant contribution to Western philosophical thought by bringing the teachings of Zen Buddhism to the attention of the Western world. He felt deep sympathy with Emerson’s and Thoreau’s views of nature. Influenced by Suzuki, some American and Japanese scholars have remarked on similarities between Zen Buddhism and American Transcendentalism. Until now, scholars in the West have tended to assume that Zen Buddhism was the primary medium of Japanese interest in Emerson and Thoreau, partly because Zen Buddhism was in vogue during the middle decades of the 20th century. While it is true that both Emersonian and Thoreauvian philosophies and Zen Buddhism center on a spirit of seeking the spring of universal spirituality within the inner soul, Suzuki’s emphasis on that similarity may be one reason for the current difficulty in understanding the diversity and complexity of both Eastern and Western philosophies and religions.
Why have so many Japanese people been fascinated with one of the most distinctively “American” writers, Mark Twain? Over the past hundred years, Mark Twain has influenced Japanese culture in a variety of ways. The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe claimed that Huckleberry Finn was one of the “roots of his inspiration as a writer” and called Huck one of the heroes who means the most to him in world literature. However, it was often necessary for Japanese writers to “Japanize” Twain’s works in accordance with the cultural and political norms of contemporary Japanese society. For instance, Kuni Sasaki’s Huckleberry Monogatari (1921), the first Japanese translation of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, significantly bowdlerized Huckleberry for Japanese juvenile readers, following the period’s genteel conventions of juvenile literature. In Jiro Osaragi’s samurai novel Hanamaru Kotorimaru (1939), an adaptation of Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, the elements of didacticism, rigid class hierarchy, and patriarchal relationships, all significant in contemporary imperial Japan, were particularly emphasized. During the American occupation after World War II, a number of Japanese juvenile translations of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn appeared. They not only idealized Tom and Huck as democratic American heroes, but also considerably tamed them out of concern that those untamed heroes might justify juvenile delinquency, which was common in the post-war moral confusion. In the sphere of Japanese popular culture, Twain is everywhere. Twain and the characters in his works frequently appear in popular science fiction, television commercials, musicals, repertory theaters, documentary films, and theme parks. An animated TV series depicting Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer achieved record-breaking popularity among Japanese children in the 1970s and 1980s. These popular cultural adaptations sometimes reflected the changing trend of Japanese juvenile television anime and the development of themes in late 20th-century Japanese society, such as the empowerment of women and increasing awareness of the necessity to represent blacks.