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The Theater Draws Immigrants and Tourists to Chinatown

During the 1870s and 1880s, San Francisco's Chinatown included as many as four theater companies that regularly performed Chinese operas and other entertainment. The cost of admission to evening performances was usually 20-25 cents for Chinese (50 cents for non-Chinese); shows sometimes lasted until four the next morning. The actors were usually all men, but the audience included different classes of Chinese men, women, and even children, along with non-Chinese visitors who stopped in to watch performances for maybe an hour or two as part of their tour of Chinatown. For Chinese immigrants, the theater signified a connection to cultural and historical traditions from home, as well as a chance to relax and socialize with other immigrants. Non-Chinese visitors, however, mostly commented on the strange, loud music and incomprehensible plot.

A Chinese-American Historian on the Immigrant Theater

The theater was not only a place for recreation; it also helped to sustain the community’s collective historical memory and cultural identity….For the immigrants, theatergoing meant re-experiencing a host of cultural traditions. Besides historical events, gods from Chinese folk religion were often featured in the drama….In many cases, the actors and, sometimes actresses, came from Guangdong [a province in China] to perform. They brought the immigrants closer to their native society not only by re-creating Chinese history and traditions on the stage but also through their off-stage contact with residents of Chinatown.

Internally, the theater existed as a self-sufficient social unit with its own hierarchy. At the top were managers and some musicians, for whom the theater could be a profitable business. The performers were mostly propertyless young men trying to make a living. At the bottom, the laborers provided food and other basic services.

A Guidebook Advises on Theatergoing in Chinatown

The charge for admission is 25 cents for Chinamen, and 50 cents for white persons, who, however, if they wish to be comfortable, should [get] a box, which, in the Jackson street Theaterthe only one worthy of a visitcosts $3 additional, and will hold from six to ten persons. The performance runs from 4:30 till 12 P.M., but the white visitor can see enough between eight and ten to satisfy his curiosity. The stage is narrow, without curtain or shifting scenes, footlights, or pictorial art of any kind. A sign on the wall back of the stage with the words, Dom Quai Yuen in Latin letters announces, that this is “The Elegant Flower House,’ Under that sign are the seats of the musicians, whose music, if that name can properly be applied to their noise, continues through all the plays….Their concerts, a succession of squeaks, rattles, and bangs, ludicrous in its quieter intervals, and hideous in its more violent fits, provokes wonder at taste of the nation, which could invent, tolerate, and enjoy such discord.

A Woman from the East Coast Visits Chinatown

…we found the theatre packed, every seat and aisle, with men and boys. Strange as it may seem, women are not allowed to sit in public with the other sex…so they occupy the gallery, accompanied in many instances by their children. They are bare-headed, carry fans, and frequently smoke cigarettes….The orchestra, which produced a series of most discordant and unearthly sounds, occupied the back part of the stage….To us the performance was crude and unsatisfactory and unreal, and we looked upon it with the same degree of disgust as they would manifest if forced to endure an intensely fashionable operatic performance with us.

Source | Yong Chen, Chinese San Francisco, 1850-1943: A Trans-Pacific Community (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 90-91; Pacific Bank Handbook of California: San Francisco, California, (San Francisco: Pacific Bank, 1888), 90; Mary H. Wills, A Winter in California (Norristown, PA: Morgan R. Wills, 1889), 111-113.
Creator | Yong Chen; Mary H. Willis
Item Type | Book (excerpt)
Cite This document | Yong Chen; Mary H. Willis, “The Theater Draws Immigrants and Tourists to Chinatown,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 17, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/608.

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