The glory of the past is now found in Nancy Yunhwa Rao’s “Chinatown Opera Theater”
Although its history has almost turned to dust, Chinese opera has not only captured the soul of the Chinese community in America, but also the attention and heart of the mainstream America in the cities where it has been performed by several travel companies from the 1850s to the 1930s. More than entertainment, it unified and gave an identity to the community, and the performances were a touchstone for young and old, the rich and the poor, native Americans and Chinese.
In its heyday, several competing opera companies crisscrossed the United States, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, in cities large and small, wherever a Chinese community existed. The performances were so popular that they were performed daily, often twice a day on weekends, for weeks on end. The audience packed into large, dedicated theaters before the company made their way to the next venue.
Not many people know this story, but now more will, thanks to Nancy Yunhwa Rao Chinatown Opera Theater in America. There is no one better qualified than Rao to share this story. Not only is she a recognized expert and scholar on the subject, but she’s also a skilled storyteller whose expertise rarely interferes with the story well told. His musical skills, fluency in Chinese and English, and absolute passion for the subject add up to a detailed, historically sound, and entertaining book – a rare thing for a largely academic book.
For all the thousands of performances that have been presented, only rare traces of their existence remain today, its glorious history almost forgotten. Nancy Yunhwa Rao turned the remaining fragments of tattered poster ads, photos saved from the trash, newspaper articles and smaller pieces into a compelling story. While her skills as a historian are impressive, it is her storytelling skills that make the book appealing to a wide audience.
In the book’s introduction, Rao tells readers what a tattered old piece of paper with copied opera lyrics once told him; the scribbles on an old opera poster whose chipped edges speak of years of cherished love from the owner who probably carried it in his wallet. This narrative is so impressive that few readers will be able to help but continue well beyond these first few pages.
But beyond the narration, what feeds the interest of this book is the multifaceted content of Chinatown Opera Theater, which covers a wide range of topics. Instead of a single continuous narrative, the Book of Rao is actually a collection of several almost independent subsections. While everyone has their own unique interests, not all readers will find them equally appealing, but generally there is enough overall content to make the sum a satisfying read.
What gives this book the greatest appeal is how it links the growing popularity and success of opera performances in America with social changes and with the growing influence of the Chinese community. As good as some of the musical and dramatic descriptions are, ironically, this is where Rao is at his best.
These opera performances were great shows, and such shows required money and navigating around the rules that were against the Chinese. It took political clout to fight overly strict immigration laws, and impresarios negotiated deals to bring in foreign players whose power to attract the public was essential to success. Without this newly created Chinese business class, it would have been impossible to acquire lawyers and allies in the white community and to acquire the funds for the mass productions.
Despite many remarkable revelations in Chinatown Opera Theater, there are gaps due to the book’s need to meet its academic requirements. In its highly impressive coverage of the social, artistic and historical aspects of Chinese opera in America, some episodes can be lengthy except for the most dedicated readers. This is the case with those who portray once fascinating opera superstars, who are never fully revived despite having many pages devoted to them in the book. While a few sparks fly describing them, few embers fully ignite the glow of their celebrity.
Likewise, the electrifying experience that audiences have had is never fully recreated, but this is common in books about live performances. Ironically, it’s only because Rao is so good at creating such a desire for past performances that this shortcoming is particularly evident and suggests that this wall of the past may be too impenetrable.
However, Chinatown Opera Theater in America is an extraordinary accomplishment, and its many revelations have opened up a world never before seen for nearly a century. The glory that was is now seen again, as Chinatown Opera Theater highlights the great achievements of the first Chinese-American community that is too often portrayed differently in American history.