Chinese Theater in the 19th Century

Historical Essay

by Barbara Berglund

Chinatown-scene BANC-PIC-1985.084-105--ALB.jpg

Chinatown scene, 1890s.

Photo: Bancroft Library, BANC-PIC-1985.084-105--ALB

The Chinese theater, like the restaurant and the joss house, was another frequent destination for Chinatown tourists. Like the church, the theater was a familiar institution to most Americans as it was an extremely popular form of amusement. This made it easy for tourists, when they visited the Chinese theater, to draw comparisons between the style, content, and audiences of Chinese and American venues. In the tourist literature, these comparisons resulted in reviews of Chinese theatrical performances that did not find much to recommend them and also generally concluded that a culture that produced such retarded theater had to be barbaric and antiquated itself. However, a trip to the theater was about much more than seeing the show on the stage. Like visiting a restaurant or a joss house, going to the theater provided tourists with another opportunity to observe the Chinese. But, whereas at a restaurant a tourist might observe a few diners or at a joss house see several worshippers coming and going, at the theater on a busy night, tourists shared the place with hundreds of Chinese. As Joseph Carey explained, "Here you see the Celestials en masse."(43)

Since tourist literature provided a wealth of practical information about where theaters were located, how much they cost, and the times of performances, it was not difficult for tourists to find these places whether they went on their own or with a guide. Disturnell's Strangers' Guide informed its readers that "there are two theaters—Tan Sung Fun, 62 3 Jackson Street; and the Bow Wah Ying, at 814 Washington Street. They are open every day from 2 o'clock p.m. until midnight. Price of admission fifty cents, boxes two dollars and a half." Local writer E. M. Green described a scenario that suggested that tourists were not only drawn to the Chinese theater but also to some degree encouraged to attend, if not welcomed. When he and his companions—who claimed they were "not sight-seers" and actually wanted to distance themselves from "the personally conducted"—entered one theater, they were initially both startled and repelled by a "huge white sheet bearing the legend 'Welcome Shriners.'" Why tourists were welcomed may have had something to do with the money that theater owners could make from them, especially since, as one account noted, theater revenues decreased along with Chinatown's population in the years after the Exclusion Act. For Chinese theater-goers, the price of admission at the opening of a performance was "half a dollar" but was gradually reduced as the evening advanced so that the late spectator paid for exactly as much as he saw. Many white theater-goers, however, saw "over the box a notice in plain English, 'Admission fifty cents'" with no offer of a decreasing scale calibrated to the time of admission.(44)


Interior of the Chinese Theater, Jackson Street. As it was across nineteenth-century America, the theater was a central form of entertainment in San Francisco's Chinese community. Chinatown tourists flocked there as well, although they generally did not care for the performances they saw.

Photo: I. W. Taber, photographer. Chinese in California, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

In addition to providing general logistical information to help tourists navigate the Chinese theater experience, tourist literature also gave its readers a very clear picture of what to expect in terms of the performances that allowed them to arrive with an evaluative framework already in place for what they were about to see. Local writer B. E. Lloyd was not alone in being less than impressed with the Chinese theater and, like many others, was not the least bit shy about conveying this to his readers. "Viewing it from an American standpoint," he wrote, "the Chinese drama is in a very crude state." "The plays," W H. Gleadell declared, "appear more than ludicrous to the uninitiated observer." "A Chinese play at its best," explained missionary Frederic Masters, "possesses few charms." Echoing the boredom, lack of interest, and inability to follow the plot reported by many tourists, Otis Gibson uncharitably remarked that, "Judged from an American stand-point, those who attend a Chinese theater ought to receive a good salary paid in advance."(45)

Part of the problem, according to Gibson, was that while "the plays generally represent some historical train of events," they moved too slowly and did not "develop a plot with anything like the rapidity and dispatch which characterize our American and English plays." For French travel writer Lucien Biart, the unfamiliar pacing coupled with his lack of understanding proved to be his undoing. Although he had been led by curiosity to the Chinese theater, he told his readers that he left once he began "to feel uncomfortably inclined to yawn." "At first," he explained, "the costumes, the stage-scenery, the music, and the spectators had all interested me." But after watching for two hours what he described as "some awkward clowns making grimaces, brandishing their swords, defying and occasionally assaulting each other without… having the least idea of the reason of their incessant quarrels," he reported that he "began to detest the theatrical art—in the Chinese form of course." E.G.H. did something that seems to have been quite uncharacteristic of tourists at the theater-she asked a Chinese man "who, seeing we were strangers came and sat down by us," to explain the performance. He did, and usefully informed her, "He fight now—he want more soldiers—he sit down and write for more—they come—he fight—he dead." As a result, she and her party enjoyed the performance more than they would have otherwise although even the intrepid E.G.H. only lasted twenty minutes. Upon leaving, she admitted that she "was glad to get out of the pandemonium."(46)

Since tourists so rarely ever reported that these performances were enjoyable or even understandable, it seems likely that they went to the Chinese theater more to learn about Chinese culture than for entertainment. As E. M. Green noted, the "amusements of a people are great indicators." For many tourists, what they took away from the Chinese theater were lessons about Chinese qualities that were often cast in racial terms. Although Green discovered "a public as intelligent as their amusement" when he turned his attention to the audience, his favorable appraisal was unusual. More typical was journalist Henry Burden McDowell's article for Century Magazine, which not only provided detailed information about how to interpret events on stage, but also revealed some of the ways the Chinese theater experience could translate into a racializing experience. According to McDowell, the "peculiar difference of manners, feeling, and national history" that kept "the Chinese people apart from the civilized world" resulted in a theatrical culture that bore "the unmistakable stamp of an arrested civilization." He then went on to suggest how this lack of development translated into Chinese racial traits that imbued them with moral qualities at odds with those of American society, believed to be at the height of the civilization process, evolutionarily speaking. McDowell explained, for example, that although "the Hong-Koi, or Chivalry plays might not be about chivalry as Americans understood it," the Chinese "were entitled" to use such terminology because of "the extreme rarity of the occasions on which one Chinaman helps another." The Chinese were not chivalrous, according to his thinking, because the "inherent selfishness as well as the superstition of the Chinese character excludes from it the active feeling of philanthropy." These qualities correlated with his interpretation of "the Hong Koi," which stressed that they dealt primarily with what he called "negative chivalry; not doing a man an injury when you might, and doing him a kindness when it is no very great inconvenience to yourself."(47)

Although white visitors to the Chinese theater were not terribly appreciative of its productions, they were very interested in observing its Chinese audience. "The body of the house is occupied by all sorts and conditions of 'the great unwashed,'" explained Frederic Masters, in a typical description of the general scene, "who sit with their hats on, their feet perhaps on the back of the next seat, and regale themselves during the performance with cigars, candies, ma-tong, peanuts, and sugar cane, which are vended about the house." The upper galleries were set apart for women and children. According to Masters, the women were separated by class and status with one gallery "for married women, mostly of the poorer class or the second wives of rich Chinese"; "the best gallery" for "the demi-monde class," who were recognizable by their "gaudy attire and rouged faces"; and the boxes "usually occupied by the 'golden lilies' or ladies with bound feet," who were the "first wives of the merchants and the local gentry." Otis Gibson reported that the women he saw in one gallery sat "with their feet elevated upon the balcony rail" and smoked and ate through the performance. The fact that the theater served as an important gathering place and site of sociability for the Chinese community was captured by several writers. Henry McDowell recalled being in a theater on Jackson Street one Saturday afternoon waiting for the show to start and observing "the young Chinamen… calling across the theater, exchanging jokes or the compliments of the season." Joseph Carey noted that the theater was "about the only place where they can meet on common ground, at least in large bodies." (48)

Observations of the audience, like the interpretations of Chinese theatrical performances, conveyed that prevailing racial logic played a role in how tourists understood what they were seeing. At the theater, tourists encountered the culture of Chinese laborers, who made up the bulk of the audiences, and whose image as a threat to the wages of white working men was a central component of anti-Chinese sentiment. Most accounts drew attention to the fact that the Chinese watched the performances in a state of inscrutable silence. The racialization of the Chinese as seemingly emotionless and thus unreadable was common in nineteenth-century America and, it appears, rather maddening to Euro-Americans desperate to "know" what these "strange" immigrants were about. As a writer for Cornhill Magazine explained, "No Chinese auditor ever exhibits any emotion. Neither pleasure nor disapprobation is ever expressed. For all apparent effect the actor produces he might be playing to an audience of ghosts." "During the most exciting performances on the stage," B. E. Lloyd explained, "there may be an occasional deep drawn sigh or a slight murmur of satisfaction in the audience; but however intense the interest in the play may be, there is never a burst of applause, commingled with the stamping of feet and clapping of hands." Josephine Clifford, in agreement with her fellow writers about the lack of response on the part of the audience, gave voice to what some may have feared lurked behind these unreadable countenances. She relayed that her police guide told her that if a performance deviated "from long established custom," the members of the audience would "set up the most vigorous yells, jump on the stage, beat the actors, pull up the benches, and destroy the gas-fixtures." Clifford remarked that, "Sitting there so perfectly still and impassive, with their 'Melican' hats jammed tight on their heads, no one would suspect the amount of fight and bloodthirstiness in the ugly souls of these Chinamen."(49)

While many white tourists were busy evaluating the Chinese they saw—both on stage and off—the Chinese, by often seating tourists on the theater's stage, positioned them in such a way that they were being observed as well. Chairs or campstools were provided for the visitors and from the descriptions in the tourist literature it was clear that at times the stage got a little crowded. A travel writer for Outing noted on the night of his visit, "A row of Americans extend on either side from the rear wall to the front of the stage." Joseph Carey and his party "felt quite at home on the stage at once" since "seated on either side… were many of our friends lay and clerical, men and women." A. E. Browne recalled that "after remaining about half an hour," she and her party "moved off to give place to another party of visitors"—suggesting that at times tourists had to queue up for a seat.(50)

While the tourist literature's accounts never hazarded a guess as to how the Chinese in the audience might have evaluated the tourists on the stage, several did record the way some Chinese responded to the presence of tourists. E.G.H. had revealed that a Chinese man came over to her group and volunteered to help them understand the play. But her account was unusual in the level of interaction that it recorded since most of the time what went on could best be described as mutual gazing, if that. Many tourists found that theater-goers, like restaurant patrons, evinced what they interpreted as an attitude of indifference—sometimes tinged with hostility, sometimes thoroughly benign. It was Mabel Craft's opinion that "the white spectator on the stage" did not "annoy his yellow brother in the least." To Joseph Carey it was "quite remarkable" that the Chinese "seemed to have neither ears nor eyes for their visitors." Yet he believed that although they "paid no attention to" the tourists, they nevertheless beheld them "with an indifference that almost bordered on contempt." W H. Gleadell, however, detected neither "curiosity or resentment on the part of either the artistes or the spectators" from his seat "on the left hand side of the stage."(51)

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43. Regarding the significance of the theater in nineteenth-century American culture, see Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988). Carey, By the Golden Gate, 199•
44. Disturnell's Strangers' Guide, I07-I08; "'China Town' in San Francisco," 58. For general information about location, times, and prices see also, Doxey, Doxey's Guide to San Francisco, 127; Gibson, Chinese in America, 74, 80-81; Ames, "Day in Chinatown," 501; Clifford, "Chinatown," 362; and E. M. Green, "The Chinese Theater," Overland Monthly, 2nd ser., 21 (February 1903): 119. Regarding decreasing attendance at the theater among the Chinese post-Exclusion Act, see Frederic J. Masters, D.D., "The Chinese Drama," Chautauquan: A Weekly Newsmagazine July 1895): 21, 4, 436. For different prices for whites and Chinese, see Green, "Chinese Theater," 119; and Masters, "Chinese Drama," 439•
45. Lloyd, Lights and Shades, 264; Gleadell, "Night Scenes in Chinatown," 382; Masters, "Chinese Drama," 440; Gibson, Chinese in America, 78-79• See also Keeler, San Francisco and Thereabout, 65-66; Craft, "Some Days and Nights in Little China," 102-103, and Densmore, Chinese in California, 54-58.
46. Gibson, Chinese in America, 78-79; Biart, My Rambles in the New World, 80; E.G.H., Surprise Land, 78.
47. Henry Burden McDowell, "The Chinese Theater," Century Illustrated Monthly Maga zine (November 1884): 27-44; quotes from 31 and 35•
48. Masters, "Chinese Drama," 436; Gibson, Chinese in America, 80-81; McDowell, "Chinese Theater," 25. For similar description, see also Gleadell, "Night Scenes in Chinatown," 382; Carey, By the Golden Gate, 199-202 ; Doxey, Doxey's Guide to San Francisco, 127; Ames, "Day in Chinatown," 501; Brooks, "Fragment of China," 4; and Browne, Trip to California, 102.
49. "'China Town' in San Francisco," 55-59; Lloyd, Lights and Shades, 264-265; Clifford, "Chinatown," 364. See also Doxey, Doxey's Guide to San Francisco, 127; Gibson, Chinese in America, 50-51; Ames, "Day in Chinatown," 501; Keeler, San Francisco and Thereabout, 65-66; and Craft, "Some Days and Nights in Little China," 102-103.
50. "Lenz's World Tour," 363; Carey, By the Golden Gate, 202; Browne, Trip to California, 104. For other accounts of tourists seated on the stage, see Doxey's Guide to San Francisco, 127; Craft, "Some Days and Nights in Little China," 102-103; Gleadell, "Night Scenes in Chinatown," 382-383; Keeler, San Francisco and Thereabout, 65; Masters, "Chinese Drama," 125; and Caldwell, "Picturesque in Chinatown," 660.
51. Craft, "Some Days and Nights in Little China," 102; Carey, By the Golden Gate, 201; Gleadell, "Night Scenes in Chinatown," 382 and 379.


Originally published in chapter 3 “Making Race in the City: Chinatown's Tourist Terrain” in Making San Francisco American: Cultural Frontiers in the Urban West, 1846-1906 by Barbara Berglund (University Press of Kansas: Lawrence KS 2007)