Popular Culture

The Rise of Asians and Asian Americans in Vaudeville, 1880s–1930s

Krystyn R. Moon, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of History
Georgia State University

Over the past decades, scholars have documented the invisibility of Asians and Asian Americans in mainstream entertainment.[1] This marginalization has been examined in two distinct ways: (1) the appearance of Europeans and Euro-Americans in yellowface, such as Katherine Hepburn in the film Dragon Seed (1944) or more recently Jonathan Pryce in the musical Miss Saigon (1989); and (2) the relegation of Asian and Asian American actors to stereotypical roles—prostitutes, laundrymen, cooks, and servants. There is, however, a moment in American performing arts history that academics have overlooked when discussing Asian and Asian American access to performance spaces—vaudeville. Vaudeville, with its roots in blackface minstrelsy, circus, burlesque, and variety, first appeared in major American cities in the 1880s, only to disappear with the ascendancy of talking pictures in the 1930s. Novelty was central to vaudeville's success, and theatrical agents and managers were constantly looking for sensational and intriguing acts to bring in audiences. While playing to the lowest common denominator, vaudeville was also an incredibly democratic form of entertainment for the period, and a place where the children of immigrants often found success. It was in this environment that Asians and Asian Americans had opportunities to express ideas and traditions in ways that were not found in later forms of entertainment, especially film and television.

In examining the literature on anti-Asian stereotypes in American media and the realities faced by Asian and Asian American performers, it is clear that there is a large gap in our understanding of the past. There are several reasons for why this has occurred. First, many scholars, inspired by the civil rights movement, have looked at more contemporary developments, such as the emergence of an Asian American theater and the well documented stereotypes of Asian characters in film. Second, high art, especially opera, has been a common place to explore Edward Said's seminal work Orientalism, often at the expense of more popular traditions. Third, most Asian and Asian American performers lived and worked outside of the immigrant communities that many historians have studied. The movement of these actors, who spent much of their time traveling from town to town and also throughout the world, do not fit the pattern of what is often perceived to be the immigrant experience. By exploring the role of Asians and Asian Americans in vaudeville, scholars can help develop a fuller picture not only of the roots of anti-Asian discrimination in the performing arts but also of the active contributions of a largely forgotten group of performers.

No scholars have attempted a comprehensive study of these performers, although a few have addressed individual vaudevillians in a limited manner and mostly in the form of interviews and one documentary. Judy Yung in Unbound Voices includes an oral history transcript with Rose Yuen Ow, a Chinese American dancer who first appeared in vaudeville around 1915. Thomas W. Chinn describes the creation of the Chung Hwa Comedy Four, an Asian American barbershop quartet, which toured the United States and Canada from the 1910s through the 1920s. Interviews with vaudevillians Helen Jean Wong and the dancing duo Toy and Wing have also been published.[2] Finally, the newly released documentary The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam (2003), produced by his great-granddaughter Ann Marie Fleming, looks at one of the world's most famous magicians who spent much of his career in vaudeville.[3]

Despite the limited number of studies on Asian and Asian American vaudevillians, there is a wealth of research done by performance theorists and American cultural historians that can help provide a framework for future study, and a basis for understanding these performers and the world in which they lived. Theoretical works on race and performance, such as Josephine Lee's Performing Asian America and Karen Shimakawa's National Abjection, are important in comprehending the relationship between racial stereotyping and popular culture, and the potential subversive power of the stage for persons of Asian descent.[4] Analyses of performance strategies by African Americans, including Thomas L. Riis's Just before Jazz and Nadine Georges-Graves's The Royalty of Negro Vaudeville, give insight into the experiences of another marginalized group and their abilities to create ambivalent images of race on the stage.[5] Robert C. Allen's Horrible Prettiness and M. Alison Kibler's Rank Ladies look at white women who, facing rigid Victorian attitudes on womanhood and respectability, also used the subversive potential of the stage to their advantage.[6] In many ways, Asians and Asian Americans shared a lot of the same challenges and strategies when dealing with audiences and acceptance on stage. However, their experiences were also unique, and any history of Asian Americans and the performing arts would be incomplete without the addition of their struggles and contributions.

Asian and Asian American vaudeville acts, which ranged from blacking up to jujitsu, delighted and shocked audiences, many of whom had never seen such performers or traditions before. The period from 1880 through 1940 also represented a critical point of historical contact where the most persistent anti-Asian stereotypes solidified. Many visual and written works helped to circulate the image of the "Yellow Peril," that people of Asian descent were a threat to the American nation, both culturally and biologically. Intellectuals contributed to these attitudes by framing Asian cultures and peoples as inferior based on pseudo-scientific views on evolution. Even music and theater were affected—Asian performing arts traditions were perceived to be at an earlier stage of human development when compared to those of European origin.[7] Furthermore, according to this view, the racial inferiority of Asians and Asian Americans also limited their ability to comprehend European art music, which scholars perceived to be more sophisticated.

The ways in which Asians and Asian Americans navigated these attitudes demonstrate the complex shaping of racial identity and the challenges of performance. These vaudevillians represented more than performers who were simply of Asian descent. In fact, their mere presence countered European and Euro-American domination of the stage by giving audiences real Asian and Asian American acts.[8] Furthermore, they broke ground during a time when there were no role models and the racial climate was hostile to them. In the process, they helped to redefine American entertainment and shape future performers

Figure 1:
Portrait of Jue Quon Tai

In spite of American racism, Asians and Asian Americans were able to gain access to the stage by carefully navigating between well-developed preconceptions and their own artistic desires. Some blended aspects of Asian culture with American stereotypes to give audiences what they wanted and expected while simultaneously challenging those same stereotypes through a set number of performance strategies. In alignment with caricatures of Asians and Asian immigrants by Euro-Americans, these performers incorporated into their acts devices such as Pidgin English, Asian-themed songs, and Asian-inspired costumes, props, and backdrops that seemed to legitimate differences. Yet, they also sang in a variety of European languages, gave ethnic impersonations based on European immigrant groups, and danced new and popular routines—all of which were believed to be beyond the ability of persons of Asian descent. One example is Jue Quon Tai (Rose Eleanor Jue). Born in Los Angeles and raised in Portland, Jue played into the stereotypes of Asian femininity and foreignness, and made herself into a princess who had run away from her father while attending the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Reporters, however, were quick to realize that this was all an act, and that, as noted by a reporter for Variety, "the nearest Jue ever got to China was the west coast of America."[9] In the ten to fifteen minutes she had on the stage, Jue sang songs in Cantonese, probably William Jerome and Jean Schwartz's hit "Chinatown, My Chinatown" (1910), and posed as "singsong girl," a euphemism for a prostitute. She then changed into Western formal wear and sang Tin Pan Alley songs (in English), such as "America, I Love You" (1915) and the Scottish number "Bonnie Annie Laurie" (1909). [10] Thus, while not unilaterally subversive, Jue (as well as other Asian and Asian American acts) straddled the racial fence, allowing audiences to see and hear what they wanted, but at the same time potentially challenging contemporary attitudes about race and culture.

Figure 2:
Advertisement for the Meyako Family

Some of these vaudevillians introduced mainstream audiences to the theatrical and musical heritage of their homelands for the first time. In particular, many of these acts supported beliefs in Asian virtuosity in acrobatics and magic, a common motif in Western travel narratives since the late eighteenth century. For example, since the arrival of Japanese acrobats to the United States in December 1866, audiences always enjoyed watching this kind of act from Japan, even in the midst of heightened anti-Japanese sentiments at the turn of the century. The Meyakos, an acrobatic/singing/dancing trio made of two sisters and one brother, were one such troupe. First appearing in 1914, the sisters did a combination of hand balancing and contortion, which most audiences expected of a Japanese act. They also undermined attitudes about the ability of Asians to speak English well by singing Tin Pan Alley numbers, such as Irving Berlin's "This is the Life" (1914) and the Japanese-inspired piece, "I Want to go to Tokio" (1914). Their brother played the violin, which also required both training and skill.[11]

Contact between performers of Asian descent and Europeans and Euro-Americans is also key to having a clearer picture not only of the ways in which artists shared ideas, but also of the role Asians and Asian Americans had in this dialogue. By the twentieth century, many Western composers and dramatists borrowed from Asian cultures as a way to rethink and reinvigorate their own heritage. Racial difference was still central, but their intent was not nearly as vicious as those found in yellowface caricatures. Frustrated by the hyper-commercialization of the performing arts and Victorian values, artists began to question the superiority of European and American aesthetics and looked to Asia in their quest for alternative forms of expression. In doing so, this disparate group of artists created new schools of music and theater, such as the Little Theater Movement and Impressionism (the latter is also closely associated with developments in the visual arts).[12] These musicians and playwrights found inspiration from such traditions as Cantonese opera and Kabuki, which had first appeared in the United States during the latter half of the nineteenth century. For example, Ruth St. Denis, known for her Indian, Egyptian, and Chinese inspired dance routines, traveled throughout Asia and the Middle East, and spent a good deal of time in San Francisco's Chinatown. She even visited Beijing opera star Mei Lanfang, who gave her costumes to use in her performances.[13] A European artist who also turned to Asia to find new modes of musical expression was Claude Debussy. Stifled by the overly nationalistic works of Richard Wagner and his disciples, Debussy realized upon hearing the gamelan gong at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889 that there were other complex music systems aside from that of Europe. In 1903, he finally composed "Pagodes" as part of Estampes (a three part piano collection) to experiment with Javanese melodic layering that he had heard at the exposition.[14]

The large number of Asian and Asian American acts and the opportunities for intercultural contact also raises questions about how these vaudevillians were able to enter the United States in the first place. Despite the passage of exclusionary legislation, the ability of Asian actors to travel in and out of the United States was rather stable; the case In re Ho King set the precedent. In January 1883, immigrant inspectors in Portland, Oregon denied entrance to an opera singer named Ho King, presumably from Guangdong Province in China, under the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). The federal court, however, sided with Ho King since it believed that his work was not of a physical nature and did not compete with white laborers.[15] In 1898, the U.S. attorney general John W. Griggs reinterpreted American immigration law, and instead of allowing anyone who was not a laborer to immigrate, he specifically outlined who was able to enter: teachers, students, merchants, diplomats, and tourists.[16] For the time being, performers were excluded. By the early decades of the twentieth century, the Immigration Bureau set up a system that allowed vaudeville acts from nations affected by exclusionary legislation to enter the United States under bond for up to three years, which remained in effect through World War II.[17]

American vaudevillians of Asian descent, many of whom were hired to perform in Canada and Europe, also changed the way in which they re-entered the United States. Like other men and women of Asian descent, these vaudevillians needed permission to come back into the country, meaning that they had to prove that they were either American born or were legal residents. Vaudevillians, who often had performances immediately upon arrival from Europe or in towns across the U.S.-Canadian border, did not have the time to go through a lengthy re-entry process. Through the negotiations of theater agents, performers, and immigrant inspectors, a procedure was created where Asian American vaudevillians proved their citizenship or legal residency before leaving the United States and corresponded frequently with the Bureau about their engagements in foreign countries. Thus, this process helped to speed up border crossings and international travel for Asian American performers.[18]

The performance strategies and realities of vaudevillians of Asian descent from the 1880s through the 1930s is a void in the historical literature on race relations, intercultural contact, and the performing arts in the United States. Their marginalization and even erasure from the history of the performing arts is a false impression tied to exclusionary legislation, which supposedly cut off the flow of Asian acts, and the use of race to create a cultural hierarchy. Because little work has been done to excavate the appearance, development, and influence of Asian and Asian American vaudevillians, scholars need to fill this gap in our understanding of how performance was one key way in which these performers, although facing many limitations, tried to rework ideas of race, nation, and culture.


Archival Sources:

Keith-Albee Business Papers, Special Collections, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Ia.

Records of the Naturalization and Immigration Service (RG 85), National Archives, Washington,

D.C., and NARA Regional Offices, New York, N.Y. and San Bruno, Calif.

Primary Sources:

"Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: Toy and Wing, The." in Tap! The Greatest Tap

Dance Stars and their Stories, 1900–1955. Edited by Rusty E. Frank, 102-–110. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994.

"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.

Wong, Helen Jean. "Playing the Palace Theatre: A Chinese American's Recollections of

Vaudeville." Chinese America: History and Perspectives. 3 (1989): 111­–116.

Secondary Sources

Allen, Robert C. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Chinn, Thomas W. Bridging the Pacific: San Francisco Chinatown and its People. San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America, 1989.

Chun, Gloria Heyung. Of Orphans and Warriors: Inventing Chinese American Culture and Identity. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

Dong, Arthur. Forbidden City, U.S.A. Los Angeles: DeepFocus Productions, Inc., 1989.

Dong, Lorraine. "The Forbidden City Legacy and its Chinese American Women." Chinese America: History and Perspectives. 6 (1992): 125­­–148.

Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Fleming, Ann Marie, The Magical World of Long Tack Sam. Vancouver, B.C.: Global Mechanic, 2003.

George-Graves, Nadine. The Royalty of Negro Vaudeville: The Whitman Sisters and the Negotiation of Race, Gender, and Class in African American Theater, 1900–1940. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Gottschild, Brenda Dixon. Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics during the Swing Era. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

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

Kibler, M. Alison. Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Hierarchy in American Vaudeville. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

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

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

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

Lee, Robert. Orientals: Asian Americans and Popular Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Marchetti, Gina. Romance and the "Yellow Peril": Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Moy, James S. Marginal Sights: Staging the Chinese in America. Iowa City, Ia.: University of Iowa Press, 1993.

Rogin, Michael. Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Riis, Thomas L. Just before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890 to 1915. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987.

Shimakawa, Karen. National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002.

Snyder, Robert W. Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Stallybrass, Peter and Allon White. The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986.

Wong, Eugene Franklin. On Visual Media Racism: Asians in the American Motion Pictures. New York: Arno Press, 1978.

Yang, Mina. "Orientalism and the Music of Asian Immigrant Communities in California, 1924–1945." American Music. 19 (Winter 2001): 385–416.

Yoshihara, Mari. Embracing the East: White Women and American Orientalism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Yu, Henry. Thinking Orientals: Migration, Contact, and Exoticism in Modern America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.


[1] Eugene Franklin Wong, On Visual Media Racism: Asians in the American Motion Pictures (New York: Arno Press, 1978); Darrell Y. Hamamoto, Monitored Peril: Asian Americans and the Politics of TV Representation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994); Gina Marchetti, Romance and the "Yellow Peril": Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

[2] "The Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: Toy and Wing," Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and their Stories, 1900-1955, ed. Rusty E. Frank (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 102–110; Thomas W. Chinn, Bridging the Pacific: San Francisco Chinatown and its People (San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America, 1989), 55–56, 125–128, and 202–215; "Rose Yuen Ow, Cabaret Dancer," Unbound Voices: A Documentary History of Chinese Women in San Francisco, ed. by Judy Yung (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 278–308; Helen Jean Wong, "Playing the Palace Theatre: A Chinese American's Recollections of Vaudeville," Chinese America: History and Perspectives 3 (1989): 111–116.

[3] Ann Marie Fleming, The Magical World of Long Tack Sam (Vancouver, B.C.: Global Mechanic, 2003). Arthur Dong's Forbidden City U.S.A. highlights the experiences of Chinese American performers working in San Francisco's nightclub scene and is also useful for scholars. Arthur Dong, Forbidden City, U.S.A. (Los Angeles: DeepFocus Productions, Inc., 1989). See also Lorraine Dong, "The Forbidden City Legacy and its Chinese American Women," Chinese America: History and Perspectives 6 (1992): 125­­–148.

[4] Josephine Lee, Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997); Karen Shimakawa, National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002).

[5] Thomas L. Riis, Just Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890 to 1915 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987); Nadine George-Graves, The Royalty of Negro Vaudeville: The Whitman Sisters and the Negotiation of Race, Gender, and Class in African American Theater, 1900–1940 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000).

[6] Robert C. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991); M. Alison Kibler, Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Hierarchy in American Vaudeville (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

[7] One example of this is J. A. Van Aalst's Chinese Music, which was one of the few authoritative texts on Chinese music at the turn of the century. J. A. Van Aalst, Chinese Music (Shanghai: Statistical Department of the Inspectorate General of Customs, 1884).

[8] Josephine Lee, Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997), 30.

[9] "New Acts of the Week," Variety 29 May 1920, 34.

[10] "Princess Jue Quon Tai," Theatre Magazine, 37 (April 1923): 43; "Vaudeville Reviews by Special Wire," Billboard, 25 Dec. 1915, 7.

[11] "Vaudeville Reviews by Special Wire," Billboard, 7 Nov. 1914, 10; "The Billboard Song Chart," Billboard, 14 Nov. 1914, 4; 3 April 1915, 14.

[12] T. J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981); Stanley Coben, Rebellion against Victorianism: The Impetus for Cultural Change in 1920s America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995).

[13] Ruth St. Denis, An Unfinished Life, An Autobiography (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1939), 275–277.

[14] Patricia W. Hurpole, "Debussy and Javanese Gamelan," American Music Teacher 35 (Jan. 1986): 8–9, 41.

[15] "In re Ho King," Federal Reporter, District Court of Oregon, 15 Jan. 1883, 14:724–728.

[16] Chapman W. Maupin, A Digest of Chinese Exclusion Laws and Decisions (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1899), 31–33; Frederick D. Cloud, A Digest of the Treaty, Laws, and Regulations Governing the Admission of Chinese (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1908), 11. See Lucy E. Salyer, Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigration and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1995), 154–155.

[17] Commissioner General, Washington, D.C., to Martin Beck, Orpheum Circuit general manager, New York, N.Y., 25 Sept. 1913, RG85, Subject Correspondence, 1906–32, National Archives, Washington, D.C. Despite Grigg's reinterpretation of U.S. immigration policy, theatrical agents working for world expositions received special permission to bring in acts from Asia. These performers, however, could only stay for the exposition and then were required to leave. There was at least one exception—Ching Ling Foo (Chee Ling Qua) who toured vaudeville after performing at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska. "A Wonderful Conjuror," New York Dramatic Mirror, 3 June 1899, 16.

[18] Lee Tung Foo, RG85, Chinese Exclusion Acts Case Files, 1880–1960, National Archives, New York, N.Y.