Order of Multitudes

Tracing the Material Lives of Archives

Nancy Yunhwa Rao is a professor of Music Theory at Rutgers University, Mason Gross School of the Arts and the author of Chinatown Opera Theater in North America (2017). In this wide-reaching project, Dr. Rao utilized an impressive array of archival materials, both personal and public, to examine the lives of North American Chinatown communities that surrounded Chinese-American opera theaters. She sat down with me to talk about the materiality of her sources and how they have shaped her work. 

Allison Chu: Could you tell me a little about how the research for Chinatown Opera started?

Nancy Rao: While analyzing American modernist music of the 1930s, I kept running into references to this famous Peking opera singer, Mei Lan-fang. This name didn’t seem to belong to American mainstream history, but he was mentioned a lot. As it turned out, his 1930 performing tour in the United States influenced many American modernist composers. Studying his impact led me to scanty references of Chinese theaters in America, which played Cantonese opera. After more research, I began to see that musical modernism and its innovative languages were very much shaped by immigrants, in particular Chinese Americans. These were not people in China; they were in Chinatown. So I started thinking about Chinatown theaters, even though there was very little known about them. In order to really write an American music history, I realized, you need to understand the immigrant story, not treating Chinatown as a ghetto; you need to see what’s inside those theaters; you need to be able to imagine sitting in their theater seats in order to consider what is meant by “watching” opera, seeing the people around you, etc.

I then spent a lot of my time at the National Archives, working through Chinese Exclusion files. I also went to archives and museums, reading the Chinese playbills and Chinese-language newspapers published in major American cities. These materials related to the music of Chinese immigrants were not collected in public libraries like the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts or in the Library of Congress’s Music Division. In fact, these Chinese immigrants were not conceptualized as Americans; it was, and still is, very hard for people to conceptualize American music as something that includes Asian America. They’re perpetual foreigners. It was okay to talk about them as aesthetic objects or as stereotypes, but to talk about them as playing active roles in shaping the American musical landscape was hard. Because the sources were still scattered all over in a wide variety of places, I started to build an archive of my own. I also firmly believe in the need to consider Chinese-language sources. My goal is to talk about this history and its performance practices not as a ghettoized musical phenomenon but rather one well situated within American music history. 

AC: You mentioned that these sources were not readily collected. What sort of sources did you need to draw on?  

NR:  Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), Chinese immigrants were closely surveilled, so there were a lot of records about them. If they were not smuggled in, there would have been immigration records of their entry and exit. At the National Archives, I went through lots of the Chinese Exclusion files and understood who the performers were, what these opera troupes were, and what kinds of struggles they had. That was very useful in this study. When dealing with histories of Chinese theaters and Chinatown, there are a lot of anecdotes that have been passed from generation to generation. You read all these memoirs that relay various legends about popular performers, mostly by word of mouth. The National Archives allowed me to pin down the exact applications from those theaters and performers. I then know what kinds of obstacles they faced, and how they presented themselves to Washington D.C. 

However, these were all official documents. They did not detail the lives of the people. In order to uncover what was happening in the Chinatown theaters, and to get a feel for the musical space, I scoured a lot of playbills in different archives. They’re in all sorts of places. For example, it’s really hard for me to find any playbills of New York’s Chinese theaters. In contrast, many of San Francisco’s playbills were donated to the Ethnic Library at Berkeley. Luckily, we also have pictures of these performers from the collection of a Chinatown photography studio that was rescued from the dumpster in the 1980s. Vanishing Chinatown is a film about this studio. You also can study the letters of the people surrounding the theaters, although there are even fewer of them, some of which I found in Ottawa. These things give you a sense of who’s coming in and who’s going out, how they traveled to Mexico, Cuba, and Canada, and what repertoire they played. This is really a transnational project, so it was also important that I extend the project abroad. I had other research projects that brought me to the archives in Beijing and Hong Kong. They had historical recordings, and also the scripts they used, and it was in Hong Kong where I found the playbills of New York!

AC: Was that discovery just by luck, or did you expect that these playbills would travel around the world?

NR: It’s actually very interesting. Why would the Hong Kong Heritage Museum collect something like 25 playbills from New York? People bring them to places, and they collect them not just to have fun (although sometimes they do). But I believe there’s an interesting business connection between Hong Kong theaters and New York, especially if you think about who in Hong Kong would be interested in what’s playing in New York. Basically, there are at least two aspects to the playbill: its content supplies the information for the music performing history, but at the same time, as an object, it tells its own material story, its circulation, its usage, its role in everyday life connecting the theater and the community. When you look at an artifact, you need to examine it from at least these two perspectives. My book opens with my encounter (in Canada’s national archive) with a piece of yellowed paper filled with Cantonese opera lyrics in a brush pen, for example. 

The content is not always the most interesting. It’s the material condition and mobility that fascinate me. I had spent a lot of time in the National Archives to understand the different facets of immigration law and its processes. The National Archives in D.C. had the documents of the central administration, the correspondence with the Department of Labor, and in the regional branches, they had the landing documents from the immigration offices and inspectors, the interviews with the individuals, the pictures they submit when they arrive, their signatures, and so on. You really have both the central and the local, both parts of the picture.

AC: How did you find the state of these archival materials? Were they well-preserved? I have to imagine that some of these playbills must have been worn and hard to read.

NR: The playbills in Hong Kong were preserved in pristine condition, each one in its own archival polyester sleeve. That’s really different from the ones I saw in Berkeley, because the Berkeley ones were actually used by the theaters on a daily basis. Many of these playbills were glued together at the very top. You see, the theaters posted playbills to entice audiences, and every day they glued a new one on top of the previous one. This creates big thick packets of playbills, so they can only be preserved in big boxes, some of which are yellowed and brittle. This is the materiality of the object itself. It has ways of demonstrating everyday practice, and to me, that is very important to study. 

I started interviewing people in the early 2010s. Imagine, I was writing about theaters of the early 1920s, so finding people from that period was hard, though I did interview one actor who was over 100 years old who passed away shortly afterwards. Still, the various voices from the community helped me understand a great many things. For example, someone relayed how their grandfather talked about distributing playbills daily to all corners of Chinatown, or how a versatile theater producer doubled as a family’s Chinese tutor. I also saw people’s scrapbooks, pages of stage and performer pictures with meticulous annotations, and you can see what they chose to preserve and admire. 

For me, it’s really a way of using their individual accounts to piece together their way of life. You have to take all of these individual utterances and extract the kinds of relationships they had with the theater. Even though the theater was marked by the people who performed, and the repertoire that was played, all of that was to satisfy the desire of the audience. So it is important to understand these theaters and performances in the ways that they were enjoyed. That’s just as important as the performing history. I did not want to just collect data, I wanted to do analysis. But the more I collected data and artifacts, I really started to realize that the real analysis is situated in the collecting itself, and to know what to collect, and then to have the sensibility about the material you collect. It is all too easy to treat the material as content and not treat it as an object. 

AC: It sounds like you had to use collections that were explicitly intended for preservation in combination with private archives. Essentially you made these personal archives public by reconstructing the group mentality.

NR: It’s like reassembling, because each can just sit in its own archive forever, and an anecdote can simply remain an anecdote, but the question is how to connect them together. Sometimes I felt that I was racing against time, too. I interviewed many people about nine years ago, and half of them aren’t here anymore. I really feel that when I write about them, I keep a piece of them. 

AC: What are some of the other challenges you faced when assembling these sources and archival materials?

NR: In this project, the hardest part was Havana. I really wish I could do more, because Havana was very prominent in terms of the circuit of Cantonese opera performance in the Americas. The Chinese theaters in Havana were just as vibrant as the ones in San Francisco, but so much of their stuff has disappeared! In the United States, we have all of these National Archives, some parts of which are right now under the threat of closure, but at least they are preserved. If we look at Havana, there are no reels of Chinese newspapers to read. There isn’t a kind of infrastructure to preserve that material, and that’s really sad. I don’t think we’ll ever really be able to understand Havana’s story of Chinese theaters as we have come to understand those of other cities. So the irretrievable archive, the one that you try to piece together from tidbits of information in other archives—that is hard.   

In an interesting way, however, I also feel for people who are doing research today, because all of the databases out there can seem like an information explosion. I was somewhat lucky to have only a little bit of information at the beginning of my research. When I wrote an article in 2002 about the theaters of Chinatown in New York, I only had one Chinese newspaper that I could read on microfilms to help me reconstruct the history; I didn’t have playbills or recordings. It allowed me to finish a self-contained, focused article; I didn’t have loads of source materials to read and to distract me in all directions. Now, there is a lot of information, tons of databases, and to just go through the information itself is daunting. You have to get a sense of where your question may lie.