In early 1930, theater-goers in New York City enjoyed an unusual oppor-tunity: Mei Lan-fang, the most famous Peking opera actor in China, visited the city as part of a US tour to showcase his art and to make a case for his homeland’s culture. Mei’s specialty was young female roles, which male actors routinely played in Chinese operas well into the 20th century. He and his troupe began their New York run in February 1930, performing at the 49th Street Theater (left), which producers J.J. and Lee Shubert had built in 1920. The theater was torn down in 1940, however, and today 235 W 49th is home to the Pearl Hotel (right).
Although Peking opera is stylistically and musically quite different than Western operas and American musical theater, New Yorkers packed Mei’s performances, and scalpers charged several times their tickets’ face value. According to theater scholar Nancy Guy, Mei’s close collaborator Qi Rushan had studied the kinds of Peking operas that most appealed to the foreigners who saw them in China, and Mei, Qu, and their opera company geared their performances to appeal to American audiences. Each night, Soo Yong, a Hawaiian-born Chinese American woman who was a veteran of Broadway, introduced and explained the evening’s program in English. Although Mei sang entirely in Chinese, Qu’s approach worked: audiences were enthralled. Brooks Atkinson, theater critic of the New York Times, gushed that “the chief impression is one of grace and beauty, stateliness and sobriety, of unalloyed imagination.”
Mei certainly appreciated the warm welcome he received, and his humility and public statements about wishing to study American drama while in the United States won fans as well. So did his high-profile meetings with actors such as Charlie Chaplin. But no one was happier about the success of Mei’s American tour than its major sponsor, the China Institute.
Founded just a few years earlier in 1926, the China Institute included prominent Americans and Chinese, as well as a few Chinese Americans (such as New Yorkers Ernest K. Moy and his sister Katherine Moy Chen), on its board. The group’s purposes included the promotion of Chinese culture in the United States. At the time, many Americans saw China as a poor, backward, and politically chaotic land with little to offer the rest of the world. Movies, magazines, and books of this era routinely portrayed Chinese as either sinister or pitiful. The China Institute sought to change this image. Indeed, this was a small part of a far larger campaign by Chinese intellectuals, students, and others to help to improve the way the major world powers treated their homeland.
The popularity of Mei Lanfang’s New York performances delighted the China Institute’s members. Although Mei originally planned a limited run of performances, he bowed to popular demand and in early March moved down to the National Theater, today known as the Nederlander Theater, for another run.
Coincidentally, one of Mei’s competitors for New York theatergoers’ interest was Tokujiro Tsutsui, whose troupe of twenty-nine actors specialized in modernizing older forms of Japanese drama. The Japanese group arrived in New York in early March 1930 and followed Mei’s lead in at least one way: like Soo Yong, Michio Ito, a Tokyo-born dancer then living in New York, explained the performances in English for the audiences who attended the nightly shows at the Booth Theater, just a few blocks north of the National. Ito, a friend of Martha Graham and a pioneer of modern dance, had also adapted and helped direct the troupe’s performances.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, critics compared the two groups of “Oriental” actors. Critic John Martin chastised Ito for the production, and while Brooks Atkinson found some of the Japanese troupe’s swordplay diverting, he panned the rest of its performance in a biting comment tinged with racism: “At best it is Oriental drama that is coming down the main highway of the Occidental theater, and has not progressed very far.” Atkinson far preferred the “ancient” style he attributed to Mei Lanfang–a telling detail that suggested the kind of orientalism common in America at the time.
One group was largely absent from Mei’s performances: Chinese New Yorkers. Outside of the wealthiest and most prominent, few could afford to see Mei or understand the dialect in which he sang. Instead, they continued patronizing their own local Chinese theaters, where traveling troupes and local actors performed for far lower prices than Mei commanded on Broadway.
Sources for this post include: The New York Times; Nancy Guy, “Brokering Glory for the Chinese Nation: Peking Opera’s 1930 American Tour,” Comparative Drama 35:3-4 (2001-2); Yunxiang Gao, “Soo Yong (1903-1984): Hollywood Celebrity and Cultural Interpreter,” The Journal of American-East Asian Relations 17:4 (2010); MichioIto.org; and ChinaInstitute.org.