I would like to express my gratitude to Ms. Laura Ma, Stacey Fong and Nancy Wong, who agreed to interviews for this article. Special thanks also go to Elaine and Samuel Wong, Master Pak Chiu Hung and Madam Lam Siu Kwan, Madam Liang Jing, and Master Wong Chi-Ming for their support for my work and for Cantonese opera.
"Where are the women?" A visitor to San Francisco's Chinatown in the 1850s might ask such a question after seeing an ocean of Chinese men in blue denim garb and long queues on the dusty streets. "Go to the theatre!" That would be one of the obvious answers, as the scarcity of women was "corrected" on stage, where Cantonese opera would offer what appeared to be a gender-balanced depiction of Chinese life. However, a closer look at theatrical conventions in the nineteenth century exposes the falsehood of such a claim: women were generally barred from the stage, and all the female parts were played by men! The first Cantonese opera in California was essentially a male art. However, during the past century and a half, social, cultural, political, and economic factors have all contributed to the transformation of Cantonese opera in the Bay Area. Cantonese opera, a "dying" art by many people's reckoning, is surviving in the Bay Area mainly due to the effort of a small group of women. In contrast to their marginalized role in early immigrant history, women today play a very important part in sustaining, preserving, practicing, and disseminating traditional Chinese opera in the Bay Area. The metamorphosis from a male art (all-male cast playing for an essentially all-male audience) in the nineteenth century to a largely female art today is a fascinating process. This essay will focus on the significance of this transformation, and especially on the contribution of contemporary women in the Bay Area.
The 1906 earthquake and fire wiped out San Francisco's Chinatown. Besides the historical documents that were lost, also erased was the Chinese voice, especially the utterances of Chinese women. When historians try to reconstruct the history of early Chinese immigrants, they will have to rely on writings in English, which generally fall into two categories: ethnographic reports and guidebooks. Such sources, written largely by authors ignorant of Chinese culture and language, present enormous challenges to the historian. Can we recover the buried history from amid all the confusions, stereotypes, mistranslations, and misunderstandings? In addition to trying to decipher the English documents and locating Chinese documents in archives outside of the Bay Area, such as southern California and Hong Kong, I also try to listen to the voices of contemporary Chinese women, through interviewing them, participating in their rehearsals, and attending their performances. Listen carefully: Chinese women are singing. Chinese women are heard again. Chinese women are actually taking the spotlight!