The Early History of Chinese Immigrants and Chinese Immigrant Theatre
The first major wave of Chinese immigration coincided with the Gold Rush. Most of the early immigrants came from areas near Canton (Guangzhou), a southern coastal city located on the Pearl River Delta. As one of southern China's major seaports, Canton was also capital of Guangdong province. The need for cheap and good labor in California provided a valid reason to import Chinese workers, and the political and economic climate in China and the invasion of Western imperial powers also encouraged such migration. Local Cantonese newspapers from this era were full of "wanted" advertisements for labor in "Gold Mountain" (the nickname of San Francisco). Experiences in Gold Mountain form the collective memory of the first wave of Chinese immigrants in the U.S.
The early Chinese immigrants were speakers of Cantonese, one of the major southern Chinese dialects. Cantonese was probably the first Chinese language introduced to the New World and has remained the language spoken in Chinatowns. Cantonese opera, the local dramatic form from the Canton region, sung and spoken in Cantonese dialect, followed the first wave of Chinese immigrants and became the representative "Chinese theatre" in nineteenth century California.
The first documented Cantonese opera performance was at the American Theatre on Sansome Street in San Francisco on October 18, 1852. Tong Hook Tong, a company of 123 members, operated on a grand scale: they brought their own costumes and orchestra, as well as their own theatre building! This prefabricated theatre building was to be erected two months after their arrival. On their first night at the American Theatre, Hong Hook Tong performed a number of spectacular and dramatic pieces, including traditional opening numbers such as "The Eight Genii" and "Too Tsin made High Minister by the Six States" (Alta California, October 16, 1852). Apparently, the "splendid performance" was a "great success" (Alta California, October 20, 1852).
A steady record of performance indicates that Cantonese opera performance had become a norm in San Francisco. For instance, in the late fall of 1855, another Chinese company, the Shanghai Theatre, opened in an existing two-story building on Dupont Street, the present-day Grant Avenue (San Francisco Chronicle, December 13, 1855). A year later, a Chinese troupe performed at Aldelphi Theatre (Bulletin, December 6, 1856). In 1860, the performance of "a celebrated company of Chinese actors" was also recorded (Bulletin, March 5, 1860). Cantonese opera, which retold familiar stories in the mother tongue, eased the lonely immigrants' nostalgia; on the other hand, with the development of tourism, Cantonese opera also became one of the must-sees for non-Chinese visitors to Chinatown. Unexpectedly, then, Cantonese opera found a space for survival in the ghettoized Chinatown in the nineteenth century.