Gendered Performance for a Gendered Audience
The need for labor in the Wild West, first in the gold mines and later in constructing the transcontinental railroad, brought mostly male Chinese immigrants into the U.S., while Chinese women remained at home taking care of the family. The first wave of Chinese immigration included virtually no women. As figures from 1909 show, only 16 Chinese women had immigrated by 1851, as compared to thousands of men (Coolidge 498, 502). The U.S. Census in the nineteenth century shows women generally accounted for a very low percentage of Chinese immigrants. In 1860, the ratio between Chinese men and women was about 18:1; in 1870, 13:1; in 1880, 21:1; in 1890, 27:1; and in 1900, 19:1 (Yung 293).
However, when Chinese women wanted to join their husbands or fathers in the New World, they faced nearly insurmountable challenges. After the gold was exhausted and the transcontinental railroad completed (1869), the West faced a serious surplus labor problem. Chinese immigrants, once valued for their docile attitudes and willingness to accept low wages, became an easy target in the West. A series of movements were thus organized to expel the Chinese from the U.S. These culminated in the 1882 "Chinese Exclusion Act," the first and only immigration law in American history to target a specific nationality.
But Chinese women became the target even before the whole Chinese "race." The Page Law (1875), originally designed to regulate prostitution, was subsequently used to discourage the immigration of Chinese women in general. Prostitution had been a problem in the west, as many adventurers-turned-laborers, like the Chinese, did not - or could not - bring their families along. The large male population provided another kind of gold mine for many women opportunists. The red light district was sizable, and, as Herbert Ashbury states, "there was no country in the world that was not represented in San Francisco by at least one prostitute" (34). In the case of Chinese prostitution, unfortunately, many young women were forced into the situation: some were sold by their fathers or relatives, and some were even abducted. Many of them had dreamed of marriage, work, or independence in the New World, and many of them came to this country to join their families. However, the general anti-Chinese sentiment treated all Chinese women as potential prostitutes. They had to prove themselves as "moral" women before they could enter the country. As Judy Yung points out, bound feet became one moral standard for Chinese women at the checkpoint (24). But this standard was actually misleading, as many "moral" women from certain regions did not practice foot-binding, whereas prostitutes probably bound their feet to heighten their sexual allure to potential clients. Under these circumstances, the sojourners' Chinatown was turned into a bachelor society.
This bachelor society coincided with the "all-male" performance in Cantonese opera. In Chinese theatrical traditions, impersonation by the opposite sex is rather common. Almost from the very beginning of Chinese theatre history, men and women shared the stage and impersonated each other. However, in the nineteenth century, more and more regional theatres adopted the convention of a "single-sex" troupe, which basically meant "all-male" troupes. Cantonese opera in the nineteenth century was essentially an all-male art. Cantonese opera flourished in the Pearl River region, and troupes usually traveled by boat. The boat carried all the costumes and props as well as all the members of the company. Except when they were actually on stage, troupe members spent almost all their time on the boat. The boat itself was the theatre company, complete with hierarchy and division of labor. Single-sex troupes certainly made traveling by boat more convenient.
The all-male theatre company on the boat, the all-male cast on stage, and the bachelor society in San Francisco Chinatown all reflect a significant synchronic social and cultural phenomenon. Though performed by male actors, the world presented on stage was nevertheless a gender-balanced one. While women were scarce in reality, romantic love, marriage, and even childbirth (apparently a popular theme) in theatre nevertheless helped audiences live out their family dreams virtually. Traveling troupes from home brought familiar stories and spectacles, but unfortunately, they did not bring real women! In nineteenth-century San Francisco's Chinatown, real women had a difficult time competing with fake women on stage.