Issue 2.1 Homepage

Article Contents
·The Early History of Chinese Immigrants and Chinese Immigrant Theatre
·Gendered Performance for a Gendered Audience
·Women Then - On and Off Stage
·Women Now - On and Off Stage
·The Feminine Performance and the Future of Cantonese Opera
·Works Cited

Printer Version

Daphne Lei, "Can You Hear Me?: The Female Voice and Cantonese Opera in the San Francisco Bay Area" (page 7 of 7)


The transformation of an all-male art for the laborer class to today's Cantonese opera is significant. As Chinese immigrants became more affluent and established, they moved out of Chinatown and moved into American middle-class suburbia. Cantonese opera has taken up a new meaning for many "successful" Chinese Americans. It is a connection to home, a cultural heritage, and an expression of wealth and status. The new "rebirth" of Cantonese opera happened in the 1980s, as some retired master performers moved to the Bay Area and started teaching local people. It is an expensive art to practice and most participants are amateurs. Even as most traditional arts are "dying" without proper education and without government support, Cantonese opera is surprisingly "alive" in the Bay Area. It is the traditionally voiceless women who have taken on a man's job to transmit the art, to help strengthen the community, and most significantly, to project their female voice.

The curtains have risen and a woman is in the spotlight. The audience gradually quiets down. "Can you hear me?" She asks. Yes, absolutely. Pay attention! The show is starting. A woman is singing.


1. Tong Hook Tong is one of several forms given for the company's name in contemporary newspaper articles. Other variations include Hong Hook Tong, Hook Took Tong, Hong Took Tong and others. This is one example of the obstacles that one encounters in researching early Chinese immigrant history. The romanization of the Chinese name is almost never consistent, not to mention accurate. In the first advertisement for this company in Alta California (October 16, 1852), the theatre was called both Tong Hook Tong and Took Hook Tong. [Return to text]

2. The homosocial and homosexual situation, both in Cantonese opera companies and in Chinatown bachelor society, are topics that merit detailed discussion. The effeminization of Chinese men - as many early laborers took on "womanly" professions such as domestic workers, laundry operators and cooks - is also a large topic one cannot escape when discussing gender problems in Chinese immigration in particular and in Asian ethnicity in general. However, in this article, women and their contribution in Cantonese opera are my focus. [Return to text]

3. The Great Star Theater, located on Jackson Street, is the oldest existing Cantonese opera playhouse. It was built in 1925. However, for various reasons, the theatre has in recent years rarely hosted Cantonese opera performance and will probably be torn down. The "Save the Great Star Theater" campaign started in 2000. [Return to text]

Works Cited

Alta California, October 16, 1852.

Alta California, October 20, 1852.

Ashbury, Herbert. The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underground. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1933.

Atherton, Gertrude. My San Francisco: A Wayward Biography. New York: Bobbs Merrill Co., 1946.

Bulletin, December 6, 1856.

Bulletin, March 5, 1860.

Coolidge, Mary Roberts. Chinese Immigration. New York: Henry Holt, 1909.

Figaro, November 14, 1878.

Fong, Stacey. "Bay Area Cantonese Opera." Available at:

Herald, October 8, 1852.

Lei, Daphne Pi-Wei. Interview with Stacey Fong (January 27, 2003).

--. Interviews with Laura Ma (June 23, 2001 and February 11, 2003).

--. Interview with Nancy Wong (February 11, 2003).

--. Interview with Samuel Wong (July 8, 2001).

--. "The Production and Consumption of Chinese Theatre in Nineteenth-Century California." Theatre Research International 28.3 (October 2003).

Riddle, Donald. Flying Dragons, Flowing Streams: Music in the Life of San Francisco's Chinese. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Rather, Lois. Chinese Theatres in America. Unpublished manuscript. 1943.

San Francisco Chronicle, December 13, 1855.

Yung, Judy. Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

S&F Online - Issue 2.1, Public Sentiments - Ann Cvetkovich and Ann Pellegrini, Guest Editors - ©2003.