Date of this Version
Crosscurrents: Land, Labor, and the Port. Textile Society of America's 15th Biennial Symposium. Savannah. GA. October 19-23. 2016.
Photographs of the 1936 Vancouver Jubilee Parade show Chinese men and women wearing Cantonese opera costumes that appear to be similar, if not identical, to ones in the collection of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. In this highly public forum, they portray the role of “Chineseness” for the non-Chinese audience, reference the power of temple festival dramas, and assert their presence and aspiration to be accepted by mainstream society. By reconfiguring costumes for public display, Chinese immigrants employed material culture in a strategy of performance, adaptation, and identity. This connects to matters still pertinent today: how a living tradition adapts and cultural identity is sustained in a new environment. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Chinese men from the Guangdong region of China traveled to British Columbia, Canada to work as labourers in the gold fields, the railroad, and on steamships. Others established businesses including cafes, laundries, tailor shops, and grocery stores. Cultural and political factors in China and Canada meant that wives and children were generally left behind. As the Chinese population increased, the 1885 Head Tax made it increasingly expensive and difficult to bring families from China, rising to $500 per person by 1903. The Head Tax was repealed in 1923 but was immediately replaced by an even more oppressive Immigration Act that effectively prevented further Chinese people from entering Canada until 1947.1 The Chinese community was largely self-contained, with limited contact with the dominant Anglo-European populace due to racial, social, and economic separation and prejudices. Employment opportunities were severely restricted; there were barriers to mobility, and few cultural activities. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries performers of what is now commonly termed Cantonese opera (yueju粵劇) – dramas that integrated acting, singing, music, and martial arts – traveled to temple festivals throughout Guangdong’s Pearl River delta. Such performances honoured local deities and generated awe and excitement through “glittering splendor,” novelty, and complexity.2 Plots, nearly always taken from legends, popular history, or classic novels, typically express fundamental Confucian values. As part of a vigorous trans-Pacific network that linked Hong Kong, Sydney, Honolulu, Victoria, Vancouver and San Francisco,3 Cantonese opera troupes performed in Vancouver before 1898, and by the 1920s regularly toured Chinese communities in North America. Theatre provided immigrants with much needed Chinese language entertainment, familiar music and stories, fantasy, beauty, and a connection to popular religion and spirituality. The imperial settings, dazzling costumes, and happy outcomes strongly contrasted with the harsh reality of everyday life, including the obstacles to bringing families to Canada, homesickness, and a low standard of living.4 Performances offered opportunities for public gatherings and addressed other cultural and welfare needs within a hostile political environment.5 For reasons not completely understood, early twentieth-century itinerant troupes left costumes in Vancouver rather than return them to China. Troupes may have been under financial duress, or costumes were outdated and no longer valued. In any case, the Jin Wah Sing Musical Association ended up with a large number of costumes, which were acquired by the Museum of Anthropology in 1971 and 1991.6 Today, the Museum holds one of the oldest and best-preserved collections of Cantonese opera artifacts in the world.