A Tale of Two Opera Houses

Exploring the May’s Photo Studio and its relationship with the Cantonese Opera Renaissance in San Francisco. Co-sponsored by Stanford's Asian American Art Initiative

Center for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Developed in partnership with the Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative

New China Theater by Photographer unknownCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Photographer Unknown: Theaters before the 1906 Earthquake

Cantonese opera first came to San Francisco in 1852, performed on almost empty stages by all male actors. But in the 1870s, there were multiple opera houses in heated competition that even led to at least one riot between the Chinese Royal and New Chinese Theater, shown here.

Exploring scenes and stories from the Cantonese Opera and a critical decade of San Francisco’s Chinatown through the lens of the May’s Photo Studio.

Additional information about each image or video can be accessed by hovering and clicking on the top left information icon (a lower case "i" in a circle).

Great China Theater (1925) by May’s Photo StudioCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

The Great China Theater opens at 630 Jackson in 1925

After winning an important new court ruling in 1921, Chinese opera performers were again able to tour in the US. 1925’s newly built Great China Theater was politically and artistically affiliated with the new Chinese Republic, or Kuomintang, and the May’s Photo Studio.

Great China Theater Interior (1925) by May’s Photo StudioCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

A sold-out house for an event at the Great China Theater

The Great China did not have wrap-around balconies as it regularly doubled as a theater for a new form of entertainment that was gaining traction: movies.  Its opera productions’ innovative set designs and original stories based on current events also drew inspiration from film.

Escape of Sun Yat Sen and Soong Ching Ling from Canton by Ship (1920) by May’s Photo StudioCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Innovative aspects of Great China’s revolutionary operas

The Great China Theater’s Kuomintang political-affiliation is made clear in photographs of its performances that venerate Chinese Republican heroes like Sun Yat Sen and Soong Ching Ling. Its debt to Hollywood is suggested by dramatic and novel sets used in the opera productions.

Stage Scene of Revolutionaries (1920) by May’s Photo StudioCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Opera stories about Revolutionary heroism: The 72 Martyrs

This scene depicts a 1911 dramatic confrontation between Republican revolutionaries including Huang Xing and Lin Jueming, and Qing Dynasty Viceroy Zhang Mingqi. Actors in these new, improvised productions sometimes wore nametags to help the audience keep track of the storyline.

Portrait of Chan Chau-wah (1926) by May’s Photo StudioCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

May’s Studio photographed many actors, like Chan Chau-wah

May’s Studio photographed performers at multiple theaters, but primarily at the Great China.  Wooden boards were placed on top of the theater seats to support the bulky camera and explosive flash powder provided the lighting that captured the performers' dramatic costumes.

Handbill for the Great China Theater (1926-09-17) by Young China newspaperCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Reproduction of May’s Studio photos used in opera promotion

Programs, reviews, and handbills featuring May’s Studio photos like this for the Great China were printed by the Young China newspaper.  Handbills were widely distributed every afternoon to promote evening performances that often changed daily, sometimes even largely improvised.

Young China Newspaper Headquarters (1930) by May’s Photo StudioCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

The Offices of the Young China Newspaper at 881 Clay Street

The Young China was one of several Chinese language newspapers published in Chinatown during the 1920s, and it was affiliated with the Republican Kuomintang party.  May’s Studio, Great China Theater and the Young China newspaper represented a Republican team. 

Collage of Postcard and Painting of the Mandarin Theater (1920) by Stanley A. Piltz and Martin WongCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Another new Chinese opera house: the Mandarin at 1021 Grant

The first opera house after the 1921 court ruling, the Mandarin, opened in 1924. It is seen here in a postcard and a painting by Martin Wong. Its repertoire was typically more traditional in approach and it was more politically aligned with the pro-empire Constitutionalist party

Martin Wong’s 1993 Painting of the Mandarin Theater

Throughout his career, Martin Wong (1946-1999) painted images of San Francisco’s Chinatown and its opera including scenes like this, but he depicted them as they might have appeared in the 1920s. This building’s brick façade appears in the 1924 film that follows.

1924 Fox Movietone film clip of the new Mandarin Theater

The budding renaissance of San Francisco’s Cantonese opera was even filmed for a 1924 newsreel.  In this short clip we see the exterior of the first purpose-built theater in decades, performers rehearsing onstage, and a stylish audience seated inside – some with cigarettes.

Portrait of Wong Hok Sing (1930) by May’s Photo StudioCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

The link between opera and film: Wong Hok-Sing (黃鶴聲)

Wong Hok-Sing was first a noted opera performer – but in the 1930s, he became a film actor, screen writer and director of many Cantonese language films in both San Francisco and Hong Kong.  Later in his career he even had a cameo role in Orson Wells’ 1947 Lady from Shanghai.

Wong Hok-Sing’s performance in The Lady from Shanghai

Filmed inside San Francisco’s Mandarin Theater, this short clip juxtaposes dramatic imagery of Wong Hok-sing performing onstage (uncredited) and Rita Hayworth backstage.

Guan Yinglian (1920) by May’s Photo StudioCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Women opera stars were first a novelty and then a sensation

Sometimes billed as the “best-known” female Chinese opera performer, Kwan Ying Lin (關影憐) appeared on stages throughout the US, making her a household name in many Chinese American communities. Her voice was said to be so electrifying that it could cause a lightbulb to explode.

Mudan Su (牡丹蘇) as a Young Scholar (1926) by May’s Photo StudioCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

White Hibiscus at Night part 1
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Mudan Peony Su (牡丹蘇) was another renowned performer

Sometimes women performed male roles, as in this photo of the opera star Mudan Su dressed as a scholar. Mudan Su developed a distinctive vocal style for male roles, heard in this recording of the White Hibiscus at Night, where a young male scholar mourns his beloved, Hibiscus.

Mei Lanfang Hosted by San Francisco Mayor “Sunny” Jim Rolph, Jr. (1930) by May’s Photo StudioCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

San Francisco’s Mayor Welcomes Mei Lanfang (梅蘭芳) in 1930

The most famous Chinese opera performer of the 20th century was Mei Lanfang, a man who performed female roles in the classical Peking Opera tradition.  His international fame was such that he was welcomed to San Francisco during his US tour by then Mayor James Rolph, Jr.

San Francisco’s Mayor Welcomes Mei Lanfang (梅蘭芳) in 1930

The most famous Chinese opera performer of the 20th century was Mei Lanfang, a man who performed female roles in the classical Peking Opera tradition.  His international fame was such that he was welcomed to San Francisco during his US tour by then Mayor James Rolph, Jr.

1930 Fox Movietone Newsreel Clip of Mei Lanfang

Mei Lanfang was also filmed for a newsreel during his 1930 US tour, but now with the added feature of sound recording, enabling us to appreciate the interaction of his falsetto voice and delicately choreographed gestures.

Portrait of Tzu Hou Hai (1920) by May’s Photo StudioCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

A different expression of masculinity: Tzu Hou Hai (子喉海)

Cantonese opera star Tzu Hou Hai left San Francisco in 1910 after a scandal involving his homosexuality, but returned in the early 1920s. The inscription on this photograph reading 子喉海玉照 “Pretty Portrait of Tzu Hou Hai” incorporates an adjective typically associated with women. 

Collage of 3 female opera performers (1923) by May’s Photo StudioCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

The impact of opera performers on ideas about gender

Musicologist Nancy Rao writes that exalted women opera stars like Tsu Yu Hua (left) who ran a company of all female performers, Chat Sing Mui (middle) who performed as Mulan, and another performer (right) billed as “Colorful Flying Phoenix” - reshaped the community's identity.

2017 Library of Congress Lecture by Professor Nancy Rao

In this excerpt from her lecture “Fantastic Worlds of Chinese Opera Theater in North America” at the Library of Congress, Professor Nancy Rao discusses the impact of women opera stars on community identity.

Collage of 3 female portraits (1923) by May’s Photo StudioCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Co-mingling of stage and street styles: “Chinatown Pretty”

One manifestation of the influence of Chinese opera was in Chinatown fashion, and stage and street styles mutually influenced one another. Stars sometimes appeared on stage in high heels, and residents permed their hair and wore sequined dresses that matched the performers'.

This story about the Cantonese Opera is part of a multi-part story series exploring scenes and stories from a critical decade of San Francisco’s Chinatown through the lens of the May’s Photo Studio.

Credits: Story

Editors: Waverly Chao-Scott, Mark Dean Johnson, Stephen Gong, David Lei
Principal Designer: Waverly Chao-Scott
Editorial Advisors: Marci Kwon, Anna Lee, Ben Stone, Maggie Dethloff, Hansong Zhang
Original captions: Mark Dean Johnson, SFSU; Stephen Gong, CAAM; David Lei; Chase Wang, Xidian University

Consultants: Arthur Dong, Jianye He, Felicia Lowe, Shirley Ng, Nancy Rao, Lydia Tanji, Wylie Wong
Special Thanks: Leif Anderson, Nisha Balaram, George Berticevich, Kylee Jo Diedrich, Anna Eng, Chris Hacker, Carrie Haslett, Melissa Ho, Candace Huey, John Jacob, Anna Lee, Ding Lee, Joanne Lee, Minxiong Li, Tim Noakes

Funding and Support: Terra Foundation for American Art; Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative; Stanford Libraries Special Collections; Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association Archives Project

Featuring Stanford's Special Collections Library: Philip P. ChoyHim Mark LaiJudy Yung, and Wylie Wong's collection of May's Studio Photographs Part 1Part 2Online Archive of CA

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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