In the 1880’s, a new variety of entertainment surfaced in the United States and Canada widely known as Vaudeville. Vaudeville was brought to life by a producer of concerts and events, named Tony Pastor. He put together random theatrical acts that included musicians, dancers, acrobatics, magicians, and comedians (pretty much like a circus) and called it “clean” Vaudeville in New York City. Since his targeted audience was female and family-based crowds, he prohibited the sales of alcohol and forbid vulgar materials in his theater. As time progressed, other people who adopted the idea of Vaudeville began to add more risque acts and search for more enticing performers.
…Enter the arrival of Asian immigrants. During this period, the most popular anti-Asian stereotype was “Yellow Peril,” which referred to the image of Asians as a threat to the American society. Although this stereotype had a negative connotation, I think that it helped the Asians get their foot through the door and on the stage to perform. Because the Americans felt threatened by the Asian culture, they were intrigued by what they had to offer.
At the time, the only Asians portrayed in the media were perceived as savages or childish human beings who were inferior to other races and crippled from understanding sophisticated literature, art, or music. The acts that were put on would shock audiences because they have never been exposed to such performances or traditions before. These Asian vaudevillains brought true acts and performances that portrayed real Asian performers rather than yellowfaces. I think that because the vaudevillains took the stereotype of “Yellow Peril” and used it to entice audiences; they gave themselves the image of the “Deviant,” which was the stereotype of Asians to be mysterious and deceitful. These vaudevillains were able to dominate the stage because they used their stereotype to their advantage and put on performances that would give the audience what they expect to see and at the same time, give them a taste of Asian culture that would defy that image. Many performers would wear traditional Asian costumes and play Asian instruments, but sing American songs in English and dance to popular routines.
The history of Asian vaudevillains is not a topic spoken about often because during the 1880’s to 1930’s, the Chinese Exclusion Act would marginalize and erase the existence of Asian performances in literature and media. Although they were suppressed, the vaudevillains couldn’t be completely erased and their determination would make them role models for later Asian performers such as Anna May Wong or Bruce Lee.