By Arthur Inkersley.
At the present day the population of Chinatown, San Francisco, is estimated at 40,000, whose amusement is catered to by two theatres, the Tan Kwai Yuen on Washington Street, and the Po Ring on Jackson Street. As long as Chinamen were freely admitted to the United States, the Chinese theaters did an excellent business, but since the passing of the Exclusion Act, their revenues have been much diminished.
An annual festival is held in these theatres in commemoration of Tin, Tau, and Chung, the founders of the Chinese drama. The two first were joint authors of dramas, and the last devised the musical and acrobatic details which form so important a part of Chinese plays. The festival lasts three days, during which special performances are given, each founder getting one-third of each day devoted to his honor. In the early days of the Chinese drama the players were amateurs, the sons of nobles, and were called mandarin actors. There was no professional class of actors regularly trained for the stage.
Dr. Frederick J. Masters, for many years a missionary in China, says that the Chinese drama took its present form during the Tang Dynasty (618-915 A.D.), and reached its highest excellence during the Yuen Dynasty (1280-1368 A.D.). During the period of its greatest glory there were eighty-five dramatists and nearly five hundred plays. Public representations were not, however, given until the year 1730, at which date the finest theatre for professional actors was opened in Pekin, in accordance with a dream of the Emperor. The purpose of the Emperor was to exercise a wholesome and purifying influence on public morality, and to set a good tone to society. To this end the plays always dealt out poetic justice, the villains being foiled and crushed, and the good and virtuous characters richly rewarded. But, like the modern theatre in Europe and America, the Chinese drama has fallen considerably from its high moral purpose, and now its influence serves rather to debase than to refine and elevate its patrons.
As a result of this decadence the Chinese text books of ethics denounce the theatre as the enemy of all high morality, and prohibit the actor from entering the district or provincial examinations for a literary degree, no matter how high may be his capacity and attainments. The masterpiece of Chinese dramatic literature is a domestic drama entitled "The Story of the Lute." Modern Chinese dramas are chiefly comedies, with a strong farcical element and a copious use of the slangy phrases of the day. Many of the worst are full of coarse puns and doubles entendres, though those who are able to understand and. appreciate the words of a Chinese play say that even these do not touch the depths of coarseness and vulgarity that are reached by the farce-comedie's of the United States. All the productions of the Chinese theatre show how great is the respect felt in China for the Imperial authority and for high scholarship. A large proportion of Chinese plays represent some portion of the national history; these are very long, the performance of some of them being said to take a whole week. Hence an idea has gone abroad that all Chinese plays are interminable; but this is not really the case, many of the pieces intended for the professional stage not occupying more than one hour, the time taken by one of the best plays in the Chinese language, "The Chancellor of the Six Kingdoms." This describes a career which never fails to touch the Chinese heart - that of a poor scholar who rises to great power by his energy and talents. It is a very short piece, crowded with processions of warriors, statesmen, and courtiers, and, to the Occidental spectator, soon becomes monotonous and wearisome.
Originally all the plays on the Chinese stage were historical, but now they are divided into seven classes: historical or tragic plays; comedies; dramas of Platonic love; dramas of Court life; dramas of chivalry; dramas of persecution; dramas of rewarded merit.
The melodrama in which the poor boy of merit and character earns great wealth and achieves high station is, as might be expected among an oppressed people, very popular. The cruelties, oppressions, and exactions of the ruling class furnish a fertile source of topics for Chinese plays. They supply the ground work of the persecution plays, the denouements of which, though probably very unlike what happens in real life, fill the listeners with delight.
In the plays of rewarded merit, the poor man of humble birth attains high rank and position. In fact, this class of plays bears a very close resemblance to the sort of melodrama popular at the theatres in the poor quarters of London, except that the Surrey play is compounded of the plots of three classes of Chinese plays: the persecution or virtue-in-distress play; the chivalry play; and the merit rewarded play. The conventional hero of the chivalry play is always a painted face military character, continually engaged in deeds of Quixotic benevolence. His haste and impulsiveness are perpetually running him into danger, but at last victory crowns his efforts.
The drama of Platonic love is peculiar to China, and is quite unlike the melodramas of the English or American stage - the unlikeness being chiefly produced by the different social usages of China, where a man may not make love to an unmarried woman, and flirtation between young men and maidens is an undiscovered sport. Inasmuch as Chinese plays cannot draw upon love for their interest, Chinese dramatists have to rely mainly upon strong character drawing and ingenuity in the construction of plot.
The three men upon whom the management of a Chinese theatre rests are the costume man, the boarding house keeper, and the treasurer. The costumes are very costly and handsome, being made of silk and satin, embroidered with silk and threads of silver and gold. The boarding house keeper feeds and lodges the actors; the treasurer controls the finances. There is no stage manager, the dramatist himself usually superintending the rehearsals. The cast is posted up in the green room; the cues and important lines are written out; the dialogues being made up on the spur of the moment by the actors, who merely follow the general outline of the drama.
To do this satisfactorily, they must be men of quick wit and good education, familiar with the history of their own country, and having a lair idea of the etiquette of the Imperial Court. So. skilful do the actors become in improvising lines to suit the action of the piece, that the performance of the play proceeds as naturally as though all the speeches had been committed to memory. The Chinese theatrical year begins on May 25th, the troupe being re-organized annually. The details of re-organization are discussed at a dinner attended by all the members of the company. After being closed for three days, the theatre is re-opened with a grand performance.
The salary of a Chinese actor varies from $200 to $10,000 a year, the latter being the salary paid in 1882 to the leading impersonator of female roles in San Francisco. But to earn this handsome pay he had to play seven times a week, and from six to eight hours at each performance. When he played, the price of admission to the theatre was raised to a dollar a head. He is now the leading actor of Canton.
Another actor; a comedian, was paid about $1600 for a three months engagement at Portland, Oregon, where there is a large Chinese population. The leading tragedian in San Francisco received $8,000 a year. But these salaries were paid in the good times, before the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, when, the Chinese merchants were making fortunes and were liberal patrons of the theatre. Then the proprietor of the theatre used to hire the players at fixed salaries; now he merely rents the house, the furniture, and the wardrobe to a company, who pay their own expenses out of the receipts, and divide the surplus pro rata.
But, notwithstanding his large earnings, an actor is in the lowest caste in China, and can never attain any social recognition, no matter how brilliant or agreeable he may be. No one invites the actor to his house, or even acknowledges his acquaintance when he meets him in the streets. Neither he, nor his sons or grandsons, can hold any official rank or any post under the Government. Belonging to a proscribed class, they are deprived of the ordinary motives to accumulate money and earn an independence. Thus, despite their large salaries, they are constantly in debt, being improvident and extravagant. Many actors of high merit having been compelled to leave China because of their debts, it has happened that the best Chinese actors could be seen in the theatres of San Francisco. Often an actor who has taken first parts in China plays second parts in San Francisco, where salaries are larger; for in China most actors belong to strolling companies, which depend, for the most part, upon a rich noble, who has the play performed before him.
It is easy for a regular theatre-goer to know the merits of the play that he is going to witness; for a dramatic list published in China gives the names and the chief performances of all the leading players in the Canton district, so that a company which does not reckon among its number some players of established reputation attracts but a small house. Benefit nights draw the largest crowds. Not infrequently one of the Chinese secret societies in San Francisco hires a theatre, paying $150 or $200 for a night. The president of the society takes the house, charges such prices as he thinks fit, and puts in his own ticket takers. On a night of this sort the tutelary god of the society is carried to the theatre in state, with a noisy accompaniment of clangorous gongs and whizzing fire crackers. If the night happens to be a cold one, the Joss is kept warm by being wrapped in a thick coat. The Chinese believe that their gods and goddesses take much pleasure in theatrical performances; and when the inhabitants of a village or town have escaped from fire, flood, or pestilence, they often make arrangements with a company of actors for a theatrical performance for the benefit of their gods.
At the theatres in the United States a Chinese ticket taker attends to the Mongolian patrons, the admission fee being arranged on the following plan: twenty-five cents for the whole performance, fifteen cents for the last two hours,. and ten cents for the last hour. There is also an American doorkeeper, who exacts fifty cents from. each "white devil," no matter how short a time he may stay, or how late he may enter the house. As it is the practice of Chinamen to bring the exact amount of the entrance money to the door of the theatre, the tickets are quickly obtained, and a large audience takes but a short time to enter the house. If the white man leaves the house before the performance is over, he gets no return check, as the Chinese patrons do. Round the door of the theatre are seen several poor Chinamen, who beg the return checks from such of their countrymen as come out of the house and do not intend to return.
Having procured our tickets we mount a short flight of steps, pass through a curtain, and find ourselves in a Chinese theatre. The floor of the house is occupied by Chinamen, who wear soft black felt hats with low crowns, and sit on a long bench of plain, hard wood. When the performance has begun, the Chinamen sit up on the backs of the benches like crows on a wall. The floor rises towards the back of the house, and above it there is a balcony. Near the stage and on a level with the balcony are the private boxes, which are engaged beforehand, and have the names of those who have taken them clearly marked upon them. Men only sit in the pit; women and children sit in the galleries; in one the married women of the poorer class or the second wives of rich merchants; in the other the demimondaines, recognizable, in Chinese as in other communities, by their gay costumes and highly painted faces. They wear large sleeved tunics and wide pantaloons; their black hair is plastered down closely on their heads, and decorated with metal ornaments and artificial flowers. The boxes are occupied by the small-feet ladies, the first wives of well to do merchants. Vendors go round the house selling sweetmeats, peanuts, pieces of sugarcane, and other dainties. At the back of the house is a stall at which cigars and cigarettes are sold. The upper balcony is a good place from which to observe, but the heat and the strange smell that pervades it make it trying to Occidental heads and stomachs. Mr. G. H. Fitch mentions that twelve or thirteen years ago he saw an audience of 3,000 persons at a performance in one of the theatres, but no such crowd is seen nowadays.
The stage is a raised platform with two doors, one for the entrance and the other for the exit of the performers. Over and round the stage and in other parts of the house are mottoes in black characters on red paper, containing pieces of good advice to the audience; in the dressing room are found mottoes specially appropriate to the actors. Over the actors' entrance to the stage are two designs, one of a water spout, and the other of an eclipse. These are represented by the figure of a dragon spouting water, and of a bat eating up the sun. A gas pipe let into the body of the bat permits of flames being belched forth from his mouth in a most lurid and effective manner. About ten feet above the stage is a little shrine, occupying just the same position as the stage-box in old British theatres. It contains the images of the god of fire and of the patron deity of the Canton players; a lamp is kept constantly burning before them; before the performance begins, the actors bow to the shrine. On nights when a Joss attends the theatre, he is installed in this shrine, which is elaborately decorated in his honor.
The orchestra consists of seven or eight musicians, who sit in a row at the back of the stage with their faces towards the audience. The leader plays a fiddle with a single horsehair string; his bow is also strung with horsehair. It makes an excruciating noise, and furnishes the accompaniment to the sad and sentimental parts of the play. The other instruments are an ox-hide drum, flat circles of brass beaten with a drumstick, small banjos, and heavy brass cymbals.
At the Washington Street Theatre the troupe of actors is too small to give historical dramas in an adequate manner, for it consists of only about thirty persons. The amount of money taken at the doors does not exceed $150 a night on an average, and the salaries of the performers are hardly half as large as they were fifteen years ago. The Chinese consider it very improper for a woman, and especially for a married woman, to go on the stage; but it seems that the Chinese, as well as the representatives of other races, rapidly become unconventional when they reside in the stimulating atmosphere of California; for the star player at the Washington Street Theatre is a married woman. Judged by Chinese standards of criticism, Mrs. Ah Moy is a clever actress; she earns about $150 a month. In China female parts are always taken by men, who counterfeit the painted and powdered face, the coiffure, shrill voice, and affectations of the Chinese woman so closely that no one would believe that he was looking at a person of the opposite sex. Actors who play the parts of women are called fa tans, and the best of them in San Francisco is said to be Tam Bing, who gets a salary of about $2,500 a year. The principal comedian at the Washington Street Theatre gets $125 a month, the leading tragedian $2,000 a year, and the fiend $1,000 a year. Minor actors, supernumeraries, and the seven or eight musicians who make up the orchestra, earn $500 a year each.
The doors of the theatre open at 6 p.m., and the performance continues till midnight. During nearly the whole of these six mortal hours the fiddle scraping goes on, the gongs and cymbals coming in fortissimo whenever any point needs emphasizing. When the musicians are not actually playing, they light up their pipes and smoke in the coolest manner.
There is a prologue, in which the principal character narrates the circumstances that gave birth to the play, tells the plot, and explains the parts to be taken. The audience listens and watches attentively, and manifests great interest in the action of the play and high approval of a skilful performance. A happy hit is greeted with loud laughter, but there is no hand clapping, and the hateful cat calling and stamping with the feet that are common in other theatres are unknown. Regular theatre goers are very familiar with the popular dramas, and it has happened that one of the audience has supplied a forgetful actor with his cue. The style of a Chinese actor is very noisy and blustering; the speeches are chanted to the accompaniments of appropriate music, violent gesture, and contortion of the face. On the Chinese stage there is a great deal of fighting, prefaced by a vast amount of high and boastful talk, after the fashion of the heroes of Homeric days.
The stage setting and scenery are of the simplest kind, consisting of little more than a table, a few chairs, and some drapery. There are no footlights and no drop curtain. The lack of scenery is a great drawback to the realism of the Chinese theatre, and is supplied by a series of stage conventions, whereby a table and boards placed lengthwise form a bridge over a stream, and piled lip high represent a mountain; canvas laid down on the stage makes a lake; men seated with paddles in their hands represent a boat or ship. A man standing astride of a bamboo pole with a tuft of hair at its end is riding on horseback; or sometimes the act of mounting the horse is merely indicated by lifting up the leg and carrying a whip, and the act of dismounting by a little skip from an imaginary horse's back to the ground. On reaching the other side of the stage the actor announces his arrival at his destination. A bed is indicated by placing three or more chairs side by side, spreading a piece of colored stuff over them, and suspending in front curtains on bamboo poles. A soldier killed in battle lies down on the stage, and in a moment or two gets up and walks off unconcernedly. The scene shifters manipulate their slender scenic appliances very neatly, and move about the stage arranging them in a most nonchalant manner. When they have done their work, they merely stand at the side of the stage, where white visitors are often accommodated with chairs.
Changes of scene are mostly indicated by pantomime; and, if this is not enough, the whole troupe moves thrice round the stage rapidly. The prompter is not in any way concealed from the audience, and little or no effort is made to deceive the spectator. Even to the ordinary Chinaman there is much that is unintelligible - for the characters speak in a dialect unfamiliar to most of the spectators, and the costumes belong to an early period of Chinese history. The slender store of scenic appliances renders spectacular plays impossible, though brilliantly costumed dramas are very common. To derive any pleasure. from the performance, some acquaintance with the peculiar conventions of the stage is necessary; and the Mongolian spectators are so accustomed to the absurdities and so familiar with the conventionalisms, that their enjoyment is not at all impaired.
Some of the actors wear masks, and others have their faces hideously painted. All the various official characters in. the play are costumed appropriately; and foreign characters are all represented by painted faces. There are female military characters who assist their husbands in fighting.
Actors on the Chinese stage are very much limited in the number of characters they can represent; hence, large troupes are necessary. The characters of the drama are minutely classified, but all fall into two grand divisions - civil and military. The parts of women are, as has been said, sustained by men; this, however, seems to be attributable to the dullness of the women quite as much as to the prejudice against the appearance of females on the stage.
After you have grown tired of the play, you can pass from the floor of the house on to the stage, and thence into the room where the actors dress and paint their faces. As you cross the stage, you very likely run into some of the troupe making an entrance, but that does not. matter. Adjoining the green room is a room filled with stage properties and heavy, iron bound trunks containing the large and costly wardrobes of the theatre. On pegs round this room - which is utilized as a sleeping room for the minor actors and supernumeraries - are hung the helmets and head gear of those actors who represent mandarins and high officials, the different characters being distinguished mainly by their head dress. Those actors whose cues will soon come stand in the entrance, chattering continuously. You can ascend to the shrine and sleeping rooms above the stage, and descend by a staircase leading to the depths below, whence issue the mingled smells of tobacco, opium, cooking, and Chinamen. The subterranean portion of the building is honeycombed with narrow, gas lighted passages, on each side of which are small rooms occupied by the actors, though how they sustain life in these air tight and sunshine tight boxes is hard to conceive. Except for the lack of air and daylight, the rooms are not uncomfortable, though, should a fire break out, the poor players would be suffocated like rats on a burning ship. Hard by is the kitchen, and tethered in a corner near it is a duck. Chinese actors play, eat, drink, sleep, and amuse themselves within the limits of the theatre, being lodged and boarded at the expense of the management. They are gay livers, and indulge in much gambling and opium smoking. They rarely leave the theatre, except for a walk or an occasional meal at a restaurant. If an actor takes a bride, she is brought to the theatre to be married.
Originally published in the Strand Magazine. May 1898.