I have been doing some research for a story idea mainly about spiritualism, Harry Houdini, and now vaudeville. It was an idea to see what life would have been like for an Asian American in San Francisco in the 1920’s. And in the back of my mind I know the history, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the racism, the aggression toward immigrants who were non-Western in California in that decade. But actually trying to find historical accounts of Asian Americans who were wealthy and doing well in San Francisco in 1920’s America was surprisingly depressing.
First of all, land could not be owned by Asian immigrants. Businesses could not really be established after a certain time. They could only live in certain areas, marry or bring family over for a short window, and then not at all. The 1906 earthquake and fire really helped the Chinese immigrants out by wiping out all the records of immigration, allowing for paper sons/daughters to be brought to the US.
Secondly, the rampant “yellow fever” racism, with its caricatures and racist media portrayals, was a wall of hate that was really hard to imagine living next to day after day. I suppose the racism we have now is much more insidious and dangerous, but I don’t know if I would have wanted to live with such in-your-face racism. I think I would have lost it and just started beating people up. But the world of 1920’s American with its jazz babies and Great Gatsbys is the most glam time I can think of! Isn’t that world of freedom from corsets and tresses of femininity something we raise up as an American revolution?
But sadly, not if you were an immigrant. And not if you were an immigrant of color. And not if you were a female immigrant of color. Then you were just stuck to struggle through the world as best you can.
The only spot I could find that Asian Americans had any chance at social movement or wealth/fame was in vaudeville. The great Anna May Wong, whose life was greatly impacted by the racism in America, was able to star in many films and become a well known star. Although she was deemed, “too Chinese” to play a Chinese woman in Pearl Buck’s Good Earth. WTF?
Also, Sessue Hayakawa, the silent film star sex symbol. That’s right, sex symbol BEFORE Valentino. He is looking particularly disheveled and dishy here:
And the key to their lives of a teensy bit more freedom was being part of an already marginalized group that didn’t necessarily follow all society’s rules and taboos. Being in theater was a way for them to be a part of something else, apart from the ignorant and fearful stew of American society.
And it happened in San Francisco a lot more than other places because there were more Asian Americans here. Even with the war hysteria, the internment camps, and the hate crimes, there were enough Asian Americans and a society willing to buy into the “exoticism” given to the Chinatown nightclubs that promised the secrets of the Orient. And as much as that makes me want to barf, it’s something that saved some small part, a way that Asian Americans could participate in American pop culture during that time. Just ignore the racism, internment camps, and beatings, and we have a pretty interesting time.
This really interesting paper written by Krystyn R. Moon, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of History at Georgia State University called, “The Rise of Asians and Asian Americans in Vaudeville, 1880s–1930s” charts out this history and reflection of Asian America’s place in the creation of American pop culture.
But now I really want to go visit the Chinatown nightclubs here in SF, the few that still exist with the interiors how they were in the 1920’s and 30’s. And I also dug up that Trina Robbins (worlds collide! Comic Book Geeks unite!) wrote a whole book about her experience meeting these Chinese American dancers in her local dance class who all used to be night club dancers and continued to dance well into their 80’s, long legs and all.
But all this research has me primed for something interesting. Now to actually get the brain soup into some concrete work! Stay tuned!