Performing Chinatown
Hollywood, Tourism, and the Making of a Chinese American Community
William Gow



My great uncle Richard Chee was many things in his life: a US military veteran, an aerospace engineer, a UCLA Bruin, and an avid sports fan. For a moment in his life, Uncle Richard was also a Hollywood performer. As a Chinese American born in Los Angeles’ Old Chinatown who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s, my uncle appeared as a background extra in Hollywood films. His first opportunity to perform on screen came when he was a student at Belmont High School. He and his friend Willie Quon landed roles as extras in the 1943 wartime comedy Rookies in Burma.1 Sixty-five years after this background appearance, Uncle Richard still recalled his experience fondly, even as he remembered losing his entire first paycheck playing cards with other Chinese American extras on set.

Richard Chee was not alone in performing in Hollywood. Charlie Quon found his way into the Paramount film China (1943). The future Hollywood animator Tyrus Wong appeared in the background of The Painted Veil (1934). Esther Lee performed as a background player in Keys of the Kingdom (1944).2 Of course, any Chinese American in Los Angeles could have performed in MGM’s 1937 cinematic adaption of Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth. In the mid-1930s, MGM Studios built a Chinese Village in the San Fernando Valley replete with rice fields and water buffalo, and then sent buses to Chinatown to pick up extras. The press reported that more than a thousand extras appeared in The Good Earth. If this number is true, it is equal to a third of the approximately three thousand Chinese Americans the US Census estimated lived in Los Angeles in 1930.

Hollywood films were not the only place Chinese Americans in Los Angeles performed. Some performed for their day jobs in China City, the short-lived tourist attraction developed by Christine Sterling near the Los Angeles Plaza. China City re-created the set from The Good Earth alongside magic shows, rickshaw rides, and Chinese lion dances. Other Chinese Americans, like the members of the Los Angeles Mei Wah Girls’ Drum Corps, performed at China relief festivals held in Old Chinatown after the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. For this generation of Chinese Americans in Los Angeles, performance for primarily White audiences was a defining aspect of everyday life.

Performing Chinatown: Hollywood, Tourism, and the Making of a Chinese American Community traces the relationship of Chinese Americans in Los Angeles to performance for movie audiences and tourists during an era when the government excluded or restricted Chinese immigration.3 Although it covers the period from the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth, its focus is on the pivotal years between 1931 and 1945. During this moment of tumultuous global change, Chinese Americans experienced the Great Depression, the outbreak of war in the Pacific, and the official repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. In Los Angeles, they witnessed the destruction of Old Chinatown to build Union Station and its replacement by two competing Chinese American tourist districts: Christine Sterling’s China City and a separate development, New Chinatown, built by Chinese American merchants under the leadership of Peter SooHoo.

In this historical context, Performing Chinatown asks: How did popular representations and economic opportunities in Hollywood inform life in Los Angeles Chinatown? To what extent were the rights and privileges of citizenship and national belonging related to such representations? And in what ways did Chinese Americans in Los Angeles use performances of racial difference to shape their social and political standing in society? In answering these questions, I build on the growing research on Asian American public performance as a site for the contestation and creation of social power.4 Thus, the book centers what I call “Chinatown performances.”

I define Chinatown performances as the prepared or rehearsed actions of Chinese Americans primarily for White movie audiences and tourists that shaped popular ideas of race during the era of exclusion and restriction.5 Chinatown performances were almost always undertaken for profit. I understand that even certain “mundane” activities enacted by Asian Americans could take on theatrical qualities and thus create racial meaning, but I do not focus on these behaviors.6 Instead, I examine public performances that Chinese Americans intentionally imbued with racial meaning for tourists and movie audiences.7 With the exception of Chapter 5, which looks at the wartime performances of the actor Richard Loo, I focus not on famous performers but rather on seemingly everyday members of the Chinese American community whose public performances attracted the attention of popular audiences. In examining this history, I am cognizant of the ways in which the construction of racial difference is always connected to other axes of identity—in particular the relationship of race to gender and nationality.8

Too often today, people understand race to be a fixed, ahistorical, biologically determined category that stands outside of popular culture. Because they believe that race is fixed, popular critics often take one of two approaches in discussing Asian American representations: they debate the accuracy of a given racial representation,9 or they discuss whether a portrayal is positive or negative.10 These approaches have dominated popular discussions of Asian American representation in film over the past few decades. For example, journalists have asked whether The Joy Luck Club (1993) depicts Chinese American men too negatively,11 if Justin Lin’s portrayals of Asian American youth in Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) are excessively violent,12 and whether Crazy Rich Asians (2018) accurately represents the diversity of modern-day Singapore.13 While there is nothing inherently wrong with any of these questions, I take a different approach.

As a work of Asian American social and cultural history, Performing Chinatown examines the role that Chinatown performances played in shaping, challenging, and creating dominant ideas about Chinese Americans in the popular conscience. In doing so, it demonstrates the ways these performances constructed ideas about race and, in turn, how these ideas shaped the lives of everyday Chinese Americans. I am informed by a large body of scholarship that studies the way popular culture assigns racial meanings to human bodies—skin color, phenotype, hair texture—and how these meanings inform the distribution of social, economic, and political resources.14 The sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant call this process “racial formation.”15

In tracing the history of racial formation, I examine Chinatown performances in the context of immigration laws meant to exclude or restrict Chinese immigrants.16 Beth Lew-Williams has convincingly argued that the actual exclusion of Chinese immigrants from the US lasted only from 1888 to 1943.17 However true this may have been in a strictly legal sense, between 1875 and 1965 a larger set of policies restricting Chinese immigration shaped representations in popular culture. These policies began with the passage of the Page Act in 1875, which sought to limit the immigration of Chinese women, and continued through the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers.18 The Magnuson Act of 1943 officially ended Chinese exclusion, but only allowed 105 Chinese to immigrate per year, making it largely symbolic. The true end of Chinese immigration restrictions came with the passage of the Hart-Celler Immigration Act in 1965. Chinatown performances constantly engaged this larger apparatus of immigration policy in the period between 1875 and 1965.

Given this background, Performing Chinatown conceives of racial representations in popular film and in Chinatown for tourists as intimately connected to restrictive immigration laws. Rather than thinking of the law and popular culture as separate spheres, I consider popular representations of Chinese Americans one of the foundations on which this racist legal policy was built. Stereotypes of Chinese immigrants as a threat to mainstream middle-class society became common tropes.19 Yellow peril stereotypes depicted Chinese immigrants as a working-class horde, threatening to overrun US shores, take jobs from White men, and sleep with White women.20 In this way, popular culture both reflected and created the political climate that made Chinese exclusion possible.

Laws barring Chinese immigrants from naturalization made it nearly impossible for Chinese Americans to challenge yellow peril stereotypes with a strategy of assimilation into White American norms.21 After all, Whiteness and US citizenship were denied to Chinese immigrants by law.22 Instead of challenging the perceived racial difference of Chinese immigrants through assimilation, Chinatown performances embraced difference, attempting to reframe it as a nonthreatening form from which certain Chinese Americans could profit.23 Public performances for movie audiences and tourists challenged the meaning of race itself, shaping the way Asian Americans experienced race in the twentieth century.24

The scholarly consensus in the field of Asian American history holds that the US alliance with China during World War II caused a rapid shift in popular perceptions of Chinese Americans. Roger Daniels writes that this alliance with China after Pearl Harbor had an “almost instantaneous” impact on Chinese Americans.25 Similarly, Peter Kwong and Dušanka Miščević see wartime changes for Chinese America as happening “almost overnight.”26 Shelley Lee asserts that “wartime international realignments” caused a “sudden embrace” of Chinese Americans.27 In these retellings, the geopolitical realignment in the Pacific, and specifically the US-China alliance during the war, led to a rapid increase in opportunities for Chinese Americans. Performing Chinatown complicates this narrative by foregrounding the preceding five decades of Chinatown performances as context for the transformations experienced by Chinese Americans during World War II.


1. Richard Chee, interview by William Gow, July 7, 2008, Chinatown Remembered Project, Chinese Historical Society of Southern California (CHSSC).

2. Esther Lee Johnson, interview by William Gow, March 9, 2008, Chinatown Remembered; Tyrus Wong, interview by Genie Moon, November 1, 2007, Chinatown Remembered; Charlie Quon, interview by Nancy Thai, April 22, 2007, Chinatown Remembered.

3. Scholarship on Chinese Americans in Los Angeles has tended to focus either on the 1871 Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre or on the development of Chinese American ethnoburbs like Monterey Park beginning in the 1980s. Exclusion-era Los Angeles remains vastly understudied. See Scott Zesch, The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Leland T. Saito, Race and Politics: Asian Americans, Latinos, and Whites in a Los Angeles Suburb (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1998); Timothy Fong, The First Suburban Chinatown: The Remaking of Monterey Park, California (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994); Wei Li, Ethnoburb: The New Ethnic Community in Urban America (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009); Wendy Cheng, The Changs Next to the Diazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013); James Zarsadiaz, Resisting Change in Suburbia: Asian Immigrants and Frontier Nostalgia in L.A. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2022). Scholarship on Chinese Americans in Los Angeles during the exclusion era includes memoirs, a public history produced by the CHSSC, and a limited number of theses and dissertations. See, for example, Lisa See, On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese American Family (New York: Vintage Books, 1995); Louise Leung Larson, Sweet Bamboo: A Memoir of a Chinese American Family (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); CHSSC, ed., Linking Our Lives: Chinese American Women of Los Angeles (Los Angeles: CHSSC, 1984); Susie Ling, ed., Bridging the Centuries: History of Chinese Americans in Southern California (Los Angeles: CHSSC, 2001); Jenny Cho and the Chinese Historical Society of Los Angeles, Chinatown in Los Angeles (Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Press, 2009); Mabel Sam Lee, “The Recreational Interests and Participation of a Selected Group of Chinese Boys and Girls in Los Angeles, California” (master’s thesis, University of Southern California, 1939); Wen-hui Chen, “A Study of Chinese Family Life in Los Angeles as Compared to the Traditional Family Life in China.” (master’s thesis, University of Southern California, 1940); Kim Fong Tom, “The Participation of the Chinese in the Community Life of Los Angeles,” (master’s thesis, University of Southern California, 1944); Wen-hui Chen, “Changing Socio-Cultural Patterns of the Chinese Community in Los Angeles” (PhD diss., University of Southern California, 1952).

4. Key works on Asian American public performances include Lon Kurashige, Japanese American Celebration and Conflict: A History of Ethnic Identity and Festival in Los Angeles, 1934–1990 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Karen Shimakawa, National Abjection: The Asian Body on Stage (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002); Chouh-Ling Yeh, Making an American Festival: Chinese New Year in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); Josephine Lee, Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997); James Moy, Marginal Sights: Staging the Chinese in America (Iowa City: University of Iowa, 1993); Takeo Rivera, Model Minority Masochism: Performing the Cultural Politics of Asian American Masculinity (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2022).

5. In creating this definition, I draw on the work of performance studies scholar Richard Schechner, who describes one of the key building blocks of performance as “restored behavior.” He defines restored behavior as “physical, verbal, or virtual actions that are not-for-the-first time; that are prepared or rehearsed.” Performance Studies: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2013), 29.

6. Ju Yon Kim, Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday (New York: New York University Press: 2015), 10–16.

7. I am reminded of performance studies scholar Diana Taylor’s observation that performance “is a wide ranging and difficult practice to define and holds many, at times conflicting meanings and possibilities.” In this context, I am aware that analyzing a filmed performance is not the same as analyzing a live one. As Taylor states, “documentation gives us a sense of what happened but cannot capture the ‘live’ performance itself.” While I acknowledge these differences, recorded and live Chinatown performances shared similarities in the way they shaped conceptions of race and engaged systems of power in the 1930s and 1940s. The juxtaposition of these two types of performance produces a more complex understanding of Chinese American racial formation in the mid-twentieth century. Performance (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 6, 186.

8. I believe that the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality, and class should be taken as a given. The literature on intersectionality, which developed out of Black feminist thought, is extensive and crosses disciplines. Key works include Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, no.1 (1989): 139–167, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women,” Stanford Law Review 433, no. 6 (July 1991): 1241–1299; Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 2000); and Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

9. Ella Shoat and Robert Stam point out that there is nothing inherently wrong with debating the realism of racial representation on film: “Spectators (and critics) are invested in realism because they are invested in the idea of truth and reserve the right to confront a film with their own personal or cultural knowledge.” This is not the project of this book. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (New York: Routledge, 1994), 178.

10. Decades of scholarship on race in film reject the positive-image approach to analyzing racial representations. See, for example, bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 4; Valerie Smith, Representing Blackness: Issues in Film and Video (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 4; Jun Xing, Asian America Through the Lens: History, Representation, and Identity (London: AltaMira, 1998), 20–28.

11. Ah Wong, “The Joy Luck Experience,” Los Angeles Times, October 2, 1993.

12. Alex Wong, “The Oral History of Better Luck Tomorrow,” GQ, August 16, 2008.

13. Alice Truong, “The Trailer for Crazy Rich Asians Has Some Asking: Where Are the Brown Faces?” Quartz, April 24, 2018.

14. There is a broad body of literature on the ways that film has represented race, including Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (New York: Bantam Books, 1974); Eugene Franklin Wong, On Visual Media Racism, Asian Americans in Motion Pictures (New York: Arno Press, 1978); Chon Noriega, Chicanos and Film: Representation and Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992); Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African Image on Film (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993); Daniel Bernardi, ed., The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996), and Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001); Peter X. Feng, ed., Screening Asian Americans (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002); Michelle H Raheja, Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty and Representations of Native Americans in Film (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010); Manthia Diawara, ed., Black American Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2012); Lisa Black, Picturing Indians: Native Americans in Film, 1941–1960 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020).

15. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2014).

16. There is an extensive literature on the Chinese Exclusion Act, including Alexander Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975); Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Charles McClain, In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); Erika Lee, At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Beth Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

17. Building on Beth Lew-Williams’ work, I contend that this was followed by a second restriction period from 1943 to 1965. Chinese Must Go, 8–9.

18. Beth Lew-Williams argues that we should call this law the Chinese Restriction Act of 1882, in keeping both with the way contemporaries referred to it and with the immigration goals of the legislation.

19. While “yellow peril” was likely coined by German emperor Wilhelm II in the nineteenth century, the concept stretches back much further to Marco Polo’s visit to China in 1275. See Gary Okihiro, Margins and Mainstream: Asians in American History and Culture (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994), 119. For an overview of yellow peril discourse, see Kent Ono and Vincent Pham, Asian Americans and the Media (Malden MA: Polity Press, 2009), 25–62; John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats, Yellow Peril! An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear (New York: Verso, 2014).

20. On popular American representations of China and Chinese Americans, see Dorothy B. Jones, Portrayals of China and India on Screen, 1896–1955 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1955); Harold Isaacs, Scratches on the Minds: American Views of China and India (New York: John Day, 1958); Stuart Creighton Miller, The Unwelcome Immigrant: The American Image of Chinese, 1785–1882 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969); John Kuo Wei Tchen, New York Before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776–1882 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999); Gordon Chang, Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

21. Lisa Lowe has argued that the American citizen was defined against the figure of the Asian immigrant, legally, economically, and culturally. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press 1996), 4.

22. David R. Roediger, Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White (New York: Basic Books, 2005); Ian Haney Lopez, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 56–77.

23. In her discussion of Asian American theatrical performances, Karen Shimakawa says, “Asian American performers never walk onto an empty stage. . . . That space is always already densely populated with phantasmas of Orientalness through and against which an Asian American performer must struggle to be seen.” For Shimakawa, popular “images and representations, as well as legal rulings and government policies” all vacillate “between positioning Asian Americans as foreigners/outsiders/deviants/criminals or domesticated/invisible/exemplary/honorary whites.” While Shimakawa’s observation that Asian American performers are forced to negotiate between these two poles is certainly correct in contemporary times, this was not the case during the exclusion era, when American popular culture and American law nearly always marked Chinese Americans exclusively as foreigners, outsiders, deviants, or criminals. National Abjection, 15, 17.

24. In tracing this history of racial formation, I draw a distinction between Chinatown performances, which shaped ideas about race and simultaneously profited from White audiences, and performances in American Chinatowns that were not directed at White audiences for profit, such as musical performances for fellow members of the ethnic enclaves. As Krysten Moon has shown, the latter performances did shape conceptions of race for Whites who happened to witness them, but they were not directed at White audiences; as a result, their effects on popular conceptions of race were a byproduct, not a goal. Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s–1920s (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 66–70, 84–85.

25. Roger Daniels, Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since the 1850s (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 188.

26. Peter Kwong and Dušanka Miščević, Chinese America: The Untold Story of America’s Oldest New Community (New York: New Press, 2005), 20.

27. Shelley Sang-Hee Lee, A New History of Asian America (New York: Routledge, 2014), 222.