Asian Ethnology 81 1&2 | article Cantonese Opera Troupes in Southeast Asia Political Mobilizations, Diaspora Networks, and Operatic Circulation, 1850s–1930s

Beiyu Zhang

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Cantonese opera troupes 1911 Revolution opera tours Nanyang fame

This article examines the transnational activities of the Cantonese operas that traveled constantly from native hometowns in Guangzhou and Hong Kong to ports and cities of Southeast Asia by using diasporic linkages and networks. By consulting Chinese local newspapers, oral histories, and biographies, I argue for an emic view that foregrounds diasporic mobility and diversity in the production of political awareness and operatic knowledge. The article negates the earlier colonial ethnographic gaze that constantly rendered Chinese immigrants and their operas as exotic, uncivilized, and primitive. Furthermore, the unique traveling experiences in Southeast Asia nurtured important Cantonese opera performers, whose “Nanyang fame” circulated back to the motherland and was greatly celebrated by domestic audiences. The article re-evaluates the operation of transnational networks formed and developed through opera troupes’ political mobilizations, commercial tours, and the circulation of operatic aesthetics. By emphasizing a circular and transnational angle, this article gives agency to the performers and troupes that helped Cantonese operas to transform and take root in heterogeneous diasporic contexts.