Immigrants Stayed Connected With China Through Music

       Chinese immigrants stayed culturally connected to their homeland in many ways, bonds that were especially vital in the face of the hostility and discrimination they suffered historically in America. Those living in Chinese communities that came to be referred to as "Chinatowns" had access to theaters when they flocked to see live Chinese opera on stage, as suggested in a documentary, A Moment in Time by Ruby Yang, showing how meaningful this experience was for them in a time before television.

        Unfortunately, many Chinese lived in areas across the United States where their numbers were too few to have access to such cultural experiences. I grew up in Macon, Georgia, for example, where our family was the only Chinese in town.  My parents received Chinese newspapers in the mail, probably once a week, that was their window on news from China and about Chinese issues in the United States. Still, we did have ONE Chinese phonograph record, the Chinese National Anthem, that provided a smidgen of contact with China. When I was around 4 or 5 years old, my brother and I, would crank up the old manual phonograph to play this marching music known also as the "March of the Volunteers" and we would march around the room enthusiastically even though we didn't understand the Chinese lyrics.
       A friend in Chicago, Bill Tong, recently told me about his more extensive contact with Chinese music in listening to his parents' records and tapes of Chinese music as he was growing up.  His father listened to Cantonese opera as well as Chinese pop music that his mother favored. In the Hoisan dialect it was called "see oy cook," or Shidaiqu (in Mandarin).  This Mando-pop  style of music based in Shanghai and sung in Mandarin fused Chinese folk songs with American jazz and enjoyed enormous popularity from the 30's through the 50's.  Among its biggest stars were Zhou Xuan, one of his father's favorite singers and Wu Ying Yin (one of his mother's favorites).
       Wu Ying Yin's most famous song "Acacia Moon, Trinidad Sent" recorded in 1948. Wu Ying Yin (1922-2009) enjoyed a long career, singing into her 80's. In 2003, she performed this song in Shanghai that she popularized during the 1940's. 
        Despite separation by thousands of miles across an ocean from their homeland, Chinese immigrants sought ways to experience familiar and treasured aspects of their Chinese culture. Anti-Chinese sentiment was often based on their apparent unwillingness to assimilate to American culture. However, having nostalgia for one's homeland should not be seen as incompatible with acceptance of the host culture.  Furthermore, which is the chicken, and which is the egg?  Had Chinese been afforded equal opportunity, perhaps they would have more easily come to embrace American culture.

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