Chinese Culture’s Influence on American Music: a Lecture by Dr. Nancy Yunhwa Rao

Story and Photos by Wendy Keough | Contributing Writer

Dr. Nancy Yunhwa Rao of Rutgers University enlightened a group of listeners about the history and migration of Chinese opera in the United States and the influences it had on American music.

She spoke to attendees on the history of Chinese immigration to America, explaining that the idea of the majority of early Chinese immigrants to America during the 1848 California Gold Rush were fleeing hunger was incorrect. Dr. Rao explained that the early Chinese that came over were younger men in wealthy merchant families looking to expand their horizons. With the merchants came Chinese opera troops, brought along for the merchants’ entertainment.

One of the earliest known Chinese operas in the United States was known under many different name spellings, including “Hong Took Tong” and “Hong Fook Tong.” Several opera houses were established in San Francisco’s Chinatown, while some opera troops continued to travel across North America from both the west and east coasts. While the 1906 San Francisco earthquake led to damage to most of Chinatown and its opera houses and a subsequent decline in the opera’s popularity, the art continued on in Victoria and Vancouver before regaining its audiences in the decades to come.

“By October 1922, the whole opera scene became lively again,” said Rao, “San Francisco also built two new Chinese theaters within the span of one year.”

Dr. Rao showed examples of the lavish and ornate outfits used in the Chinese opera’s as well as images of the theaters and stages they used for their performances. She also explained how actors would become popular in the U.S. and return to China to perform, then release records of their songs to sell in China and abroad to reinvigorate their audiences and popularity.

Overall, Dr. Rao told a tale of how Chinese culture spread to North America through opera and art. Her book “Chinatown Opera Theater in North America” goes into further depth on the topic and received a Music in American Culture Award; copies were available for purchase and signing at her talk and are currently available for sale in the Phillips Bookstore located in the Student Union Building.

Dr. Nancy Yunhwa Rao works as a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She has a B.A. degree in Music Performance from National Taiwan Normal University and M.M. and Ph.D degrees in Music Theory from the University of Michigan.

To contact Lifestyles Editor Ethan Pickering, email

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