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A Chinese Honeymoon—Fetishizing China on Stage

by Sharon K. Yuen


A Chinese Honeymoon, a musical produced by British company Henry Dallas Musical Comedy Company, is deemed as one of the most popular musicals of its time.[1] A close examination of the musical itself, the agents involved, as well as the musical's reception, reveal the complexities of how a homogenized "East", or "Orient", is depicted by colonial European arts and culture in the 1900s—particularly the power dynamics between colonizing and colonized societies, specifically between the United Kingdom and Hong Kong and Singapore.[2] This paper argues that the show portrays a certain fetishizing of the idea of a mythical and generalized "East" within colonial British and European cultural imagination.


Focusing on the show as produced in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, and Singapore, this paper will first discuss its contents, its reception, and its commercial success to reveal the show’s celebrated yet fetishistic depiction of an imagined China. After which, the differing manners in which the show was received and reviewed in Hong Kong and Singapore are examined. Throughout its examination, this paper pays careful attention to how the agents interact within the show, with the productions, and each other. It becomes important to consider both the cast and the crew, and, more significantly, the audience and the newspapers reporting on the show to reveal how individual identity is represented and seen through the theatrical event. The global theatrical and commercial reception will be discussed to reveal the power theatrical conceptualizing of the Oriental had across the theatrical, and thereby, the real world.



The Success


The Henry Dallas Musical Comedy Company derived significant theatrical and commercial success with the musical A Chinese Honeymoon. A review of the show staged in the United Kingdom, published soon after the musical's first showing on October 10th, 1899, lauded the premiere with glowing praise, remarking that its first performance proved “an exceedingly good one” with its acting deserving the “highest praise,” concluding that the show is “well mounted and admirably dressed.”[3] The success of the show is evident in its number of runs which exceeded a thousand shows at the Strand Theatre and attracted plenty of returning audiences who had grown accustomed to seeing the show live.[4] By its 923rd consecutive show it had already broken the theatre’s record of longest consecutive run of a musical play.[5] A Chinese Honeymoon's last show at the Strand Theatre marked its 1075th run, with its profits totalling six figures and surpassing that of another famous musical's, The Belle of New York.[6] The show was later staged again at the Theatre Royal and was attended by “a large audience.”[7] Notably, the newspaper remarked that famously-named individuals were also in attendance, such as the then governor of Hong Kong and his wife.[8] Similarly, the audience was reported to have been found giving “repeated applause” during the curtain call for many of the cast members.[9] Given this immense popularity and repeated runs, the cultural significance and financial success of the play in the British Empire at the time become immediately evident.


Beyond the musical's local success in Britain, it also proved to be a hit worldwide. The Company's frequent and far-reaching travels via the Norddeutscher liner Konig Sin Luise alone is a good indication of its popularity.[10] Some of the places that the Company had been to included Sri Lanka, India, Singapore, and Hong Kong.[11] Even though the Company performed multiple musical comedies with each tour at each location, A Chinese Honeymoon drew the most attention, with advertisements and reviews written by the local press in both Singapore and Hong Kong. Accordingly, in 1904, the musical was reported to have yielded £60,000 of clear profits, making it a “really successfully play” in undeniable economic standings, with its authors’ share of gold reflected to be on a “regal scale.”[12] Consequently, the ideas, worldview, and representations propagated by the musical spread around transcontinental colonial trade routes—bringing more than just pecuniary profits to the regions it reached. Thus, this begs the question of how in fact the play portrayed China, Chinese-ness, Chinese culture and identity through its imagined fantasy of a "Chinese honeymoon."


The Show


The musical is set in a fictional, but clearly intended to be "Chinese" location called Ylang Ylang, where an old-fashioned “Emperor” demands that couples found kissing must be married within six hours.[13] The plots rests upon the protagonists of the show, Mr. Pineapple and his wife, a British couple who, “instead of spending their honeymoon in good old England,” opted to “invade the Yellow Man’s Territory.”[14] The rising action of the show depends on Mr. Pineapple becoming “compromised” by Chinese girls and Mrs. Pineapple taking revenge by “flirting with the pig-tailed brethren.”[15] This plot summary alone interprets the couple's honeymoon to China itself an act akin to conquest—their presence and romantic, sexual encounters with Chinese partners an "invasion" of sorts. From this portrayal of the British couple "invading" the "exotic" sceneries and populace of China structures a narrative bifurcation of “them”—the Chinese, or "Orientals" at large, and “us”—the British protagonists whom the British audience, and by extension, a European viewership can directly identify with as the play's primary target audience.



A lack of understanding of what it truly means to live in the East can be seen in the stereotypical and parodic names for the Chinese characters, such as Chippee Chop, Soo-Soo, Yen-Yen, or Sing-sing. The fact that the cast is entirely composed of white Europeans brings another issue to the table of who is representing whom, as well as the issue of yellow face. Much the same can be said of the lyrical content of the show, such as the first song titled "In the days of the ancient long ago in a quaint little Chinese town" performed by Soo-Soo and the chorus.[16] Anne Veronica Witchard notes that the lyrics of the musical, such as “chop, chop, chow, chow,/ sing song, sow, sow” are “unremittingly silly,” with “nonsense words” and “strange sounds of an incomprehensible and impossible language.”[17] China, as represented in A Chinese Honeymoon, then, is not a real location, but a fictionalized one. All these features point toward a level of ignorance and idealization of what it means to live in the China. Indeed, a review of the show aptly captures the culture of viewing China, and the "Far East" as an exotic location:

Of late years we have had a succession of musical plays with rich and glowing Far Eastern setting. They have had a phenomenal popularity, but strangely enough the interest in the songs and daughters of the Flowerly Land never flags.[18]


The idealization in the musical of China, Chinatown, and Chinese people as “quaint” and exotic demonstrates that a problematic phenomenon exists of European arts and culture of infantilizing communities in China. As such, the British musical and newspaper, and hence likely its audience and its consumers, viewed themselves as, at least, different, if not superior, to Chinese people. The notion of the British being superior to the Chinese can be seen in the many ways in which the musical depicts China as a strange, foreign, and potentially barbaric place with unexplained customs and rules. Such binary opposition defining "Chinese-ness" in stark contrast to "British-ness" and its self-associated characteristics functioned as an orientalism where “the Oriental becomes more Oriental, the Westerner more Western.”[19] Dongshen Chang notes that there is a paradox of presence and absence of Chinese-ness in the British representations of China on stage—there is a constant attention to China that deviated from China’s own representations of itself.[20] Heidi Holder argues that such stereotypical plots of melodrama and colonial characters enact “an imperialist expansion of British culture.”[21] It becomes clear then that, from Chinese Honeymoon, there was a divergence between how the musical sees China, and by extension surrounding regions generalized as "the East" and what China and various other regions were like—"the East" only existed as an exoticized fantasy in the musical.


The Tour & People


Ironically, even though the musical itself fetishizes "the East" as an object of fantasy, the musical's tour in Southeast Asian British colonies appeared to not have been met with much resistance or criticism by their local newspapers. The show’s stereotypes were acknowledged but brushed aside by most reviews. In a review by the Hong Kong Weekly Press, the show was described as “light and amusing, and the music tuneful and gay,” such that it was “easy to understand” its popularity and commercial success.[22] In Singapore, the show’s problematic representation of Chinese people was ignored, with a review merely describing the show as “a couple hours of light amusement, by means of pretty face, smart calls.”[23] A reviewer in the South China Morning Post, simply notes that it is a “bold thing” to put on the show in Hong Kong, and yet defends the show by saying that the jokes do “to some extent give one an idea of the Orientals” and that “if the local coloring is exaggerated, [they] would not have it otherwise.”[24] Although this may be a reflection of dominant English-language use then, it is still strange to have a Hong Kong-based newspaper describe its own location as “Oriental”, a word that ultimately works to fetishize large swathes of region far beyond just Hong Kong.


1920s photo of Marlborough Cinema and the next-door Alhambra Cinema from Singapore Cinema by Raphaël Millet (2006) is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0


Aside from the unrealistic names given to the Chinese characters of the show, it is worth noting that the show does not include any Asian cast members, in both the original cast, the touring cast in Singapore, and the touring cast in Hong Kong. Yellow-face may very well have been used in the shows, but this was never acknowledged by the colonial newspapers, nor was the lack of Asian representation discussed. This perhaps points towards the popularity of the show among the diasporic European audiences in Hong Kong and Singapore. The selection of venues for the musical in the two Southeast Asian colonies are also of interest, given that the Dallas Company staged the musical in prominent locations, such as the City Hall in Hong Kong.[25] Since the advertisement and reviews of the shows were primarily, if not exclusively, found in English newspapers and the act itself was in English, it seems more than likely that the audience was predominately English-speaking, and likely white European. The largely positive reviews of a musical that ridicules what it means to be Chinese indicates the lack of Chinese and local Hong Kong or Singaporean perspectives in the production of the musical even in spaces with large Chinese presence. The musical theatre may hence be a more colonial, and likely privileged Eurocentric space—even in places far from Europe.


Conclusion


As seen from the newspaper commentaries of the show, the presence and voice of Chinese people were absent from the show supposedly all about Chinese-ness, whether it be in its substantive content, the cast composition, the crew, and the audience. The transportation of the racially insensitive musical from a predominately upper-class white European community to predominately Chinese societies has brought issues regarding race and class to the forefront of the discussion of what it means to be perceived as "Chinese", "Asian", or Eastern in Anglophone and European cultural discourse. A Chinese Honeymoon reveals fetishistic and more fantasy than fact perception of Chinese-ness in colonial European culture, and the lasting problems of racism, class, and power that continues from such orientalism.



Notes


[1] “A Chinese Honeymoon," The Guide to Musical Theatre, http://www.guidetomusicaltheatre.com/showsc/chinesehoneymoon.html. [2] This approach is one referred to by Thomas Postlewait as one possible way of studying theatre historicity; Thomas Postlewait, The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Historiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 9–21. [3] "A CHINESE HONEYMOON", Era, 21 October 1899, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/BB3202531212/BNCN?u=hku&sid=BNCN&xid=7a68e87a. [4] THE PROMPTER. "'P. I. P.' PALYGOER," Penny Illustrated Paper, 26 March 1904, 206, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/BA3207741371/BNCN?u=hku&sid=BNCN&xid=37f95da6,. [5] "Article 1 -- No Title," South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 26 February 1904, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: South China Morning Post, 2. [6] "A CHINESE HONEYMOON", Era, 21 October 1899. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/BB3202531212/BNCN?u=hku&sid=BNCN&xid=7a68e87a; Hong Kong Daily Press, 24 June 1904, NPDP19040624. [7] THEATRE ROYAL: "A Chinese Honeymoon," South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 24 February 1904, 5. [8] Ibid. [9] "THE FOOTLIGHTS," Northern Echo, 4 September 1900, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/BA3200280535/BNCN?u=hku&sid=BNCN&xid=cb36e745. [10] “THE DALLAS COMPANY,” South China Morning Post (1903-1941), Feb 23, 1904, 2. [11] Ibid. [12] “Article 6 -- No Title”, South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 23 April 1904, 5. [13] “A Chinese Honeymoon,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly), 15 June 1904, 374. [14] "THE FOOTLIGHTS", Northern Echo. [15] "A CHINESE HONEYMOON", Era. [16] “A Chinese Honeymoon," The Guide to Musical Theatre; Howard Talbot and George Dance, A Chinese Honeymoon, a musical comedy in two acts (Hopwood & Crew, Limited, 1901). [17] Anne Veronica Witchard, Thomas Burke's dark chinoiserie: Limehouse nights and the queer spell of Chinatown (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2009), 82. [18] "THE FOOTLIGHTS", Northern Echo. [19] Edward W. Said, Orientalism: Edward W. Said (New York: Vintage Books, 2003). [20] Dongshin Chang, Representing China on the Historical London Stage: From Orientalism to Intercultural Performance (NYC/Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2015). [21] Heidi J. Holder, “Melodrama, Realism and Empire on the British Stage,” in Acts of Supremacy: The British Empire and the Stage, 1790-1930, ed. J.S. Bratton (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), 141-2. [22] “The War Between Japan and Russia,” Hong Kong Weekly Press, 27 February 1904. [23] “A Chinese Honeymoon,” The Singapore Free Press. [24] “THE DALLAS COMPANY,” South China Morning Post (1903-1941). [25] Ibid.


Bibliography


"Article 1 -- No Title." South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 26 February 1904.


"Article 6 -- No Title." South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 23 April 1904.


Chang, Dongshin. Representing China on the Historical London Stage: From Orientalism to Intercultural Performance. NYC/Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge, 2015.


"A CHINESE HONEYMOON." Era, 21 October 1899. British Library Newspapers, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/BB3202531212/BNCN?u=hku&sid=BNCN&xid=7a68e87a.


“A Chinese Honeymoon," The Guide to Musical Theatre, http://www.guidetomusicaltheatre.com/showsc/chinesehoneymoon.html.


"A Chinese Honeymoon." The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly), 15 June 1904.


"THE DALLAS COMPANY," South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 23 February 1904.


"THE FOOTLIGHTS." Northern Echo, 4 September 1900. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/BA3200280535/BNCN?u=hku&sid=BNCN&xid=cb36e745.


Holder, Heidi J. "Melodrama, Realism and Empire on the British Stage." In Acts of Supremacy: The British Empire and the Stage, 1790-1930, edited by J.S. Bratton. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017.


Postlewait, Thomas. The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Historiography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, 9-21.


Said, Edward W. Orientalism: Edward W. Said. New York: Vintage Books, 2003.


Talbot, Howard, and George Dance. A Chinese Honeymoon, a musical comedy in two acts. Hopwood & Crew, Limited, 1901.


THE PROMPTER. "'P. I. P.' PALYGOER." Penny Illustrated Paper, 26 March 1904.


THEATRE ROYAL: "A Chinese Honeymoon," South China Morning Post (1903-1941), 24 February 1904.


Untitled. Hong Kong Daily Press, 24 June 1904. NPDP19040624.


"The War Between Japan and Russia." Hong Kong Weekly Press, 27 February 1904.


Witchard, Anne Veronica. Thomas Burke's dark chinoiserie: Limehouse nights and the queer spell of Chinatown. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2009.

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