The Chinese on stage in America

When the Chinese came to Gold Mountain here in 1850 - trying to escape drought conditions in southern China - they brought with them their household gods. One of their prime deities - particularly for the Chinese seamen and the farm workers who helped build much of early California's agriculture - was Kaun Hung, the god of battle, literature, and protector of the itinerant.

But Kaun Hung had another function - presiding over the green room and the actors of the Chinese Theatre. In this role he is noted in the fascinating photographic record ''Pear Garden in the West,'' a touring show that will be at the San Francisco Festival June 14-17 and at the Oakland Public Library June 20 to July 16.

''Pear Garden'' came into being as a chance rescue of 700 photographs by Wylie Wong, when the May Photographic Studio here was being dismantled. Wong, a connoisseur and art dealer in San Francisco, noted a pile headed for the scavenger's truck, and after a hasty inspection selected glass negatives and prints which provide a visual chronology of San Francisco's Chinatown life and theatrical activity.

Wong's selection included 300 prints and negatives of Chinese opera productions and stars, visiting and local. Wong brought his collection to the attention of Jack Chen when Caribbean-born Chen was organizing ''The Chinese in America'' exhibition (Monitor, Dec. 12, 1980). A collaboration began which came to embrace oral history, painstaking translations, and a general call for records of anyone of Chinese ancestry who has been involved in theatrical activity in the Western Hemisphere.

Chen, who sojourned in China and wrote about it for 20 years, has authored the text of Strawberry Hill Press's forthcoming book, ''Pear Garden in the West, '' which will include some 300 photographs and prints of productions and participants, 1852 to 1983.

''Pear Garden in the West'' draws its title from the name of the academy legend credited to the T'ang Dynasty emperor, Ming Huang. Huang, dreaming of a trip to the moon, was moved to create the academy to foster the performing arts. The phrase ''People of the Pear Garden'' is commonly associated with actors whose status, paradoxically, is lower on the traditional Chinese social scale than lowly soldiers.

The Cantonese Opera is the style most commonly associated with San Francisco, and its first troupe, in 1852, comprised 123 players. With 40,000 Chinese in California by 1852, opera followed the tradition in China of going where the people were - to mining camps and along the railroads where the Chinese workers were a major part of the construction force.

When the railroads were completed, such international artists as Sarah Bernhardt, Sir Henry Irving, and Ignace Paderewski visited Cantonese opera while appearing in San Francisco. While there were no women performers until the 1880s , the opera provided an ongoing tourist attraction, and at one point there were six troupes playing to Chinatown audiences simultaneously.

Wong's photographs and Chen's text demonstrate graphically and with considerable charm the impact of Western influence on Asian immigrant taste. Where Asian theatrical tradition is one of imagination - with symbolic devices to indicate character via makeup and garments - and hand-held props denote status, the rise of realism in Western theater penetrated Chinese theater and is faithfully recorded in ''Pear Garden's'' production photographs.

There are themes relating to corrupt Chinese warlords and foreign colonials where Sun Yat-sen and Girl Guides (similar to Girl Scouts here) vie with traditional costumes and themes. Also recorded are the dancers in Chinese nightclubs like ''Forbidden City,'' which enjoyed a vogue during World War II, and the rise of American-born Chinese taste which is reflected in Frank Chin's ''Chicken Coop Chinaman.''

Additional archival material, which will be given to the California Historical Society, includes dance figures like Ruth Ann Koesun of American Ballet Theatre, Oakland-born Mel Wong, and one-time member of the Merce Cunningham Company, Oakland Ballet soloist Michael Lowe.

''Pear Garden'' will also travel to the Bowers Museum in Irvine, Calif., in September. Meanwhile, the Chinese Theatrical Association of the People's Republic of China has formally invited ''Pear Garden'' to visit Peking, Shanghai , and Canton in the spring of 1985. After that, Hawaii and New York are on the itinerary. And the Academy of the Performing Arts has expressed interest in sponsoring a showing in Hong Kong.

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