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Negotiating Racial Identity: Racialized Assimilation in the Performances of Lee Tung Foo as the First Chinese American Vaudeville Singer

Friday, October 27, 2023 | 3:00 PM

Music Classroom Building, 102
Music Classrooms Bldg, Clayton, MO 63105, USA

Lee Tung Foo (1875–1966), the pioneering Chinese-American professional vaudeville baritone, emerged as a prominent figure in American popular music during the early 20th century. This paper focuses on Lee’s career as a case study to examine the portrayal of Chinese and Chinese Americans in early American popular songs and the intricate negotiation of racial identity within the context of music and performance. Existing research has illuminated the link between early American popular songs with Chinese themes and racial discourse; however, a gap in scholarship remains regarding the racialization of Chinese-American voices within this cultural spectrum. This paper aims to bridge this gap through the lens of “racialized assimilation,” a theoretical framework that combines concepts of assimilation and racialization, to analyze Lee's performances, audience reactions, correspondence with his vocal coach, and newspaper reviews. By examining these primary sources, the paper sheds light on Lee’s negotiation of racial identity through performance. I argue that while Lee achieved success in vaudeville, breaking barriers for other Chinese and Asian immigrants in American popular culture, his performances unintentionally reinforced negative stereotypes of Chinese immigrants through the process of racialized assimilation. The findings suggest that Lee's assimilation into American culture through his performances, while notable, followed a distinctive trajectory compared to his Irish and Jewish American counterparts, as it was complicated by racialized perceptions. Therefore, the adoption of a racialized assimilation framework may best capture Lee's experience as a Chinese-American singer.

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Speaker Information

Fang Liu is pursuing a doctorate degree in musicology at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research interests focus on the intersection of critical racial theory and music. She is particularly interested in how music participates in racial equity and social justice.

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