Chinese Theatre Troupes in Southeast Asia: Touring Diaspora, 1900s – 1970s

By Chow Chai Khim


Chinese theatre troupes in Southeast Asia have enjoyed widespread recognition, and have tangibly influenced Southeast Asian societies, particularly those with a notable Chinese diasporic presence. In Chinese Theatre Troupes in Southeast Asia: Touring Diaspora, 1900s–1970s, author Zhang Beiyu explores the impact of different theatre troupes in shaping the connections between Mainland China and the Chinese diaspora from the 1900s to the 1970s. Zhang provides insights into the concept of Chinese-ness and its relevance to specific diasporic contexts throughout history, uncovering how various performances, including dances, songs, musicals, and opera films, shed light on the intricate cultural and ideological ties between the diaspora and China.

Zhang begins by examining itinerant theatre troupes along the Sino-Southeast Asian corridor from the early 20th century to the late 1930s, providing a detailed account of the establishment of various Chinese theatrical spaces in the Straits Settlements, focusing on performances in temples, theatres, and amusement parks. Zhang then delves into case studies of three diasporic Chinese performances before 1949 — beginning with Chaozhou theatre troupes travelling from Shantou to the Chinese diaspora in Bangkok (1900s–1930s), followed by the Nanyang tour of China’s Song and Dance Troupe from Shanghai and their encounters with overseas Chinese in Singapore (1928–1929), and concluding with the National Salvation Troupes and their performing tours in British Malaya (1938–1939).

The focus then shifts to the post-1949 era, highlighting the growing significance of socialist China’s efforts to engage the Chinese diaspora and promoting its socialist ideology through travelling theatre troupes (1949–1970s). Zhang examines the ties between native-place communities and the new routes of reformed Chaozhou theatre troupes in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Hong Kong (1950s-1960s), and then looks at Chaozhou opera films and their impact in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Bangkok (1960s). Zhang concludes by discussing postcolonial Chinese-ness through the lens of the left-wing Hong Kong theatre company, Movie Star Arts Troupe, which toured Singapore (1959, 1963, and 1966) and Malaysia (1971) during crucial moments in their respective nation-building and power struggles.

Chinese Theatre Troupes in Southeast Asia: Touring Diaspora, 1900s–1970s skillfully weaves together an array of local, national, cosmopolitan, leftist, and socialist facets within different time periods and geographical spaces. Through a range of insightful case studies, the book sheds light on the multifaceted roles played by Chaozhou theatre troupes, China’s Song and Dance Troupe, the National Salvation Troupes, socialist troupes, opera films, and the Hong Kong Movie Star Arts Troupe. These performances are examined within the context of distinct time-space constructions that evoke intricate connections between the homeland and the diaspora, serving diverse purposes. Significantly, the book highlights the dynamic nature of diaspora-homeland relations by exploring crucial nodal points such as Shantou, Shanghai, Wuhan, Hong Kong, and their profound links with Southeast Asian port cities like Singapore and Bangkok. 

By delving into the interplay of culture, identity, and geography, this book offers a comprehensive exploration of the vibrant and ever-evolving landscape of Chinese theatre troupes within the Southeast Asian diaspora. Of particular interest to contemporary readers is how the book traces the beginnings of China’s use of soft power to project their nascent state ideology, which has since expanded to a global scale through blockbuster films and other cultural exports. 

This meticulously researched book offers readers a comprehensive understanding of the historical significance and intricate dynamics that characterise the performative linkages between the diaspora and the homeland. It is an invaluable resource for researchers and scholars with a keen interest in the Chinese diaspora and the captivating world of theatre troupes in Southeast Asia. Notably, this publication draws inspiration from the oral history of Bai Yan (白言), a Singaporean Chinese performer born in Hunan province, China, in 1920. Bai Yan travelled to Southeast Asia with a theatre troupe from China at the age of 18 and pursued a performing career in Southeast Asia. 

NUS Libraries has collected Bai Yan’s private papers, some of which have been digitised and made available through Digital Gems.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *