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East Asian American Traditions

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The earliest East Asian immigrants often had a difficult journey making their way to the United States. Many carried little with them but the cultural traditions they knew, such as language, stories, religious customs, foodways, music, song, and dance.

Chinese Band, ca. 1904. No location given. Prints and Photographs Division. [ ]
Chinese Americans

Chinese immigrants, mainly Cantonese speakers from Guangdong, were among the first Asians to come to the United States, beginning in the late eighteenth century. In the mid-nineteenth century, Chinese laborers were sought to  provide support labor in boom towns during the gold rush period in California. Some also settled in Hawai’i, then a separate nation, where they mainly took agricultural jobs.  A large portion of these immigrants were men, seeking to earn money to send back to their families in China. Chinese people formed communities that allowed them to support each other and, in time, to become fully bi-cultural — maintaining their traditions at home while many worked in jobs that were run by or provided services to European Americans. While many different ethnic groups came to the U.S. during this period, Chinese immigrants had a particularly difficult time as they were met with a greater degree of prejudice than immigrants from Europe. For example, Asian immigrants could not become citizens.

Food became one way that European Americans and Chinese Americans could connect. As European Americans discovered Chinese food, chefs were able to open large restaurants, beginning in San Francisco.  The locally available foods were adapted to Cantonese cooking, giving rise to dishes like chop suey, which is based on a Cantonese dish combining many ingredients — a good way of using leftovers.

Chinese music and song came to the United States in this period as well.  Initially, it  was experienced by European Americans in the cities where there was a strong Chinese community, such as San Fransisco and New York. There anyone could experience Chinese music and dance at  festivals, such as the Lion Dances of Chinese New Year. Songs or music were also provided in restaurants and, in the late 1800s, in theaters for plays and operas established by Chinese American performing troupes.

An example of a Victor Label for a Chinese recording, 1902. Victor 7183D. This may be a recording of a selection from a Cantonese opera. The artists and title are unknown.

The “Drum Song of Fengyang” was recorded in San Francisco, California, by Rulan Chao Pian and Margaret Speaks in August, 1943. The song is in Mandarin and concerns immigrants to Guangdong  who must perform on the street for a living. In it, a wife complains that her husband is lazy, while the husband complains that his wife has big feet.

Chinese opera gained wide recognition in 1852, as the Hong Took Tong Chinese Dramatic Company from Guangdong Province staged the first Cantonese opera in the United States in San Francisco and performed in New York the following year. Victor made early recordings of Cantonese songs, mainly to market to Chinese Americans. We do not know very much about these recordings, but they may be songs from Cantonese operas, made in 1902 and 1903 [for more on this topic, see the comment by Jonathan Ward below with links to a two-part article by Du Jun Min]. Four are currently available in the National Jukebox:


Anti-Chinese sentiment came to a head in 1882 with The Chinese Exclusion Act, which initially placed a ten year moratorium on Chinese immigration. Attitudes against immigration in general, but especially against non-Europeans, continued to grow.  The Immigration Act of 1924 drastically limited all immigration, and made immigration by non-Europeans nearly impossible.  In 1943, a new immigration law eased the restrictions on Chinese immigration somewhat and finally allowed first-generation Asian Americans to become citizens. But in the mid-twentieth century it became more difficult to leave China. In 1965 immigration standards were rewritten to focus on the talents immigrants could bring to the United Sates, rather than their ethnic origins, although Chinese living in China could not emigrate at that time because of Chinese laws. The immigrants who did make it to the U.S. usually came by way of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other places where Chinese had settled outside of China.

Yihan Chen (left) and Ann Yao performing at the Library of Congress, July 27, 2011.

With the opening of China in 1983, a wave of new talent has entered the United States. Three musicians of Music From China performed at the Library of Congress in 2011: The Ann Yao Trio: Traditional Chinese Zheng Music. This concert features instrumental music for the zheng, a long plucked zither of ancient origins played by Ann Yao, the er hu, a bowed instrument played by Guowei Wang, and the pipa, a type of lute, played by Yihan Chen. (Our most recent concert featuring Bing Xia was also of zheng music, so watch for the video of that event in the near future.)

The experience of Chinese Americans is paralleled among many other Asian groups making their way in the United States. They met many of the same prejudices and were all subject to the immigration restrictions of 1924. They also found that as they preserved and practiced their traditional foodways, religions, music, and dance, European Americans became curious and learned more about Asian culture. Large events such as World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 helped encourage better understanding of the customs of many peoples, including Asian immigrants, during the ninteenth and early twentieth centuries, when biases against these ethnic groups was especially strong.

Japanese Americans

The first large group of Japanese Americans to come to what is now the U.S. were immigrants to Hawai’i, mainly agriculturalists who arrived in the early nineteenth century during a period of unrest in Japan and when Hawai’i was a monarchy.  When Hawai’i was annexed to the US in 1898, there was an aggressive educational assimilation program for all groups in Hawai’i, working to enforce the use of English and mainstream American culture. The Japanese community became concerned about the loss of language and culture and so set up their own schools — the first Japanese schools in the U.S. Today, rather than replacing public schools, some of the Japanese schools continue to teach Japanese culture and language as an addition to public school education.

A large wave of Japanese immigrants also went to California beginning in the mid- to late- 1800s. This group included both agriculturalists, who came early, and skilled workers and professionals, who came to the United States in the early twentieth century.  Some recordings of visiting Japanese artists intended mainly for the Japanese American market can be found among the Victor recordings in the National Jukebox — currently two are online: a recording of tokiwazu style narriative song used in Kabuki theater, “Modoribashi,” performed by  Kin’nosuke (shamisen, a plucked three string instrument, and voice) between 1900 and 1902, and an example of jōruri narrative song, “Tsubozakadera: Sawa Shinai,” performed by Roshō Toyotake (shamisen and voice). Traditional instrumentalists playing instruments such as shamisen and koto (long zither) have been adapted to modern Western musical styles such as jazz, either in fusion (blending Western and Japanese music) or by creating fully westernized compositions.

Men and women harvesting sugar cane in the Hawaiian Islands between 1910 and 1920 (detail). Prints and Photographs Division.
Many Japanese immigrants to Hawai’i worked in the sugarcane fields as indentured laborers through the early twentieth century. This was difficult work done by both men and women.  During World War II people of Japanese descent in Hawai’i were interned in camps as they were in the western United States. The largest camp was Honouliuli Internment Camp on O’ahu. A high school teacher interned there, Harry Urata, obtained a tape recorder and began collecting Japanese traditional songs from other internees.  Many of these were holehole bushi, work songs of the cane field workers remembered by some of the oldest internees.  These were thought to be disappearing and their lyrics contained the thoughts and feelings of the early agricultural workers.  Urata continued collecting until the 1970s. He eventually took his collection to historian Franklin Odo, who studied and translated the songs. A lecture by Odo given at the Library in 2013 with audio and video examples is available online: “Voices From the Cane Fields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai’i.” Odo has written a book by the same title.

The World War II experience had a powerful impact on the lives of Japanese Americans, both for those interned in camps and those who went to war.  The Veterans History Project collections include oral histories of Japanese American veterans and a selection of these are presented in “Asian Pacific Americans: Going For Broke” in Experiencing War. Also, for an article about one American researching his childhood experience as an internee, see “Vintage Researcher Photo: George Takei,” by Stephen Winick in Folklore Today, May 28, 2014.

After World War II there was great interest in Japanese culture in the US. Martial arts, particularly judo, became popular as a result of experiences of American servicemen in Japan.  Buddhism, one of the fastest growing religions in the United States and introduced by several Asian cultures, was helped along by Japanese author D. T. Suzuki (1870 – 1966), who wrote books in English explaining spiritual traditions such as Zen and Shin Buddhism.  Japanese foodways took a bit longer to catch on outside of cities with a sizable Japanese population such as Hawai’i and New York, but is now widely appreciated.1

Sounds of Korea, a Korean American music and dance ensemble.

Korean Americans

Koreans also came to Hawai’i as agricultural workers in the early twentieth century, with an estimated 7000 arriving before immigration was halted in 1924.  Immigration by all Asian American groups increased after the Immigration Act of 1965. The largest wave of Korean Americans arrived at this time.

Korean customs gradually entered the awareness of mainstream American culture. Korean immigrants often learned to prepare popular Asian dishes of China or Japan if they entered restaurant work, and saw their own cuisine as something for the home. Restaurants that were established catered specifically to the Korean community — but they were discovered by non-Koreans. So, like Japanese cuisine, Korean cuisine became popular in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Korean society went through rapid modernization in the twentieth century. This period saw the end of many traditional events both among Koreans in Korea and immigrants to the United States. By then the majority of Koreans had converted to Buddhism, and a smaller number took up up Christianity, while the traditional shamanistic religion of Muism was in decline. Occasions tied to the performance of traditional music and dance in the Muism tradition were no longer common, so these arts became rare. Western music and Korean popular music dominated. A generation passionate about modernization and adopting many western customs realized that the music and dance of the past might be lost.

Today a new generation of Korean Americans is taking up older instruments, learning traditional songs, learning dances, and creating new occasions for the performance of music and dance that would otherwise be lost.  An example is available in a video of a performance at the Library of Congress by Sounds of Korea. The performance includes music and song traditions based in the ancient music of Muism as well as more modern music.  Early in the video is a performance of shamanistic folk percussive music, a samul-nori intended to drive away bad spirits and typically played by men but performed by women in this example. The next piece is a performance of a song from a p’ansori, a long sung narrative from ancient times. This is performed by one singer and one drummer with the singer performing all the parts in the drama and describing the scenes in song. Very few of these p’ansori survive intact. Next is an elegant dance with fans, originally used to fan away bad spirits in ceremonies, accompanied by an ensemble that features the gayageum, an ancient zither related to the Chinese zheng. The second half of this performance begins with an example of of courtly style music which was influenced by the Chinese courtly music, this piece is played on the piri, a small oboe-like instrument with a big sound. This piece is followed by two dances with more recently composed music that draws on traditional music.2

Today as Koreans take up the old instruments, both in the US and in Korea, traditional music is being better preserved and recorded. As improvisation and innovation are very much part of Korean musical tradition, new compositions are being created for the instruments and these are finding a place in the variety of Korean music sought after today.

As East Asian Americans continue to have a healthy interest in preserving their traditions and today a new wave of first generation immigrants are making their way to the United States, I expect that this essay only hints at what may be to come.


1. Also of interest, “Japanese Influences in Twentieth Century American Music,” presented by W. Anthony Sheppard, 2010. A lecture sponsored by the Music Division. Video in RealMedia format.

2. Two additional Library of Congress Korean cultural videos are available in RealMedia format. These are:
Korean Art Program and Concert, sponsored by the Korean Team of the Asian Division, the Asian Division Friends Society, Music Division, American Folklife Center, the Korea Foundation, and the KORUS House at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea, 2009; and
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2008: Korean Cultural Fan and Drum Dance, sponsored by the Asian Division.


The Ann Yao Trio: Traditional Chinese Zheng Music, Library of Congress concert sponsored by the American Folklife Center, 2011. Video in MP4 format.

Asian Division, Library of Congress

Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month: a shared resource page for the Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2008: Korean Cultural Fan and Drum Dance.  Library of Congress concert sponsored by the Asian Division, 2008.  Video in RealMedia format.

Asian Pacific Americans: Going For Broke. In Experiencing War, Veterans History Project. This presents audio and video oral history interviews with Asian American veterans.

Chinese American Song,” an essay in The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America.

Korean Art Program and Concert. Library of Congress concert sponsored by the Korean Team of the Asian Division, the Asian Division Friends Society, Music Division, American Folklife Center, the Korea Foundation, and the KORUS House at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea, 2009. Video in RealMedia format.

Liu, Marjory Bong-Ray. “Kunqu: China’s First Great Multi-art Theatrical Tradition,” a 2008 Botkin Lecture sponsored by the American Folklife Center. Video in RealMedia format. (This lecture deals with Chinese opera in China).

Odo, Franklin. “Cultural Stewardship in Asian Pacific American Communities,” 2010. Video in RealMedia format.

Odo, Franklin. No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawaii During World War II, Temple University Press 2004 (book).

Odo, Franklin, “Voices From the Cane Fields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai’i.” 2013 Botkin Lecture video in MP4 format.

Odo, Franklin. Voices from the Canefields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai’i, American Musicspheres, 2013 (book).

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. “Blooming Cherry Blossoms, Falling Cherry Blossoms: Symbolism of the Flower in Japanese Culture and History.” 2009 Kluge lecture. Video in RealMedia format.

Provine, Robert. “Revolutionaries, Nursery Rhymes, and Edison Wax Cylinders: The Remarkable Tale of the Earliest Korean Sound Recordings,” a 2009 Botkin Lecture sponsored by the American Folklife Center. Video in RealMedia format. (This lecture concerns the history of recordings of Korean students visiting the United States who were recorded by Alice Cunningham Fletcher in 1896.)

Unsung Heroes: A Symposium on the Heroism of Asian Pacific Americans During World War II, (morning session). Veterans History Project, 2009. Video in RealMedia format.

Unsung Heroes: A Symposium on the Heroism of Asian Pacific Americans During World War II, (afternoon session. Veterans History Project, 2009. Video in RealMedia format.

Sounds of Korea. Library of Congress concert sponsored by the American Folklife Center, 2014. Video in MP4 format.

Winick, Stephen. “Vintage Researcher Photo: George Takei,”  article in Folklore Today, May 28, 2014.

Comments (6)

  1. Interesting article on East Asian immigrants. Thank you.

    The University of Hawai’i at Manoa Library holds a lot of materials related to Japanese Americans in Hawai’i. For examples:
    -Japanese language school in Hawai’i textbook collections
    -Japanese American Veterans Collection

    and more!

    • Thank you for the information. I expect we may have readers who are interested in those collections!

  2. Thanks for the great article! You are correct – the Chinese 78 rpm disc you have a scan of is part “D” of a 4-sided Cantonese opera selection. Also, believe it or not, this Victor label style was literally known as “Velly Good Talkee” (I believe after the characters above the gramophone horn).

    A good source for overall information on early Chinese recordings (there were tens of thousands made) can be found in a 2-part article by Du Jun Min (the series above is discussed):

    Further research on these Victor recordings continues over at UCSB, as part of the Discography of American Historical Recordings.

    • Hi, Thank you for your comment and thanks for the links! We had a researcher here who thought these recordings were Cantonese opera but couldn’t tell us much about them, so this information is helpful. The folks working on the Library of Congress National Jukebox are preparing to put more recordings online, including early Columbia discs as well as more Victor recordings, so we should have more Chinese recordings available in the near future.

  3. Thank you, Stephanie, for yet another well-researched, fascinating article. I’ve bookmarked it for future re-reading.

    I hope that when Bing Xia’s webcast performance from the Library of Congress is available online you have the opportunity to go back and link to it from this story.

    • Thank you for your comments. Yes, when the video of Bing Xia’s concert is available I will put a link to it in the “Resources” section at the bottom of the article. It takes at least two months and often longer for a video to be put online (depending on how many Library of Congress videos are in the queue ahead of it).

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