The Hong Took Tong Chinese Dramatic Company debuted on October 18, 1852 with a 42-person operatic performance. With that show, Hong Took Tong became the United States’ first Asian American theatrical company, but it would be far from the last group to make waves in the Chinese American music scene.
“The Moon Represents My Heart: Music, Memory and Belonging,” which opened Thursday at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), explores the role of music in immigrant Chinese communities from the 1850s to the present. The exhibit promises to celebrate the Cantonese opera of the Hong Took Tong company, alongside Taiwanese love ballads, Beijing underground rock, Asian American movement music, and Canto-pop.
Even though Hong Took Tong’s operatic performance in 1852 would have sounded wildly different from Taiwanese hip-hop or Chinese rap, MOCA President Nancy Yao Maasbach believes “aspects of Chinese culture and tradition are a common thread.” The exhibit asks visitors to consider the similarities and differences in Chinese musical styles, and how music connects to ideas of immigrant memories and sense of belonging.
But how does one view a museum exhibit about music? The MOCA curatorial team, joined by New Yorker staff writer Hua Hsu, has gathered artist notebooks, magazine spreads, album covers, liner notes, and event flyers to display alongside music listening stations where visitors can hear the tunes of Chinese-American immigrant identities.
The exhibition is centered around a stage where MOCA will host special performances. Alongside karaoke nights and ensemble performances, MOCA’s regularly scheduled Music + Mic nights will move onto the stage for the duration of the exhibit.
If you can’t make it to a performance night at “The Moon Represents My Heart,” you’ll still be able to listen to plenty of music at the listening stations. They’ll play the music by over 50 performers, including Peking opera singer Mei Lanfang, Broadway actor and Chinese folk singer Stephen Cheng, the Chinatown singing group The Fortune Cookies, and Taiwanese singer Teresa Teng– whose song “The Moon Represents My Heart” gave the exhibit its name.
“Putting together this show was like making a mixtape. It’s full of echoes, resonances, connections across time and space, proud defiance and soft-neon sappiness,” Hsu said in MOCA’s press release. “We knew it was impossible to tell some definitive story about music’s role in Chinese American life. Instead, we tried to mix together as much of it as we could, from the epic performers to everyday fandom.”
Whether you’re a karaoke bar regular or Metropolitan Opera fan, “The Moon Represents My Heart” will have a genre of music to get you excited about Chinese American immigrant identities.