January 8, 1863: San Francisco
I have told you much about the Chinese here—that there are thousands in the city, that whole streets look like a Chinese town so far as people and wares are concerned. Well, [this] evening, I attended the Chinese theater. Now, if I could correctly describe this it would make a most interesting letter, but unfortunately I cannot. Words would entirely fail. Whether it was opera, tragedy, or comedy, or a mixture of the three, I have no idea—I think it was perhaps a mixture—but it was all comical enough, and yet intensely interesting because of its extreme singularity, so very unlike anything I have ever seen before.
The place is extremely low, frequented by the lower classes of Chinese, and is in a rather poor building. A stage extends entirely across one side, raised about three feet above the floor, covered with mats, and without drop curtain in front or side scenes. Stage furniture stands upon the two sides, a table in the middle, and two doors closed by fancy Chinese curtains lead to two rooms behind the stage—the “behind the scenes” of the place.The orchestra, five or six persons, sits at the back part of the stage. One holds a small metallic instrument, a sort of cross between a small gong and a flat bell; another has several blocks, of different sizes and shapes, upon which he beats with two sticks, making a noise but surely not music; another beats a drum, looking and sounding like a half-barrel tub covered with leather. A large gong hangs beside him, which he pounds in the “terrific” portions of the play. Another plays most of the time on a stringed instrument, in principle something like a fiddle with two strings, but entirely unlike a fiddle, or anything else describable, in both shape and sounds. In the more noisy parts of the play he beats a pair of huge cymbals—about as musical as would be the clashing together of two pieces of sheet iron. Another plays on a guitar-like instrument, or, by way of variety, lays this down and blows a sort of shrill clarinet. There is system in their music, but neither melody nor harmony. It could not be expressed at all by the characters we use for writing music. Such is the orchestra. It keeps up a sort of accompaniment to the whole play, but some of the interludes are “awful.” Imagine a room in which one man is mending pots, another filing a saw, another hammering boards, another beating a gong, and two boys trying to tune fiddles, and you will have some idea of some of their grand efforts in the music line. A strong odor of burning opium pervades the room, for a few are smoking that narcotic. Against the wall at one side of the stage is the idol, with some pictures, Chinese letters, etc., and a lamp burning in front of it. The acting is the most comical part of the whole, but I could only tell which part was considered funny and which pathetic by watching the effect on the audience; it could never be perceived from the play itself.