Chinese Orchestras in the Bay Area

Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra of San José, California performing at California Theater in 2006

The San Francisco Bay Area is a Metropolitan region encompassing San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose as well as a number of surrounding cities and ‘burbs.  With a population approaching 8 million, it is also home to one of the largest concentrations of Chinese Americans in the US at a little over half a million according to the 2010 census.

What I’ve discovered is that the Bay Area is also home to probably the greatest concentration of Chinese Orchestras in the US.  As I’ve been compiling a database of ethnic orchestras in North America (though concentrating, in particular, on the United States) I’ve since discovered just a little over two dozen ensembles in the Bay Area alone.  It seems that California in general has the highest concentration of Chinese Orchestras of all the States (cf. the geographic region between Chicago and Detroit which seems to have the highest concentration of Arabic and Middle Eastern ensembles and Orchestras in the US).

What’s particularly striking about the Bay Area’s ensembles is the number of Youth Orchestras, and, in a particular case, a k-5th grade Chinese Orchestra.  The other striking thing about these (and other ethnic ensembles throughout the US) is the number (roughly half) that have formed since the internet revolution (early to mid 90s), and the number that have formed within the past ten years or so (nearly a third of the total number).

I’ve yet to do a rigorous statistical analysis of the numbers as I’m still just compiling the database and doing the tedious task of getting numbers (year formed, number of musicians in the ensembles, etc.) so the preceeding paragraph is just a very rough sketch, but if the trends I had been seeing in the Middle Eastern ensembles is any indication of what’s happening with the Chinese ensembles, there is definitely growth in the number of groups formed and the rate is accelerating somewhat.

Granted, there might be some bias in the number of groups as obviously those groups that are no longer active are less likely to show up in simple internet searches.  For all we know there could have been many more Chinese Orchestras in the years or decades before the internet.  Indeed, there seemed to be a high number of Chinese Opera troupes operating in the states during the last half of the 19th century to first half of the 20th century (see Rodecape, 1944 and Mina Yang, 2001).  The situation was similar in New York Chinatown during the period of the National Origins Act when there were up to five separate Chinese Opera Houses in operation (Rao, 2000; 2002).

On the other hand, there is also the fact that many cultural institutions with ethnic minority groups will stay well below the radar of the majority population (cf. MacLachlan, 2008 for a discussion of ‘underground’ intra-congregational music dissemination, performance, and support) for reasons that are systemic as well as cultural (Rao, 2000).

As I was hypothesizing in the previous post, for ethnic minorities and immigrants there’s a disconnect between the demographics of the population and the demographics that Western Orchestras actually reach that happens to be divided by a racial line.  While many [Western] Orchestras and advocates for them will state unequivocally what the issues are with regards to the value of an [Western] Orchestra holds for the life of a city.

In the case of the Bay Area, which does have a number of Orchestras, we have a very different case study to consider given the high proportion of minority population in Oakland during the 80s around the time the Oakland Symphony Orchestra went bankrupt (1986).  Marcia Herndon (1988) analyzes the circumstances surrounding the OS’s bankruptcy and the talk that permeated the press, the community, the local arts organizations who all said that

the symphony “serves a need,” that it “brings the city together,” “it is good for the city’s image,” “it enhances civic pride,” and that it “has a civilizing effect.”  When pressed, peopl are unable to elaborate on statements such as these.  This indicates that these statements are formularistic and symbolic in that they are amorphous. (pg. 142)

She talks about a number of myths [sic] that followed the dissolution of the Oakland Symphony, many of which those of us following the current state of Orchestras have heard in some form or other.  But one that doesn’t often get brought up is racial issues I’ve been exploring

Another myth is that packaging of the product is more important than content, but that the content should somehow appeal to the ethnic diversity of the area.

Facts have also been ignored, creating several cognitive disjunctures.  In terms of “cultural elements” in Oakland, there appears to be a cognitive disjuncture between the fact of a 61% (1980 census) minority population (with a black Mayor, a black-owned ad operate newspaper, and middle-class Chicano, black, Chinese and American Indian constituencies) and arts planning.  Although there is constant mention of the need to recruit more minority musicians, and a program that allowed minority musicians to intern with the orchestra, this is in direct conflict with the equally reasonable commitment to retain the mostly white former symphony musicians in a reconstituted symphony. (pp. 141-142)

and to be fair, most Orchestras have this problem (Downs, 2011), hence the correspondence between the white audience for Classical Music which is aging faster than the population of the US as a whole and the white population in the US aging faster than the population as a whole in the US.  And though the legal and institutional barriers to ethnic minorities being accepted into orchestras no longer exist, the social and cultural barriers still do.  As Yang (2001) stated of the earlier immigrants

Between 1924, when the National Origins Act curtailed further immigration from Asia, and 1945, the final year of World War II, immigrants in California established distinctly ethnic cultures at the margins of the mainstream.  Immigrants generally did not have access to the high cultural offerings of the symphony or the opera and did not necessarily identify with the cultivated traditions of European concert music.  They made music, instead, that traced their origins to distant lands and that changed as they made contact with other cultures  Nonwhite immigrants, in particular, experienced a great sense of dislocation, coming face to face with a dominant culture that was alien to them and that maintained its claim to superiority relative to other cultures.  (pg. 386)

And while the sentiment and pressures for today’s immigrants may not be nearly as unbearable as they were in the past, this doesn’t diminish the identification to some degree with many of the points above.  Hence, the growth of Chinese Orchestras after the last burst of Chinese musical activity in this country which happens to coincide with the dominant High Art form that many recent and current immigrants from China might be more familiar with: traditional Chinese Orchestras.  Note that while traditional Chinese Orchestras may be traced back to 1930, the instrumentation and formal structure of the ensemble type didn’t solidify until the early 60s after the People’s Republic was formed and had an opportunity to turn this kind of ensemble into a National Music ensemble (see Beng, 2000 for a nice summary of the history of traditional Chinese Orchestras).

And with a high population density of Chinese immigrants, these are the kinds of ensembles to be found and ultimately supported by this rapidly growing ethnic population.




Beng, T. S.  (2000)  “The Huayue Tuan (Chinese Orchestra) in Malaysia: Adapting to Survive”  Asian Music 31:2, 107

Downs, E.  (2011)  “Orchestras slowly add racial, ethnic diversity”  The Journal Gazette May 15 <<retrieved 2011 May 24>>

Herndon, M.  (1988)  “Cultural Engagement: The Case of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra” Yearbook for Traditional Music 4, 134

MacLachlan, H.  (2008)  “Innovation in the Guise of Tradition: Music among the Chin Population of Indianapolis, USA” Asian Music 39:2, 167

Rao, N. Y.  (2000)  “Racial essences and historical invisibility: Chinese opera in New York, 1930” Cambridge Opera Journal 12:2 135

Rao, N. Y.  (2002)  “Songs of the Exclusion Era: New York Chinatown’s Opera Theaters in the 1920s” American Music  20:4, 399

Rodecape, L. F.  (1944) “Celestial Drama In The Golden Hills, The Chinese Theatre in California, 1849-1869” California Historical Society Quarterly 23:2, 97

Yang, M.  (2001) “Orientalism and the Music of Asian Immigrant Communities in California, 1924-1945” American Music 19:4, 385




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s