Cuban Divas, Cantonese Opera, and Chinese Immigrants in Americas

November 01, 2022

This event is sponsored by SFU's David Lam Centre, Global Asia Program, and Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies.

Caridad Amaran and Georgina Wong Gutierrez learned the art of Cantonese opera in the1930s in Havana. Caridad’s mentor was her Chinese foster father, Julian Fong, who immigrated to Cuba in the 1920s after his family forbade him to perform opera. Georgina’s father was a famous tailor in Havana Chinatown, who encouraged her to learn kung-fu and the lion dance. Though neither had any siblings, they formed a sisterhood on the stage. Through the 1940s, Caridad toured all over Cuba, performing in cities with Chinese communities as the leading actress of her opera troupe. Georgina quit opera to attend college, but her study was interrupted by Castro’s 1959 revolution and her required military service. Eventually, she went on to become a diplomat. Following their retirement, and well into their sixties, the two sisters began performing Cantonese opera again. In their eighties, they found a new audience in China.

Studies of Chinese immigrants in America usually focus on North America but not Latin America. The research for this project has significance in at least three aspects. First, it reveals how Cantonese Opera troupes from China traveled to and performed in major American ports with Chinese communities, including San Francisco, Honolulu, New York, and Havana. Havana Divas is one of the earliest visual documentations of this history that still is understudied, following suit of the award-winning book Chinatown Opera Theatre in North America (2017) by Nancy Rao. Second, portraying the life stories of two Cantonese Opera divas from the 1920s to present day, the film touches issues of race, language, global migration during and after WWI, and the juxtaposition of socialist systems in Cuba and China. With family photo albums, newsreel footages, archival research, and the compelling presence of the two ladies/matriarchs, the film constructs a women’s perspective that is relatively rare in history writing. Third, together with its sister-film Golden Gate Girls that focuses on transnational women filmmakers, the two films shed light on cultural history of Chinese diaspora, pointing to a large of repertoire of film and opera works that helped to maintain the Chinese moral, life views, and values from the “center” in the Diasporas.



S. Louisa Wei

S. Louisa Wei is a documentary filmmaker and Associate Professor of Cinematic Art at the City University of Hong Kong. She is also the author of two award-winning books and a Member of the Hong Kong Director's Guild.