No Laughing Matter
By Kim Clarke
There is enough ill-feeling and racial hatred and misunderstanding abroad the world over without deliberately setting out to create any more.– Hsiao Chuan Chang, graduate student
Chapter 1 Curtain Up
The show opened on a Monday night in downtown Ann Arbor, after months of rehearsals by the actors and dancers, not to mention the hundreds of hours put in by students and craftsmen to build sets and paint scenery drops.
“Tickled to Death,” a musical comedy written, staged and performed by University of Michigan students, generated a buzz in the weeks before Christmas 1924. The opening night crowd at the Whitney Theatre on Main Street loved the shimmering costumes, the songs that alternated between exotic and silly, and colorful scenes of a Buddhist monastery, Chinese mountain ranges, jade statues, feathery ostrich fans, and twirling parasols of pink and yellow.
The critics were positive in their reviews. The 19th annual production of the Michigan Union Opera, “Tickled to Death” was declared an immediate hit.
But U-M’s Chinese students were not laughing. They were furious. Nearly 100 years before the 2020 coronavirus pandemic would unleash a wave of anti-Asian bias, a smaller but similar prejudice rippled across the Michigan campus.
Chapter 2 Playing Chinese
“Tickled to Death,” like all Union operas, had a rambling, goofy storyline that, knowingly or unknowingly, directly affected a small group of students on campus.
Consider: A cult of sun-worshippers lives near Hong Kong, in a monastery ruled by the high priest Fugi San. Inside the temple are two precious commodities: a jade statue of a dragon and a young white American woman named Nyan Toy, who has been raised by the temple’s priests to become a human sacrifice. An archaeological expedition from the University of Michigan arrives at the temple in search of the jade piece. Instead, a student member of the expedition, the handsome Jack Houghton, falls in love with Nyan Toy. The temple priests are outraged and condemn Houghton to death by tickling.
Houghton somehow manages to radio a U.S. Navy cruiser while at the same time convincing his Chinese captors that the radio is used to solve crossword puzzles. The Navy dispatches a rescue team that storms the monastery and saves the lives of both Houghton and Nyan Toy, providing a happy ending – at least for American showgoers.
Throughout the two-act show, there was singing, dancing, comedic bits, and scenery said to be the most opulent in the history of the Michigan Union Opera. The show’s writer was Donald E.L. Snyder, a senior in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.
To Chinese students, the offenses were numerous. The character Fugi San, a Buddhist monk, was described in the show’s playbill as “a murderous mountain Chinaman.” High priests were depicted wearing queues, a long braid of hair that hung down a man’s back and a hairstyle never worn by monks.
In other affronts, the show condoned the presence of women, gambling, and human sacrifices in a monastery, a traditionally sacred place. Scenery included snowcapped mountains, even though the Hong Kong region is subtropical.
The Daily claimed the genesis for the opera was “contributed by a Chinese student on the campus who furnished the subject matter for much of the setting,” although he or she never was identified and no such credit appeared in show materials.
“Tickled to Death” debuted at a time when students from China made up the largest contingent of international students on campus. But their numbers were minuscule: 98 Chinese among a student body of 12,312. The Michigan campus was predominantly white, male and American. Young men and women from nearly 40 nations were enrolled but made up less than one-half of 1 percent of the student body.
Still, Chinese students were a definite presence. Three months before “Tickled to Death,” they played host for the 15th annual conference of Midwestern chapters of Chinese Students’ Alliance and 150 guests. And the Michigan club had recently established an emergency loan fund for Chinese students who were struggling financially. Organizers noted they created the fund after being challenged by a professor, who said, “Why can’t you Chinese take care of yourself?”
Chapter 3 The Show
The Michigan Union Opera was a campus tradition. Established in 1908, the annual production was presented by the men of the Union – women were not allowed – and featured singing, dancing and absurd storylines. (“Tickled to Death” was not the first show to mock race or ethnicity. The Opera’s 1909 musical comedy, “Koanzaland,” was set in “darkest Africa,” with chanting cannibals, a character named King Koalie, and white students performing in blackface, a common sight on stages of that era.)
All female roles were played by cross-dressing male students with great success. Sets and costumes were increasingly lavish with each year’s production.
And the shows made money for operating the Michigan Union. As the organization entered its second decade, each year’s production typically opened in Ann Arbor and then went on the road, either to theaters along the East Coast or throughout the Midwest.
“Tickled to Death” was no exception. After a week of performances in Ann Arbor, students packed their bags for shows in six Michigan cities, including Detroit, as well as Toledo, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Chicago. The group chartered a train with four cars – three sleepers and one for carrying costumes, scenery and the musical instruments of a 16-piece orchestra.
Over the course of 17 days – including Christmas and a sold-out New Year’s Eve – the troupe would cover some 2,000 miles and perform “Tickled to Death” before 28,000 patrons. The show always attracted alumni outside of Ann Arbor. With “Tickled to Death,” it also drew detractors upset with the portrayals of China and the Chinese.
Chapter 4 ‘A Gross Misrepresentation’
The first to protest was William Shi Chi Wang, a mechanical engineering senior from Beijing who was president of the U-M Chinese Students’ Club. Within a week of “Tickled to Death” opening, Wang registered his unhappiness with editors of The Michigan Daily, faculty members, E. Mortimer Shuter, general director of the Michigan Union Opera, and U-M President Marion L. Burton.
Wang admonished the show’s writers for a lack of understanding of China. “… it is a failure of education if all university men do not see any further than [the] border line of their own country, which I have much confidence is not true at Michigan.”
Calling the comedy “a gross misrepresentation of China,” Wang asked Shuter to “pass more rigid judgment” on the show’s content. Wang typed his letter on club stationery, sent from its headquarters in Lane Hall, where many international student groups had their offices.
Wang, who previously had been president of the student Cosmopolitan Club, crafted a more impassioned letter to the university’s president.
“As representatives of China in this country, craving for an ever-friendly feeling and clear understanding between these two Republics, we deem it is our duty to voice our resentment against such misrepresentation,” he wrote. He asked Burton to put a stop to the show for the sake of U-M’s reputation. In short, Wang wrote, the University of Michigan could and should do better in its depictions of China and its people.
Yet another student, Hsiao Chuan Chang, told Burton the musical comedy “and many other incidents” were hurtful and insulting to Chinese students. “It seems to me that an institution such as the University of Michigan, with its high educational aims and the prestige that anything bearing its name carries, should exercise a little more supervisory power in matters of this sort, so that the prejudice, if not open hatred, may not be kindled,” Chang wrote.
“There is enough ill-feeling and racial hatred and misunderstanding abroad the world over without deliberately setting out to create any more,” he said.
Chang, a graduate student from Zhili (now Hebei), China, had earned his undergraduate degree at DePauw University in Indiana. He said the strongest way for him to object to “Tickled to Death” was to quit Michigan. “I deem it a moral duty to withdraw from the University as a positive protest, despite the fact that I am quite aware this will bring nothing to bear.”
Unfortunately for Wang and Chang, President Burton was in no condition to read their letters, let alone respond. The popular president, who regularly hosted international students at his home, was fighting for his life after suffering a heart attack and resulting complications in late 1924. In his stead, Secretary of the University Shirley W. Smith was handling Burton’s mail, and his response to Chang was nothing short of brutal.
Chapter 5 ‘This Is Not China’
A longtime administrator, Shirley Smith was the highest-level executive to respond to Chang and, by extension, the concerns of other Chinese students. He offered no sympathy.
“I can only say briefly that it is incomprehensible to an American why you should be so deeply troubled by the Opera,” Smith began. “You may be entirely right according to the standards of your own country, but kind friend, this is not China.”
Americans, Smith said, have a strong sense of humor and enjoy making fun of others. “Nobody has intended to insult you; nobody has insulted you or treated you unkindly; and nobody is putting your race in an unfair or humorous light except those of you who are declining to understand our American humor, or to take our American word for it in lieu of understanding it.”
On a regular basis, in film and on stage, Americans poke fun at others and are able to separate fact from farce, Smith wrote. He had been a campus administrator since 1908 and had seen plenty of student productions take aim at U-M administrators and faculty – “misrepresented to a degree which would have been insulting if it had not been mere fun and taken as such” – and no one complained. Chang and other Chinese who were protesting, Smith wrote, simply needed to do a better job of understanding Americans.
Smith had been president of his LSA graduating class in 1897, when he encouraged his fellow graduates to join the alumni association and recruit future students so that “we shall know that others are here in our places, receiving their meed of inspiration and power.” He later served as secretary of the Alumni Association and editor of The Michigan Alumnus. And his name was the sole contact listed on recruitment materials promoting Michigan as “a cosmopolitan student community.” Yet Smith was unfazed by Chang’s decision to leave U-M and forgo his graduate degree.
“If you feel that you must withdraw from the University, may I say, in our American humorous way,” Smith wrote, “that I dare say the University will be able to stand the shock and to continue in operation.”
Smith’s sentiments were echoed by Homer L. Heath, who as manager of the Michigan Union had a financial stake in the success of the show. When contacted by a U-M graduate who had read news accounts of the protest, Heath was dismissive: “No one here takes this Chinese protest very seriously.”
Chapter 6 ‘Ignorance and Indifference’
Controversy shared the stage with “Tickled to Death” as it made its way from city to city. It was not enough to hurt the show, but rather more of a public relations distraction.
In southern Ohio, Chinese students at the University of Cincinnati complained to U-M leaders. The show’s scenes and storyline “tend to give a false impression of Chinese and their customs that is not in keeping with the American spirit of fair play as we believe it to exist generally.”
In Detroit, the local chapter of the Chinese Students Club joined their Ann Arbor colleagues in registering their indignation with President Burton. “It is entirely a conjuration beyond the pale of imagination,” H.S. Chen, of Highland Park, told the Detroit Free Press, “to depict the Chinese priest committing the murderous act of having the kidnapped American girl offered as sacrifice to gods.”
A woman in Cleveland warned that U-M’s Chinese students would return home with a negative opinion of their host university and country, thanks to the comedy. “These students, who know the steady, tranquil soul of China, resent from the depths of their being the misrepresentation of Chinese character and culture as shown on our screen and stage. It is inexplicable to them that China, which has endured for 3,000 years, much of that time being the greatest of the nations, should be estimated and represented here as a nation of coolies and cooks.
“Shall they teach, tit for tat, that we are a nation of half-educated college graduates? That we know nothing and care less for the morals, the civilization, the history and the religions of China? Shall we send them back with a deep unconscious resentment against us because of our ignorance and indifference toward their nation and its ideals?”
When Heath, the Union’s manager, read the negative articles about the comedy that funded his organization, he saw it as a positive. “The show gives some people something to talk about anyway, doesn’t it?”
Chapter 7 ‘Poisoning the American Mind’
Chung-shu Kwei had had enough. For too long, he watched as Chinese like him faced cruel stereotypes and blatant prejudice in the United States, whether in the fledging movie industry, in stage plays, or in the exploitation of immigrants living in New York, where he worked as a journalist. The University of Michigan’s musical comedy and its portrayal of Chinese was the last straw.
From his office in Manhattan, the longtime editor-in-chief of The Chinese Students’ Monthly used his national publication to admonish Michigan. It was a biting opinion piece and the first time in the 20-year history of the magazine that the editors had spoken so boldly against anti-Asian sentiment. The newsletter was the official voice of the Chinese Students’ Alliance, which had campus chapters across the country.
“Once and again we have led ourselves to believe that these false misrepresentations would be scoffed by the intelligent and intellectual Americans,” Kwei wrote. “Now that a great institution of higher learning has tacitly approved of, if not openly endorsed and sponsored, the comic opera in question, we wonder if the mind of the American in a university is different from that of one who has never entered it.”
He added: “Misrepresentations may harm the Chinese from the outside, but they poison the American mind from within.”
Chapter 8 Listen and Learn
In some fashion, the organizers of “Tickled to Death” heard the protests. After the students toured the Midwest, a final set of performances was planned to coincide with the annual J-Hop in February. It would be the last opportunity for students on campus to see the 1925 production.
Small changes were made to the script, although there is no record of what, precisely, was altered. Reports only indicated that it was “toned down.” Homer Heath said the changes reflected criticisms raised by Chinese students.
“Chinese students who are bringing hometown girls to the Hop need not hesitate to take them to the Opera, as all unseemly references to that country have been cut, according to authorities,” the Daily reported.
After the final curtain came down February 7, another group of Michigan students offered what perhaps were the most thoughtful words about the controversy. The Michigan Chimes was a short-lived but engaging monthly magazine founded by a diverse group of student leaders. The editors took the campus to task for its apathy toward “Tickled to Death” and international students in general.
“The races of the world are making themselves heard and their importance felt whether we, as Americans, like it or not. There is enough pride in all of the nations to demand that they be not misrepresented in the eyes of their neighbors,” they wrote. “There are three hundred foreign students on the campus. Any one of them could in a few hours’ time tell us more intimate things about his country than most of us have been able to get in all the reading we have done.”
With the world shrinking and more and more contact between people of different nationalities, the editors wrote, it was essential for Americans to be open-minded about people of different backgrounds.
“The only requisite is a willingness to learn.”
Sources: Michigan Union records, 1884-1996, Bentley Historical Library; Michigan Union publications, Bentley Historical Library; Michigan Chimes, February 1925; Chinese Students’ Monthly; The Michigan Daily; Campus Chords: Devotional Harmonies and the Dissonance of Difference in the University of Michigan’s Songbook, with Mark Clague; “The China Critics,” China Heritage Quarterly