To a substantial extent, identity is both expressed in and constituted by performance. Since theatrical and musical performance form part of broader social relations, ‘traditional’ operas and orchestras represent a crucial, if untapped, source of information about changing identities. Yet the study of Chinese traditional performing arts continues largely to presume a unitary and static ethnic identity across polities, with opera in particular being seen as a marker of quintessential Chineseness. This tendency has only increased in the present era of Chinese state-led cultural nationalism, which privileges and funds claims of tradition, ancientness, and continuity.

This project, on the other hand, looks at situational and contingent practices of Chineseness. Specifically, it seeks to define how ‘Chineseness’ operated in the colonial Dutch Indies through public performance, and how it began to inform transnational Chinese identities in the run-up to World War II and decolonisation. This project will consider Sino-Indonesian performance genres—‘Chinese opera,’ puppetry, political theatre, and ritual performance— as they appear in the newsprint as well as the bureaucratic and academic discourse of the late colonial Dutch East Indies. ‘Tradition’ or ‘Chinese’ are not givens or even stable signifiers: they shift over time, and they are shifting at present in response to internal dynamics and soft power. How communities in colonial Southeast Asia performed their Chinese traditions and their Sino-Southeast Asian identities speaks to profound questions of ethnicity, culture and even geopolitics.

Public performance allows the observation of identities in the process of construction, in embodied practices that reveal ethnicity as mutable and subject to continual change in part generated by that performance. This makes identarian categories such as ethnicity responsive to changes in socio-political conditions. At the same time, the social and political discourse surrounding categories of identity tends to be essentialising. Consideration of public performance in social context is an incisive way to track shifts in ethnic identity over time, since (especially ‘traditional’) performance often makes a claim to immutable ethnic essence even as the messy processes of performance production show cultural products to be contingent and changeable. Behaviour in public is always to some degree performative in that bodies are where culture is sited and transmitted, but culturally-framed performance by minority groups is especially likely to be interpreted as ethnically representative. Theatre or musical shows at the temple festival of a Chinese minority in the Dutch East Indies, for instance, would have been ascribed ethnic character by both its performers and its audiences. Performances therefore include messages to various audiences regarding their identities and hence by implication of their loyalties. In minority contexts where ethnicity may have major political consequences, the way the state and majority populations view such representations matters.