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Dancing in the Diaspora: Cultural Long-Distance Nationalism and the Staging of Chineseness by San Francisco’s Chinese Folk Dance Association


This essay analyzes the history of a San Francisco Bay Area cultural institution over a period of more than four decades, and, applying to it the concept of "cultural long-distance nationalism," it attempts to tease apart the complexity of cultural practice in diaspora. The organization in question is the Chinese Folk Dance Association (CFDA), founded in 1959, a pro-People’s Republic of China (PRC) troupe of amateur dancers and musicians playing Chinese instruments. As someone who was peripherally involved with the group in the mid-1970s and early 1980s and was a friend or acquaintance of a few members of the group, I became curious about the changes in its activities, its performance programs, its roles in the Bay Area community, and its self-perceived relationship to the homeland over time. I have examined the CFDA’s performance programs, photographs, and press coverage since the 1970s (earlier archival material was not available to me), as well as interviewed three of its key figures and spoken on several occasions with one of the three, the long-time executive director of the group and a friend from graduate school. What I have found is that the changes undergone by the group reveal the multiplicity of factors that go into the staging of Chineseness in diaspora and the challenges inherent in such a process. The challenges are especially acute given how rapidly the nation-state to which a specific cultural presentation is tied—the People’s Republic of China (PRC)—has itself been undergoing rapid and radical transformations.

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