08 – American Chinatown – A History of Five Neighborhoods

american-chinatownBook Title: American Chinatown – A History of Five Neighborhoods
Author: Bonnie Tsui
Style: Chapter Book
Target Audience: Adults
Genres: Non-fiction, sociology, modern history
Page Count: 264
Reading time: 6 hours
Format: Hardcover (library)

My impressions: I happened upon this book while browsing around the library and thought it might make an interesting read. It turns out, I was right! American Chinatown takes a look at the origins and histories of Chinatowns in the US and profiles five of them – those in San Francisco, New York City, Los Angeles, Honolulu and Las Vegas – and not only provides a strong understanding of what it means to live and work in these communities today, but also an insider’s perspective (as told to a quasi-outsider who shares a common culture) into why these communities came to be and what their role has been in helping Chinese to gain a strong footing in American culture.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of the book references the anti-Chinese racism of the 20th century, which prevented Chinese immigrants from owning land and forced them into established, segregated communities in large cities (or out into small towns and cities) until things changed in 1965. Many Americans have traditionally looked at Chinatowns as insular microsocieties full of vice and iniquity, and films like the Roman Polanski classic Chinatown (which was actually partially shot in an actual Chinatown in Los Angeles using residents as paid extras) have only contributed to their mystique and tainted reputations.

But in truth, Chinatowns have been an important stepping stone for many Chinese, giving them a cushion as they emigrate to a very foreign land where they see opportunity, but also a culture that is very different from their own. The book spends a lot of time explaining the poverty and the difficult conditions (often, the part of Chinatown tourists see is just a veneer of the reality), but also the perspectives of those who have endured the challenges and built lives for themselves and their families.

The structure of the book is interesting in that it starts with two of the oldest, best-known Chinatowns and then looks at Los Angeles (where there are actually two, both with connections to the film industry), Hawaii (where the Chinese have not endured the same racism and xenophobia as they have in the continental US) and Las Vegas (a place where Chinatown has been built into a shopping mall). I was very interested to learn that many Chinese immigrants have come from very specific parts of China (many come from Guangdong’s Pearl River Delta region, which is near Hong Kong and Macau along the Southern coast), resulting in many speaking Cantonese or Toisonese rather than Mandarin. One of the interesting offshoots of this has been that many Americans have developed ideas about Chinese culture based on a mere piece of it – the same thing that might happen if (hypothetically) a bunch of residents of Louisiana emigrated to Finland and became ambassadors of American culture.

Another interesting insight is that one of the main advantages of Chinatowns is that they make good Chinese food available to those who’ve emigrated. I’ve experienced this with friends I’ve had from China, but in case you didn’t know: the Chinese tend to have a strong preference towards Asian food and often dislike the starchy, bland qualities of Western-style cooking. They also are not fond of Americanized versions of Chinese food (things like General Tso’s Chicken), and they value meal times as a chance to interact with one another. (One anecdote in the book says that Chinese food is often sticky because Chinese people like to bond with each other.) Chinatowns, then, provide a strong social experience through the food they offer, and this is far more important to the Chinese immigrants and Chinese-American populations than material things one might find for sale. Even fortune cookies, which are distinctly an American thing, play a role in this culture, since many immigrants have had jobs making these once-exotic desserts by hand (though that process is largely automated by factories today).

The upshot of reading this book is that I’ll never look at Chinatowns quite the same way again, and I hope it has also opened my eyes up a bit to the influence of Chinese culture on the United States. The downside is that I’ve realized I really know next-to-nothing about China and I should spend more time reading up on it this year; it’s a huge country populated by a billion people, and it’s complex and vast enough that even those who’ve spent a lifetime living there never really learn about life beyond their province. I’d like to know much, much more.

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