What’s American About Chinatown?
Woody Allen once said: “I’m astounded by people who want to ‘know’ the universe when it’s hard enough to find your way around Chinatown.” Sadly, Woody didn’t know Bonnie Tsui when he made that statement. Tsui, a regular contributor to the New York Times, is currently enjoying the release of her latest book American Chinatown, in which she visits and reports on five vital and unique American Chinatown communities — New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Las Vegas — to form a series of elucidating images of what these communities mean to their people as well as those of us who would look at them from a distance. In the end, Chinatown comes to mean something larger about the nature of traveling in search of Otherness, but at the same time the book provides a deep look at what makes each of these communities tick. Tsui, also a gifted visual artist, drew her own maps and shot photos for her book. She recently took time from an extensive radio interview and press schedule to speak about some of these issues and tell us the dirty truth about the Las Vegas Miss Chinatown pageant, debunk Chinatown lore as produced by Hollywood, and discuss why people still need to embark on travels into manufactured corridors of cultural kitsch.
Adam Baer: You didn’t grow up in a Chinatown, right? So why do Chinatowns feel like home to you?
Bonnie Tsui: No, I didn’t grow up in Chinatown; my parents came through New York’s Chinatown in the late 1960′s, and my grandparents arrived there even earlier, in 1960. I was the first generation of my family to be born in America, and that was in Flushing, Queens — now home to the largest population of Chinese in New York City. But even though I grew up mostly in Long Island, we always went back to Chinatown to do Chinese things: shopping, wedding banquets, visits with family. So it was the home, in a way, for my Chinese self. That informed my identity as I got older and began to wonder about how I really wanted to incorporate Chinese culture into my own adult life.
AB: And how did you want to incorporate it? Did you see yourself as a kid with two selves: a non-Chinese self and Chinese self?
BT: I certainly did as a child: I remember very vividly this incident in elementary school, when I accidentally spoke Chinese in the classroom to another student. When I realized it, I felt such shame — it was the first time I made that distinction between my Chinese and non-Chinese worlds. I think, as a young adult, I began to reconcile those two, and to feel more control over it. When I began working in New York after college, I started taking Cantonese language lessons with a Mr. Wen down on Grand Street in Chinatown, to learn the kind of vocabulary related to politics, travel, journalism, that I never learned at home. I went into the neighborhood to shop, eat with friends, do daily things. And it felt liberating in a way because it was my choice to do so.
AB: Was it less than liberating to visit Chinatown as a Chinese-American kid from the suburbs?
BT: Hah — it felt forced. My brother and my two cousins and I always complained about going, about being dragged there, about having to speak Chinese to our relatives. There was guilt — so Chinese! — and delight at being able to speak Chinese when we could. And there was shame when we felt tongue-tied.
AB: So some Chinese-Americans would seem to hate Chinatowns given some of the conversations I have had with colleagues. What do you think is a chief rationale for this feeling?
BT: I wouldn’t say hate, but it’s true that some Chinese Americans dislike them. The rationale for that differs from generation to generation: if you’re a new immigrant who doesn’t have much choice but to live there, because you don’t speak English and you can’t afford to live anywhere else, you feel trapped; if you’re a fourth-generation adult who has never had much intimate connection with the neighborhood on a functional level, maybe you just think it’s touristy and dirty and kitschy.
AB: What is the chief difference between Chinatowns and other ethnic neighborhoods, such as Little Italy regions?
BT: I would say that Chinatowns have a continuing influx of new immigrants that keeps the neighborhood vital, as a living, functional community. Little Italy is no longer a place where new Italian immigrants come to because they have to. Chinatown is still that kind of a place, because it has the services and the kinship ties that keep the chain of migration going. Language, of course, is the chief difficulty for new immigrants.
AB: What about the looking-in aspect? Has visitor traffic to Chinatowns — most of them, as opposed to say the Chinatown-mall in Las Vegas — decreased over the years as non-Chinese Americans have grown more accustomed to Asian Americans involved in so many aspects of mainstream American life? Is Chinatown really still a place that provides a sense of Otherness for Americans? Or maybe the Otherness has become more about kitsch?
BT: You know, that’s an interesting question. I can’t speak to the visitor numbers specifically, but San Francisco’s Chinatown still ranks among the top attractions in the city for tourists, right up there with the Golden Gate Bridge. The funny thing is that people still perceive Chinatown as “other” even though the Chinese have been here for 150 years. Chinatown in this country is older than the Statue of Liberty. And yet in 1882, we passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law to ban immigration based on race or country of origin. It still is a place that provides a foreign-yet-familiar feeling for Americans. If you ask people why they like it, even today, so many of them will tell you that it’s because they feel like they’re in a foreign country when they’re in Chinatown.
AB: I’ll be honest: I often feel more foreign in a Hasidic Jewish community. And while I’m a secular Jew, I had very religious grandparents who survived the Holocaust. But maybe I’ve just been to a lot of Chinatowns…
BT: Well, that definitely speaks to the “familiar” part of the “foreign-yet-familiar” feeling surrounding Chinatown…!
AB: Well put. Moving on, I’m not sure this is a question, but some guy once told me that there are more Armenian people in Glendale, C.A. than in any other part of the world other than Armenia. Then he joked, with a hefty dose of political incorrectness, one might say, that he was sure that if he visited Armenia, it would look like Glendale. How has the visual aspect of America’s Chinatowns changed over the years?
BT: That’s a funny anecdote… Chinatowns seem to have become more tourist-focused over the years, but it’s not entirely true if you look at San Francisco’s Chinatown (and New York’s). There were people going into Chinatown as tourists from the 1850′s onward; you can find guidebooks from the early 1900′s that tell you all about the exotic, nefarious experiences you’re going to have when you visit! From opium dens to gambling havens, and so on. Some people even acted out fake muggings and altercations as theater then, for the sake of the tourists’ entertainment. But those negative stereotypes didn’t work out so well. When you consider that San Francisco’s Chinese American merchants had the Chinatown rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake to appeal to tourists as a nice Oriental village — to depart from the idea of it being this dirty, disease-ridden place — it seems that the physical Sinophilic architecture of the neighborhood has quite a long history and is not so recent after all.
AB: Speaking of a long history, how long have you spent writing this book, and don’t say “All my life!”
BT: Holy cow. I have been relying on the figure of three years, but I realize that it has probably been more like five or six years. The last three years have been the most intensive. (Consider that I originally wanted to write a book about Chinatowns around the world.)
AB: OK. So given all that time spent on this thing, and given how many radio interviews and speaking engagements you’ve already done, are you ever just sick of saying the word “Chinatown”? Do you ever think you’ll be sick of it? Is your next book going to be about boring places that lack color, language, and culture?
BT: I actually laughed out loud at this one. I sometimes veer to the side of, “Am I just repeating myself? Does anyone even find this interesting?” And by the time I finished the book, I was quite tired of the topic. But I suppose that’s the beauty of a long publishing schedule — it gave me some time to regroup. The publicity for the book has been great because it has allowed me to connect and have fascinating conversations with people who never knew much about the neighborhood and its residents; it has also given me the chance to talk with people who have never talked about their own feelings toward their cultural heritage and identity. And I feel very lucky about that.
AB: I will now respectfully remind you that you evaded the question – well, part of it: Do you get tired of the actual word “Chinatown”?
BT: Hmm… sure. In the way I get tired of my own name. Or telling people how to pronounce “Tsui.” (Rhymes with “Oy” — of “Oy vey.”)
AB: What, in your experience, is funny about Chinatowns? (Both funny-strange, and straight-up funny.)
BT: Funny strange… tourists don’t have any compunction about gawking or taking pictures. Sometimes the residents don’t care — they’re so used to it. But sometimes they really do care — like, why do you feel that you can come to my doorstep and take pictures of me in my personal space? It’s kind of an invasion of privacy when you realize that the outdoor spaces, in the alleys, in the parks, are considered an extension of the indoor spaces for many people. Funny funny… I have always liked how the little old ladies of Chinatown are the best at linebacking their way through a crowd. It’s really a lifetime skill.
AB: Wait — interjection — when and where do tourists show restraint in taking pictures and invading people’s spaces/lives?
BT: Um, never?
AB: Yes, so why is that specific to Chinatowns?
BT: Perhaps I find it strange because it happens so close to home. Right next to the mundane action of downtown. Who takes pictures of people in suits going to work?
AB: Only weirdos like me who try to get slice-of-life photos for travel articles. You got me. So, let’s get really serious. The Miss Chinatown contest in Las Vegas. Your impressions?
BT: Unfortunately, the Miss Chinatown Las Vegas pageant only happened once — the parents of the girls got way too crazy and competitive in the follow-up (why do beauty pageants have that tendency to end in a bloodbath?), and founder James Chen didn’t want to deal with headache of putting it on anymore. But you can still go to the annual contests in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Honolulu…
AB: Are these local competitions that feed one big American showdown?
BT: Yes — the one big American showdown happens in San Francisco every year.
AB: You will have to post the date on your Web site. In which Chinatown do/did you feel the most foreign? Which one makes you feel like a suburban kid from Long Island? Sans the accent.
BT: I think San Francisco’s Chinatown really did make me feel the most foreign. Because a lot of Chinese have been here for so many generations, and they have a stronger, more solid connection to “Chinese-American” than I do, I think. The history here is very palpable, and the larger culture here respects that. The population of New York’s Chinatown in many ways is still viewed as foreign — and so many of its immigrants are so very new — even though it’s familiar.
AB: Are Chinatowns dangerous as silly lore would have us believe, and if so which one’s the most dangerous?
BT: I would say that this “crime/gang” idea has dogged Chinatown for a long time, and for the most part it’s not really true anymore. Where it has been true most recently is with human trafficking in New York’s Chinatown, as is documented in Patrick Radden Keefe’s new book, The Snakehead — he did some serious true-crime investigation. I do mention it in my book, but I didn’t really focus on this aspect of the community, but rather on the everyday trials and tribulations of ordinary people in Chinatown.
AB: What’s the book’s chief takeaway message?
BT: That Chinatown is a place of memory. It does mean all sorts of mundane things: home, work, school, shopping, eating, hanging out. Everyday life. At the same time, it means all kinds of larger ideas, on a personal as well as a larger societal level: community, kinship, survival, the trials and tribulations of the immigrant experience. It’s a reminder of the racism that has historically dogged America’s past; it speaks to the extraordinary multiethnic tapestry that is this country today. All of these things make Chinatown remarkable.
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