Why There Will Always Be Chinatowns

Many Chinatowns across the U. S. and Canada have been physically reduced and replaced by redevelopment and gentrification. One wonders whether historic Chinatowns will continue to disappear from the landscape or at least relocate to different parts of cities.

Unfortunately, the "idea" of Chinatowns is alive and well through the societal perpetuation of a stereotype of Chinese as forever foreign, strangers in a strange land, oriental and exotic.

Consider the iconic 1910 song, Chinatown, My Chinatown,

When the town is fast asleep, and it's midnight in the sky, 
That's the time the festive chink starts to wink his other eye, 
Starts to wink his dreamy eye, lazily you'll hear him sigh.

Strangers taking in the sights, pigtails flying here and there. 
See that broken wall street sport, still thinks he's a millionaire. 
Still thinks he's a millionaire, pipe dreams banish every care.  

Chinatown, my Chinatown,
When the lights are low
Hearts that know no other land, 
Drifting to and fro
Dreamy, dreamy Chinatown
Almond eyes of brown
Hearts are light and lights are bright
In dreamy Chinatown
Chinatown, my Chinatown

The lyrics of the main verse may seem upon to be a song of endearment but a closer reading shows that the "dreamy dreamy Chinatown" refers to how pervasive opium smoking in Chinatown leads to "Hearts are light and lights are bright." This imagery casts Chinatown in a negative light.

A 1929 sing-along cartoon entitled Chinatown, My Chinatown by Max Fleisher also mocks the Chinese and at the 2:35 mark, uses the song's lyrics to accompany his ridicule.

Another popular image of Chinatowns focuses on tong wars. In the 1920s, rival Chinese tongs fought bloody battles on the streets of Chinatowns. Hollywood and pulp fiction writers often seized on this aspect of Chinese gangs, which both frightened and captivated the public. In 1929, a movie, Tong War, exploited these sensational activities.

The description of the plot emphasizes that the story involves "a white woman among yellow men." She is supposedly "mysteriously attracted to Chinatown," which is of course, "sinister and secretive." The audience is encouraged to come see if "she is ever seen or heard of again by her uptown society friends." No unemployed high school dropout is she, but rather a member of the upper crust who has succumbed to the temptations of the evil yellow men.

The story line bears a strong resemblance to the unsolved murder of a young white woman, Elsie Sigel, who taught English to Chinese men in New York Chinatown.  In 1909, her dead body was found stuffed in a trunk in the living quarters of a Chinese man, Leon Ling, who was the prime suspect. but never apprehended. This tragic case led to public suspicion of Chinese men all over the country,

Of course, much has changed since the 1920s, and Chinese have gained respect through their achievements and contributions in many fields over the almost 100 years since the Tong wars ended. But the theme of evil yellow men, tong wars, and chop suey is down but by no means dead.
A pulp fiction mystery, with the inappropriate title, Chop Suey, of recent vintage continues to exploit the tong wars.

Although the plot has nothing to do with American Chinese food, the title Chop Suey, is used to evoke a long standing but now antiquated association with Chinese people.  Incidentally, judging from the photograph below, it appears that the restaurant sign on the book cover was based on one from a vintage Chinese restaurant in Kingston, New York.

A teaser for the book is the following "recipe."

Add one lovable dope looking for love.
Layer in a vicious serial killer.
Throw in a couple of gang members. 
Mix in a pair of Chinatown detectives.
Combine it with Ling Chi, death by 1,000 cuts.
And you have the perfect recipe for Chop Suey.

Stereotypes may fade, but they never seem to die.


Boston Chinese Welcome Reformer in 1903

History acknowledges the importance of Sun Yat Sen in leading the Chinese revolution in 1911 that overthrew the Emperor Dowager, Cixi. Little attention is given to her other opposition, the Empire Reform Association which also wanted to promote societal changes to develop a modern China, but it also wanted to restore the monarchy to the rightful Emperor Guangsu, rather than abolish it.

Many Chinese in Canada and the U. S. were supporters of this rival to Sun Yat Sen's movement. Several hundred chapters of the Empire Reform Association (Bao haunghui, Protect the Emperor Society) were established in North America.

One indication of the strong support from Overseas Chinese was an enthusiastic reception that one of its principal leaders, Leong Kai Chew (aka Liang Qichao) received on his 1903 visit to Boston.

This is another instance where historians recognize the winners and relegate the losers to the 'dustbin of history.'


Chinese Americans Do Not All Look, Think, or Act Alike

         What exactly defines a "Chinese American?"  The term is generally used, and accepted, as if people labelled as such are very homogenous. Compared to the distant past, say, the 1930s, the variety of people who could be categorized as, or call themselves, "Chinese Americans" has become increasingly more varied as the "face" of Chinese in America has changed greatly since the liberalized 1965 immigration law.

        Accordingly, one might think the content of Chinese American history would be more varied to reflect the many subgroups of Chinese coming from different parts of China and other parts of the world. Compared with the earlier immigrants from Guangdong, mostly poor, less educated, and speakers of dialects of Cantonese, many of the recent immigrants from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China are wealthy, educated, Mandarin speaking professionals.  There are also growing numbers of Fujianese immigrants at the other end of the socioeconomic ladder. These groups are arguably all Chinese. To what extent do these groups interact with each other socially, politically, culturally? How well do they get along with each other, how much are they aware of each other? Why or why not? My observations suggest they do not mingle much and may even not feel much respect toward each other.

           Most non-Chinese are unaware of these differences and generally see all of these groups as Chinese or Chinese Americans.  There are many social, political, and psychological aspects of these differences that should be researched, but don't yet seem to be adequately reflected in the historical analyses of Chinese America.  We may all "look the same" to outsiders, but looks can be deceiving.

        A different, but related issue of importance, is the relationship between Chinese in China and  Chinese in America, especially those born or long time residents in the U. S.  Although the Chinese in America and those in China are worlds apart in many respects, many non-Chinese tend to see us as members of one large group, Chinese.  And, while most American Born Chinese (ABCs) and even some Fresh Off the Plane (FOPs) and older Fresh Off the Boat (FOBs) experience some pride in many aspects of China's improved world status, we recognize that many policies and practices of Chinese in China are deplorable and dangerous.  And, what is worse, is that as U. S.- China relationships go, so will the way that we Chinese in America will be treated, or mistreated. If you doubt, just recall what happened to Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. History is known to repeat itself.

       The important impact of history can also be seen in our daily personal lives.  Many of us of a certain age have or had parents who were immigrants from China who came during the Great Depression and lived during World War II, and the Cold War, etc.   A"generation gap" existed between them and us that involved differences of values, facility with English and Chinese language, etc.  Now we have grown up, and most have become parents, (and for many, grandparents), we can see that there is still a "generation gap" between us and our adult, or adolescent, offspring but it is qualitatively different from the one that existed between us and our parents. Why? Because the historical era during which each generation grows up is typically quite different.  My parents grew up in difficult times in China while I grew up during the prosperous post WW II boom times.  My children, in turn, grew up in the 70s and 80s, which were markedly different from the 50s.

         This is a long-winded way of raising this question:  How was the relationship that you had with your parents different from the one you have (had) with your children? Implicit in this comparison is the impact of history.  That is, what was going on in the world when you were growing up is quite different from the world in which your children grew up.  History tries to explain the past, but not always accurately, since it is continually rewritten, but my real question is whether we can use history to predict the characteristics of Chinese in America in the future.


Foo Lee, A Chinese laundryman "Lance Armstrong"?

Most Chinese laundrymen probably did not have the time, skills, or inclination to compete in bicycle races but in 1897 Foo Lee of Niles, Michigan, not only competed against "Americans" in a race but he beat them handily.  The New York Times article concluded: "Sporting men are trying to induce Foo Lee to give up the laundry business and devote himself to racing."

News of Foo Lee's feat was spread across the country in newspapers in large as well as small towns across the United States.  Many of the headers referred to him as "Chinaman" and some had a condescending tone such as "No More Washee."
There was no further news about Foo Lee and subsequent cycling triumphs so it might be assumed that he resumed his occupation as a laundryman in Niles, Michigan after his brief moment of "Linsanity."


Chinese Exclusion Continued Within U. S. Borders

Chinese Exclusion is usually viewed as the prevention of Chinese laborers from entering the United States based on the laws passed by Congress in 1882 for a decade, renewed for another decade in 1892, and made permanent in 1902 until its repeal in 1943.

However, Chinese who succeeded in gaining entry still faced other forms of exclusion for many years.  A sample of Oakland, California newspaper ads at the end of the 19th century did not hide policies of Chinese exclusion. Some white hotels and rooming houses excluded Chinese employees and lodgers, some white laundries would not hire Chinese, and a shirt manufacturer would not employ Chinese sewers or launderers.

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