1/11/12

Chinatown, My Chinatown?

           I have been fortunate to have presented talks on Chinese American history in the most important "Chinatowns" in the United States, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Chinatowns have changed substantially over the past century and a half.  They have become major tourist attractions where delicious, and often inexpensive Chinese food can be found along with often cheesy souvenirs as well as authentic Chinese clothing, art, jewelry, and furniture.  Chambers of Commerce proudly promotes their Chinatowns as a civic prize.  
            But the Chinese who actually live in and near Chinatowns also have a legitimate claim that it is their Chinatowns, and that they are not just places where sightseers, armed with arsenals of cameras, come to gawk and take pictures of "Orientals," pagodas, and chicken feet to take home to show folks back in mid-America.  For interspersed among the stores catering to tourists are markets and shops that serve the daily needs of residents of Chinatown who live in the crowded spaces of substandard living quarters above, and beside, the restaurants and curio shops.
            Chinatown inhabitants had their quarters stolen from them as far back as the early 1900s. Today, it is forgotten that Chinatowns, often relegated to the worst parts of town, were not attractive then to non Chinese.  They were to be avoided as dangerous and sinful places plagued by tong wars, opium dens, prostitutes, and gambling halls.  Racial intolerance of Chinese did not allow them to live outside of Chinatowns; Chinese felt safer from physical harm by staying in the enclave.  If they crossed the boundaries into other territory, they would be beaten, if not killed.
          Then, by the 1900s Chinatowns were discovered and reinvented as tourist attractions, and they were rebuilt to be Oriental "Theme Parks," with exotic pagodas and other decorations emblematic of Chinese culture.  Chop suey became the gastronomic and economic engine that triggered the new fascination with Chinatown, as reflected by the popular 1910 classic ode to Chinatown.



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


The songwriters, William Jerome and Jean Schwartz, clearly took the perspective of outsiders, as their song concludes that, "Hearts seem light and life seem bright in dreamy Chinatown," which is hardly a true reflection of the condition of most of the  Chinese.  Perhaps, the songwriters were making a veiled reference to the soporific effects of opium on Chinese as in the lyric: 
            
            Drifting to and fro, Dreamy, dreamy Chinatown.


This suspicion is supported by the two rarely sung opening stanzas of the song. 


WHEN THE TOWN IS FAST A-SLEEP, AND IT'S MID-NIGHT IN THE SKY, THAT'S THE TIME THE FES-TIVE CHINK STARTS TO WINK HIS OTH-ER EYE, STARTS TO WINK HIS DREAM-Y EYE, LA-ZI-LY YOU'LL HEAR HIM SIGH. STRANG-ERS TA-KING IN THE SIGHTS, PIG-TAILS FLY-ING HERE AND THERE. SEE THAT BROK-EN WALL STREET SPORT, STILL THINKS HE'S A MIL-LION-AIRE. STILL THINKS HE'S A MIL-LION-AIRE, PIPE DREAMS BAN-ISH EV-'RY CARE.

No comments:

Post a Comment

About Me