8/14/12

Chinatown, My Chinatown Part II

"Chinatown" holds a certain mystique and charm whereas "Chinaman" is seen as insulting and demeaning. Yet, both labels share the effect of setting Chinese people apart from mainstream society by focusing on the exotic and oriental associations of Occidental supremacy that have existed for well over a century and a half in North America, and elsewhere outside of China.

In my earlier post on Chinatowns, I examined the romanticized exotic view of Chinatowns held by non-Chinese in contrast to the realistic and harsh view held by Chinese who worked and lived within its confines. Prior to the end of World War II, Chinese in San Francisco, and undoubtedly other communities, had no choice but to live in Chinatown because they were not allowed to buy, or sometimes rent, living quarters elsewhere.  Many lived in cramped quarters, often in cold water flats above storefronts where several families vied for use of communal kitchens and bathrooms.  After World War II as soon as they could afford it, Chinese moved their families away from the slums of Chinatowns to suburban spaces, returning only to shop and dine.

By the 1950s, Chinatowns like the iconic one in San Francisco showed signs that it might die as its residents moved away while urban renewal and freeways demolished parts or entire Chinatowns like those in Detroit and St. Louis. Then a reprieve came over the next several decades as new sources of Chinese immigrants, fresh off the boat (FOBs) with many of them on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, replaced the upwardly mobile American Born Children or ABCs of the second and latter generations.

There has been recent concern expressed in the national media about whether "Chinatowns" were again dying because immigration of Chinese was declining.  If Chinatowns die, it may be not for a lack of Chinese immigrants, but more to the irrelevance to the newer immigrants of the traditional Chinatowns that the Chamber of Commerce and Tourist Bureaus promote.  Whereas the pioneer Chinese immigrants from Guangdong from the mid-19th century up through the 1940s were generally poor, many Chinese immigrants in the last half of the 20th century from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Mainland China were well-heeled financially and highly educated.  They had no need or inclination to live in old Chinatowns, often located in the seedy part of town; they could afford to move into Menlo Park, Atherton, Hillsborough in northern California or into Monterey Park, San Marino, Arcadia in southern California.  Nor did they want to shop or dine in the old Chinatowns of the inner city; they created their own new "Chinatowns" in the ethnoburbs that did not bother to create a Chinese-y looking "theme park" to attract non-Chinese visitors.  The "Chinatown" of the San Gabriel Valley, unlike the inner city Chinatowns, goes on mile after mile stretching from Monterey Park and Alhambra through Arcadia and Rosemead to Rowland Heights and beyond.  From all appearances, it does not need, or at least depend on, tourists, for economic success. It is unabashedly Chinese in serving its growing and prosperous Chinese population, the majority of which was born outside of the U. S.

Like the 'good old days,' which turn out not to have been that good after all, "hearts were not as light and life was not as bright in dreamy Chinatown" as the classic song, Chinatown, My Chinatown, would have us believe.  This is not, by any means, to say that living in Chinatown had no redeeming value for its residents. It was a close-knit community, even if imposed from without, and people who grew up within its confines have fond memories and lifelong friendships forged from their common history and experiences. Ample evidence of this affection can be found in a Facebook page of over 1,000 members with nostalgic memories and emotional bonds to San Francisco's Chinatown.  Even though many (most?) members no longer live in the area or even visit it, they have created a "virtual Chinatown"for themselves!

Will the younger Chinese generation develop similar bonds to future Chinatowns? Frankly, I doubt it. Chinese can now live where ever they can afford and their contact with people of other ethnicities is more accepted.  Subtle discrimination against Chinese still lurks but there is much greater freedom for all ethnic groups to form friendships and even marriages that are do not require they be of the same ethnic background.  This is not to say that the younger generation of Chinese will not be interested in Chinese culture, concepts, and values but that they will not have to rely on living in a Chinatown to develop this identity.  If Chinatowns are to exist in the future, they may need to adapt to changing social circumstances.


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