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Where EAST meets the Northwest

CHINATOWNS WORLDWIDE. Travelling to San Francisco, New York, London, Hong Kong, Lima, Singapore, and Penang, Globe Trekker’s "Chinatown" episode discovers the magic, mystery, and multiculturalism of Chinatowns around the globe. The show airs Saturday, January 24 on Oregon Public Broadcasting. Pictured are Lunar New Year revellers dressed in Year of the Dog outfits (left) and a fortune seeker in Hong Kong. (Photos courtesy of Pilot Productions USA)

From The Asian Reporter, V19, #2 (January 13, 2009), page 16.

Globe Trekker tours the world’s great Chinatowns

By Allison Rupp

If you don’t have a Chinatown, you’re not a real city," says Lavinia Tan, one of the hosts of the Globe Trekker travel show in the "Chinatown" episode. With 34 million Chinese living overseas, this isn’t as boastful as it sounds.

The word Chinatown conjures images of the exotic within the familiar — of unusual and even frightening foods cooked up right under your nose, throngs of people uttering strange sounds, and characters whose meaning is lost on Western eyes.

"Chinatown," which airs on Oregon Public Broadcasting this month, explores the Chinatowns non-Chinese have been fascinated and delighted by, whether in New York City, San Francisco, London, or elsewhere, as well as the history that led them to be constructed.

Soy sauce and coconut milk

The first stop on the Globe Trekker tour is Penang, Malaysia, where Chinatown has existed, distinct from Malaysian society, since the 1400s, when Chinese tradesmen poured into the prosperous trading post.

Though the separation between one culture and another seems less stark than, say, China and England, the paradoxes of a Southeast Asian Chinatown exist. The bubbly Ms. Tan samples traditional combinations such as squid and soy sauce, but laden with local coconut milk. The Chinese still live within their five clans, but on jetties of stilt houses built into the sea.

Singapore provides another glimpse at an Asian Chinatown, where each nationality, whether Chinese, Malaysian, or Indian, was partitioned off into its own area of the city.

In Singapore’s Chinatown, the separation between past and present seems particularly fluid, as a woman describes walking through the area in her youth, smelling opium wafting through open doors and seeing the houses’ sleeping inhabitants stacked nearly on top of each other in the stifling heat.

In the Americas

When in the middle of the 1800s the British began trading the Chinese workers of their Southeast Asian colonies to Peru to work in the sugar trade, no one imagined they would remain in the country and put their stamp on the native culture in some of the most unique ways shown in this hour-long episode.

Some viewers may cringe as a Chinese-Peruvian chef prepares his specialty chifa dish — a guinea pig slaughtered, deep fried, and doused in hot chili sauce. Easier on the eyes but no less unusual is the Chinese-Peruvian fashion scene, mixing silk and alpaca fabrics in a bold combination.

As the episode ventures to North America, following the first free Chinese settlers to the California Gold Rush, the story meanders from a cheesy gold-rush reenactment site to many of the better scenes in "Chinatown," including a visit to the Chinese frontier town of Locke, California and a walking tour with three enthusiastic teens of San Francisco’s Chinatown. (For anyone who ever wondered where fortune cookies originated, the answer lies here.)

Jetting across the U.S., the whirlwind tour continues in New York City, where we meet still-life photographer Corky Lee, whose briefly exhibited photos of Manhattan’s Chinatown hint at the history of this cramped place where little room is left for relics.

By now the well-known sights of Chinatown such as street food and dragon dances feel like familiar territory, so Globe Trekker ventures in a fresh direction by interviewing Chinese-American veterans of World War II, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War during a parade on the street.

To hear a dignified elderly Chinese man speaking with a New York accent, one feels not everything about Chinatown is as exotic or inaccessible as it seems.

The Soho connection

The episode wraps up with a visit to London, where Chinese immigrants have settled in the Soho district, and a return to Hong Kong, where ironically the British expats have taken to Hong Kong’s own Soho district.

Coming full circle, "Chinatown" interviews Chinese immigrants born and raised overseas returning to the "original" Chinatown, Hong Kong, drawn back by the excellent living conditions and laissez faire economic policies they once sought elsewhere.

The rest of the world can only hope Chinatowns may still be birthed, turning ordinary towns into truly colorful cities.

"Chinatown" airs Saturday, January 24 from 8:00 to 9:00pm and January 26 from midnight to 1:00am on Oregon Public Broadcasting. To learn more, call (503) 293-1982, or visit <> or <>.