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From The Asian Reporter, V19, #33 (August 25, 2009), page 11.
Reclaiming Chinatown in American Chinatown
American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods
By Bonnie Tsui
Free Press, 2009
Hardcover, 263 pages, $25.00
By Marie Lo
Bonnie Tsui’s American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods is an intimate look at a cultural icon of Chinese immigration and settlement in the United States. Part memoir, part oral history, part travel writing, part geography, and part ethnography, Tsui takes Chinatown as an organizing trope to present a complex view of Chinese and Chinese-American experiences. The book reclaims Chinatown from its stereotypically touristy and exotic image and reveals the lives of the people who call it home.
"Chinatown," writes Tsui, "is a physical space, but it’s also an idea. It presents the question of how an immigrant cultural heritage can survive in a life otherwise lived in mainstream America." Tsui’s book presents the multi-faced ways in which Chinese and Chinese Americans navigate the physical space and the idea of Chinatown in five very different cities: San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Las Vegas.
In her deft portrayal, Tsui captures not only the history of Chinese immigration and settlement. Her portrait of the inhabitants of Chinatown offers insight into the broader experiences of U.S. immigration in addition to the daily negotiations and compromises immigrants must contend with in order to survive. According to Tsui, "Chinatowns are a microcosm of their respective cities." Understanding the distinct personalities of each Chinatown becomes an effective way of understanding the evolution of Chinese culture and the lived realities of the Chinese diaspora.
Tsui, a former editor of Travel and Leisure, has written many travel pieces for publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and National Geographic Adventure. Her first book, She Went to the Field: Women Soldiers of the Civil War (2003), tells the stories of soldiers whose contributions are often ignored in conventional histories of the Civil War. She is also the editor of A Leaky Tent is a Piece of Paradise: 20 Young Writers on Finding a Place in the Natural World (2007), a collection about nature by writers younger than 30. In American Chinatown, she brings her well-trained traveller’s eyes to her own cultural roots. The result is a well-paced, folksy, engaging account that provides a perspective on Chinatown from the inside out.
Though the organizing framework of her book is Chinatown, Tsui’s stories resonate beyond geographic boundaries, exploring issues and experiences that resonate for those who do not live in Chinatown.
For example, San Francisco’s Chinatown, the oldest in the country and a popular tourist destination, becomes the lens through which Chinese immigration history is explored. The story of New York’s Chinatown is also a story about labor struggles in the garment factories and in the fortune cookie industry. Chinatown in Los Angeles, immortalized in many Hollywood movies, provides an occasion to explore Chinese stereotypes in the media and the unfortunate practice of "yellow face." The Honolulu Chinatown offers a unique window into how Chinese culture is both preserved and evolves in a culturally and racially diverse city. The Las Vegas Chinatown describes a new kind of Chinatown, one in which the concept of a Chinese cultural center precedes the concentration of Chinese inhabitants. It also describes the lives of the newer generation of Chinese immigrants, many of whom work in casinos.
In fact, the most interesting section is the one on the Las Vegas Chinatown. A lot has been written on the other, more established Chinatowns. But the Las Vegas Chinatown, which began as a mall, was founded in the mid-’90s by James Chen, an immigrant from Taiwan. And unlike the other Chinatowns, which were settled by Chinese immigrants out of necessity, the Las Vegas Chinatown is primarily a shopping area; the Chinese population is more scattered throughout the city. It is, according to Chen, "the first master-planned Chinatown" that caters to Chinese tourists as well as to Chinese residents.
But beyond these large issues and historical arc, it is the multi-generational portraits of inhabitants of Chinatowns that bring the book to life. We meet Rosa Wong-Chie, who grew up in a crowded single-room-occupancy apartment in San Francisco and now works as a coordinator for Chinatown Alleyway Tours. The program promotes youth leadership by training kids who grew up in Chinatown to give tours. We are also introduced to Feng Ying Jiang, a garment worker in New York who stood up against her sweatshop employers and demanded decent wages. We meet Glenn Chu, an accidental chef in Honolulu who calls himself "chop suey," a reflection of the hybridized cultural influences that shape his upbringing as well as his cooking. We follow the story of Crystal Yuan, the first Miss Chinatown Las Vegas, who subsequently found a community when she visited San Francisco and met other Miss Chinatowns.
Tsui’s well-written and lively oral history has something for everyone. For readers who have never visited these Chinatowns, Tsui’s descriptive and evocative writing transforms the tourist traps into intimate and familial spaces where Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans live. And for those who know the places well, she stirs the memories and senses such that the pleasure of reading becomes a form of homecoming.