Though Bonnie Tsui grew up in suburban Long Island, Chinatown was the epicenter of her Chinese-American life. Chinatown was where her grandparents worked and shopped for groceries, where her extended family celebrated weddings and christenings, and where, as an adult, she ate lunch and studied Chinese. Now Tsui has written American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods, an engaging exploration of Chinatown’s history and culture.
Although the book includes hand-drawn maps, this is not your standard tourist guide. Tsui looks beyond the gift shops and dim sum restaurants to see Chinatown through the eyes of its residents. She talks to scholars and shop owners, activists and immigrants, even teens. The result is a sharply drawn portrait of five Chinatowns—and of Chinatown as it has been writ large in the American imagination.
In San Francisco, Tsui learns that Chinatown’s “authentic” architecture was designed after the 1906 earthquake by white architects hired by Chinese merchants to make Chinatown more appealing to prejudiced white Americans. New York’s Chinatown was an economic powerhouse, employing recent immigrants and longtime residents in New York’s garment and restaurant industries. The Los Angeles Chinatown grew up hand-in-hand with Hollywood: its residents were hired for all kinds of Asian movie roles, and the image of Chinatown as mysterious, exotic and dangerous emerged from the silver screen as much as anywhere else. In Honolulu, where cultural mixing is the norm, Chinatown is pan-Asian, or, in the local vernacular, “kapakahi, Hawaiian for all mixed up.” A developer built Las Vegas’ Chinatown in the 1990s as a commercial enterprise—but it has since evolved into a real community.
These diverse Chinatowns also have many commonalities. Chinatown has always been a meeting point for tourism and ordinary life. Indeed, American Chinatown helps us understand how Chinatown—complex, conflicted and buffeted by the same forces of globalization, commercialization and gentrification that are transforming the rest of the country—is itself profoundly American.
Rebecca Steinitz is a writer in Arlington, Massachusetts.