Current reading Bonnie Tsui’s American Chinatown

Bonnie Tsui’s American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods has been on my radar and list of books so read since its publication in August 2009. But it took completing the Canadian “counterpart” in Paul Yee’s Chinatown and US travel this fall to finally read this volume.

Tsui is a travel writer just a year older than I am who speaks only Cantonese. Thus the book is written in plain language (i.e., not scholarly) and the transliteration of Chinese was to the pronunciation I am familiar with.

As it turns out, I have technically been to every Chinatown covered in the book. That is, I have a good feeling that when I went to San Francisco when I was seven or so it was very likely that I was taken to Chinatown. I went to LA in 2005, NY in 2009 and November 2011 and Honolulu and Las Vegas within a month of each other this fall. Trips to the last two cities really put the push on me to finally read this book!

As when I reviewed Paul Yee’s Chinatown, there are no real spoilers and I just wanted to share my impressions of the information imparted. Here are the Chinatowns, in the order that I read about them.

  • San Francisco: To start things off, Tsui went to San Francisco, the oldest. I didn’t know what was so remarkable about these chapters afterall. It was interesting how Tsui described her father’s impression of Chinatown when he arrived in America. He thought it look “old”, older than parts of Hong Kong’s historic Kowloon District at the time and you’d think an American Chinatown would be ultra modern and clean by comparison. Instead, Chinatown had “Chinese” flourishes that hadn’t been used in China for decades. Like many a Chinatown story, the San Francisco Chinatown had occasion to rebuild and at that point, a conscientious decision is made by architects and planners to sell a fake China to tourists who wouldn’t know better. The original Chinatown buildings before the 1906 earthquake were Western in style, made of brick with Victorian facades and balconies. In actual fact, and it is true for many Chinatowns, it is a “gilded ghetto”–tourists visit and spend money and it seems shiny and possibly rich to them but poverty lies beneath the surface.
  • Honolulu: While Chinese people went to California during the gold rush, some ended up in Hawaii to work on sugar and pineapple plantations. In Hawaii, Chinese people were allowed to own land earlier than they were on the mainland–they attained affluence earlier and thus left Chinatown earlier. It was a social center before it was a GI red light district and now revitalization is taking place and it is an arts district with a successful monthly arts night. Tsui visited Fong Chan who has an art shop. Hawaii is a culturally diverse place with a good deal of integration and Tsui posits that that is reflected in Chinatown.
    Personally, I wasn’t impressed with Chinatown in the least in Honolulu and was quite saddened by it. It was dotted with some of those art shops and it felt like a ghost town at lunch time on a weekday. I was only most impressed by the wet market that we cut through Mauna Kea Marketplace in search of the archives. There is no wet market in Vancouver or Toronto. I, coming from a place with no Chinatown am still curious (if disappointed) in Honolulu’s Chinatown. NPY, who comes from a place with a real Chinatown, didn’t think it qualified as a Chinatown.
  • Las Vegas: Las Vegas has a Chinatown?! Yes, Las Vegas has a Chinatown, completely manufactured like the rest of the modern Strip. While the Chinese population in Las Vegas is not insignificant, it took Taiwanese American developer James Chen to come along and create “Chinatown” in Las Vegas. The first all-Asian plaza, Chinatown Plaza, unabashedly adorned with pagoda roofs opened in 1995, which is around the time Pacific Mall mall opened in Toronto. Chen had quite a bit to live up to but the native population, Chinese tourists seeking authentic Chinese food and all other tourists provide a sufficient base. An additional plaza, several more on the horizon and four years later, the Spring Mountain Road area 1.4 miles off the Strip was officially designated as Chinatown. In 2002, the first and only Miss Chinatown Las Vegas was crowned. I had to laugh at the strategic motivation to promote a pageant. A beautiful and eloquent pageant queen was good for promoting Chinatown, better than old businessmen! Tsui also visited a gambling school at which many Chinese new to Las Vegas learn the skills to land jobs in the casinos–it sounded like a fun part of the research.
    Since we went to Las Vegas shortly after Hawaii, NPY was skeptical when I wanted to visit Chinatown in Las Vegas. He hadn’t heard of it before but his parents quickly approved of going off-Strip for meals in Chinatown. They go all of the time when they are not getting cheap Chinese food at the Rio and Gold Coast. We were returning from a visit to Zion National Park and in the mood for solid Chinese/Asian food and drove down Spring Mountain Road. I was utterly gleeful to see the big plazas with pagoda roofs and not knowing exactly how many there were, happy to see one after the other. Chinatown Plaza, the original, was the one with all of its roofs lit up. We were spoiled for choices ended up eating there twice. Definitely impressed. I was also impressed that when you exit Chinatown Plaza, you wait to cross the intersection of Spring Mountain Road and Wynn Road. And straight ahead of you are the two towers of Wynn and Encore. For me, that was quite the moment.
  • New York: New York. It is the biggest, a city within a big city. The fascinating part was how Chinatown supported the New York fashion industry so integrally in the past. From imagining New York in a grittier and more industrial time and how Chinatown is largely ignored in the mainstream media at the time to Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation novel that takes place in a sweat shop, I was a bit swept away at the notion. Like Chinese immigrants fulfilling the patriotic dreams of American designers. Yet the amount of money they made was based on the number of pieces they finished. The crazy part was how the workers were not privy to which fashion house the clothes went to because there would be a rebellion if they knew exactly how much it sold for!
  • Los Angeles: When you’ve already covered San Francisco, the oldest, the original, why bother with LA even? As the seat of Hollywood and origin of American pop culture, LA’s Chinatown played a special part. If a production needed an “exotic location”, Chinatown could easily stand in for China. The classic film conflict is between good and evil and if Free America was good, then Communist China was easily the bad guy and we know how many movies of the 60s and later surrounded exactly that. It seemed like back in the heyday, any old bloke in Chinatown could get a part as an extra in many a Hollywood show or film. These days, it’s not so cool (or diplomatic or savvy) to make China out to be the bad guy. What I kept thinking about is how difficult it is for Asian-American actors to get good roles and the stereotypical roles that are often available to them. A casualty of previously acquiescing to Hollywood?

Throughout the visits to all the Chinatowns, a similar question was posed: what does Chinatown mean? The modern Chinatown (which now isn’t the “modern” Chinatown that is a new plaza in the suburbs, but the inner city one), is decorated to attract tourists and sells low-quality souvenirs. The Chinese immigrant and Chinese-American can see through it all but still find value. In any of the large cities, Chinatown is a cheaper place to live and a familiar environment for new immigrants with rocky English skills. Those who can get out do but a new generation born in America returns because there is something inherently familiar despite the fakeness. They find the real part and, short of a visit to China, that is how they connect with their culture. Chinatown and its essence have successfully replicated in American cities such that a Chinese-American can travel from American city to the next one and know what to expect. To some degree, that still holds true even in a very different country.


My own collection of American Chinatown images:

Chinatownland sign in LA is actually an art installation marrying Chinatown and Hollywood, the latter of which so often used Chinatown to stand in for a Chinese city.

Chinatown gate in Portland, Oregon.


New York City Chinatown (not the most representative images, I know)

Wo Fat Building in Honolulu Chinatown

My sad attempt at a panorama of the Chinatown Plaza in Las Vegas at night

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