Chinatown: Conflicting Images, Contested Terrain

By Wong, K. Scott | MELUS, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Chinatown: Conflicting Images, Contested Terrain

Wong, K. Scott, MELUS

Ever since Chinese immigrants in America began forming communities in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, their residential, business, and cultural space, generally referred to as "Chinatown," has been layered with imagery. These images, largely negative and demeaning, have usually been flamed by observers who did not live in Chinatown, and who had little connection to or stake in the community. Conversely, they had reason to want the elimination of the Chinese-American community in the United States, or at least its complete segregation. This, along with the passing of restrictive immigration bills, was a primary tactic of the exclusionist movement's drive to keep Chinese immigrants from entering American society. Unfortunately, it has been these representations that have dictated the terms of the discourse concerning American Chinatowns and that have mediated the perceptions of Chinatown held by many Chinese, Chinese-Americans, and Euro-Americans.

Portrayals of Chinatown constructed by observers and writers who focused on what they found repugnant about Chinese life in America actually reveal more about the observers than the observed and disclose broader racial and class biases. Analysis of such representations of Chinese communities in the United States readily indicate that conflicting "Chinatown images" are part of much larger sociopolitical agendas, which make of Chinatown a "contested terrain" in the attempt to define and reinforce notions of American and Chinese culture. Similarly, when Chinese writers sought to refute the charges leveled against the Chinese immigrant community, they were put in the position of having to define what Chinatown was not, rather than developing a language in the popular discourse that could establish what Chinatown was.

This essay presents a selection of representations of American Chinatowns found in a variety of American and Chinese sources, ranging from popular periodicals, transcripts of government hearings, labor pamphlets, travel diaries, and film. By placing these images in their historical context, it becomes clear that impressions and depictions of "Chinatown" have been used for sociopolitical purposes that have much more to do with the agendas of the framers of these representations than they do with the residents of Chinatown. The term "conflicting images" has two layers of meaning in this piece. In some cases it refers to the contrast between representations of Chinatown and Euro-American communities, and at other times it points to examples of Euro-American hostility toward the Chinese immigrant community, referring to the social conflict between the two communities. In both usages, these images served as "weapons" in the larger sociopolitical "battles" that made up the anti-Chinese movement in which difference was used for negative political purposes. Chinatown became a site of negation and definition. Conflicting images were used to portray a community that was forever foreign to American sensibilities and completely unacceptable. At the same time, these images perversely helped define what American communities "ought" to be like: clean, without odor, safe, and Christian. Viewed in this manner, portrayals of Chinatown had as much to do with Euro-American images of themselves as they did of the Chinese immigrant community, a community under siege from both sides of this cultural encounter.

Some of the most virulent images of Chinatown appeared in popular periodicals, government documents, and labor union pamphlets of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. These images tended to cluster around a number of common themes: the physical "mysteriousness" of Chinatown, unsanitary living conditions, immoral activities, and the general Otherness of the Chinese themselves, all of which contrasted with familiar idealized images of "American" communities. For example, Chinatown was described by one travel magazine writer as, "an agglomeration of Oriental paganism, [with] reeking sidewalks, foul with unknown trash, the nauseous odors vomited from black cellars; the wilderness of alleys. …

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