When male Chinese immigrants came for the American dream and were left without work, they congregated in poor neighborhoods, opening laundry stores and restaurants. The results were Chinatowns scattered throughout the nation. These Asian American spaces hold the memories of the Asian American experience rather than any political tie to China, then or now. While some Chinatowns, like the ones in Philadelphia and New York, preserve this experience, others become inferior to dominant culture, like the one in Washington DC that includes Starbucks and Chipotle written in Chinese characters. In response to hegemonic pressure, Chinatowns are transforming into multicultural Asiatowns, which negatively overgeneralize Asian as East Asian.
Growing up, my family visited Chinatown every week to go grocery shopping and have an authentic ethnic meal. It wasn’t until high school when I travelled to California and found myself in a place called Japantown when it hit me that Chinatown was [supposed to be] related to China. I always associated it with being Asian in general. I didn’t think the stuff my family did was particularly Chinese…in fact, we’re not even Chinese!
There is evidence to support that Chinatown is not just Chinese culture. First, according to the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC), 80% of residents are Asian American. This is in comparison to the original Chinese American population that once occupied this space. Already, the census reflects diversity. Second, food is another aspect of popular culture. In Philadelphia, Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Burma, and Korean foods are available in addition to Chinese food; in Washington DC, Indian and Japanese dishes are also options. Third, some of the most popular shopping locations are not Chinese. The Sanrio store, which sells Hello Kitty and Keroppi merchandise, is always crowded with Asians and non-Asian tourists. However, Sanrio is a cute design company from Japan, not China. Either people don’t know that these materials are Japanese or people don’t mind that they are not Chinese. Regardless, Chinatown is an enclave for multiple Asian ethnicities, all of which contribute to the economics and beauty of the space.
This transformation occurred because ethnic enclaves hold great economic activity and dominant culture wants to take advantage of it. Gentrification and top-down redevelopment allow dominant culture to choose what is important to Chinatown, even if it is not Chinese. This literally reconstructs the Chinese and Asian cultures. Nonetheless, this reflects the current Asian American experience: just as Chinatowns are reconstructed for the political economy, Eddie Huang’s memoir is reconstructed to tell an entertaining story and sell a television show.
Chinatowns becoming Asiatowns provide some benefits. By diversifying and broadening to include multiple Asian ethnicities, more people can take stands for these Asian American spaces against other aggressive aspects of popular culture like sports. Many speculate that the loss of DC Chinatown was due to the Verizon Center. Without the PCDC and rallying Asian Americans, the Phillies Stadium would have displaced many Philly Chinatown residents. Changing to Asiatowns with greater emphases on food and shopping or material culture was an effective method to preserve other aspects of Asian cultures like language and religion. Unfortunately, it does not credit the coolie, third sex, or mere gook discourses that originally founded Chinatowns. These are becoming lost memories.
Furthermore, Asiatowns provide visibility and agency for East Asian cultures but not so much for other Asian cultures as one would think. Chinatown has expanded and will continue to include more of the Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese cultures, but what about the Indians, Filipinos, Indonesians, etc.? After all, they are Asian Americans too. Maybe it is too difficult for an entire Indonesiatown to be established because the Indonesian population is so much smaller than the more populated East Asian ethnicities. Perhaps there was not as much involvement with Indian or Filipino culture in American history as there was with the Chinese Exclusion Act, World War II with the Japanese American Internment, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Altogether, this shows how Asiatowns are shaped for the political economy to bring aesthetic and pleasure to all Americans, not necessarily Asian Americans. Its reconstruction should use a grassroots approach to incorporate the input of the very community that is being reconstructed. That way, memories are not skewed and retained longer. It’s hard to stay Chinese in Chinatown and it’s hard to stay any Asian in East Asiatown, but overall, it’s easy to stay Asian in America because of Asiatowns.
- Aguilar-San Juan, Karin. “Like a Dream I Can Never Forget: Remembering and Commemorating the Past.” Little Saigons: Staying Vietnamese in America. University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Web.