Do a quick Internet search for tourist attractions in any one of America’s major metropolitan cities, and no doubt a tourism website or travel “listicle” will come up urging you to visit that city’s Chinatown. Depending what part of the US you’re going to, a visit to Japantown or a Koreatown, among others, might also be recommended.
Ethnic enclaves, especially Asian enclaves, are a big part of the American “melting pot” identity.
Once considered “ghettos” or red light districts, places no respectable white American would be caught patronizing, many of America’s older Asian enclaves are facing a loss of identity and authenticity within the melting pot. With the gentrification of many such enclaves, as well as wealthy investors buying up property only to let them sit “frying in the wok” – a term used in Hong Kong and Taiwan where an investor holds onto a building, doing nothing with it, while its worth steadily climbs with the surrounding area, only to sell at a profit – many long-time residents are being forced out, unable to afford the rising cost of a newly trendy neighborhood. (Kwong and Miščević, 326)
But as more and more people are forced out of these neighborhoods, questions of “authenticity” or cultural roots arise. What ties a Japantown or a Chinatown to its cultural roots? An abundance of bi-lingual signage? Restaurants serving a smattering of authentic specialities next to popular Americanized dishes? Grocery stores and street stands selling cheap and colorful souvenir tchotchkes?
Or is it deeper than that? Is the soul of an ethnic enclave found in the people who built it, fought to survive in it?
And if America’s ethnic neighborhoods are in danger of losing their souls, how does that affect the second, third, fourth and every successive generation of immigrant descendants?
For early immigrant generations, ethnic enclaves were places that allowed immigrants to survive. In the late 1800s and early 20th century, Chinatowns gave Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans a community in which they could find some respite from aggressive anti-Chinese sentiment as well as find work, low-paying as it might be. For Chinese and Chinese-Americans living in America during the Chinese Exclusion era – for whom the benefits of American citizenship were not awarded – Chinatowns were the only places they could live in some semblance of safety and support.
That being said, life in Chinatowns was not easy. While Chinatowns allowed many Chinese and Chinese-Americans to earn money, it was at a fraction of what white Americans earned. Largely barred from working outside of Chinatowns, Chinese people could only really work in the restaurant or laundry industries. With riots often ensuing when Chinese were hired in or near white-owned businesses, Chinese and Chinese-Americans often had very little choice but to be self-employed or work for other Chinese people. While this created an enclave economy that allowed for some financial sustenance, with some rudimentary associations even formed to protect the Chinese community, renting business space was difficult (no surprise that Chinese and Chinese-Americans could not own property) and costly.
The economy of Chinatowns was a double-edged sword: they allowed discriminated-against Chinese people to earn a living, but they also served to further thwart assimilation into American culture. Chinese people lived on American soil were seen as the “others”. Chinatowns were physical barriers that corralled the demonized Chinese away from “civilized” culture.
Chinatown tenements and apartments tended to be poorly maintained, over crowded, with rent subject to the whims of non-Chinese building owners. Inhabitants of Chinatowns were also mostly men, as laws made bringing wives and families to America nearly impossible. The goal was to minimize the Chinese population with a gender imbalance (and anti-miscegenation laws in place), in the hopes that the race would become extinct in the US.
Because of such a disproportionate gender ratio, Chinatowns were portrayed for decades as “dens of sin”, red light districts, and areas where crime and “villainy” were rampant. While in the early days of the Exclusion era this served to further segregate the Chinese from American life, it was later exoticized in Hollywood movies, radio, and in pulp novels.
In the early 20th century, Chinatowns became tourist destinations where white Americans could gawk at the Chinese in their habitats. Perpetuating the myths of opium dens on every corner filled with “dragon ladies”, shifty Fu Manchu mustache-wearing criminals, and the harmless, sexless Chinese man ready to please his white masters, Chinatowns became a cultural delight, so to speak, while the Chinese became stock characters in their own mockery. (Kwong and Miščević, 128-129)
While the view of Chinese people shifted after World War II with the “model minority” stereotype that persists to this day, popular media in the 1960s and ‘70s fostered a resurgence of Chinatowns being exotic, sexy places full of dim or dangerous characters for mainstream America to partake in. Though that perception cooled off in the following decades, Chinatowns are still often seen as novel tourist traps rather than living communities that provide a gateway into America for immigrants as well as a connection to culture and history.
Though early Japantowns in the US often emerged from, and shared many issues of racial injustice with Chinatowns (citizenship, rights to property, and women’s immigration, etc.) Japantowns, Japanese immigrants, and Japanese-Americans’ worst troubles began as Chinese people’s began to abate.
With the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of WWII, Japantowns in America, which had existed since the mid-1800s, were suddenly emptied of inhabitants. With the rounding up of Japanese and Japanese-Americans to be sent to internment camps due to the fear of Japanese “enemy aliens” on American soil, Japantowns were taken over by other US minorities or absorbed into the commercial American landscape.
When the war ended, Japanese people struggled to reestablish communities (largely on the west coast). However upon returning from the camps, many Japanese-Americans found themselves met not only with vicious anti-Japanese sentiment, but also the complete loss of their homes and belongings. Only a few Japantowns were able to re-establish, with only three major Japantowns surviving to this day.
While these Japantowns fight to maintain the history, aesthetic, and culture of not only Japanese people but Japanese-Americans, just like Chinatowns they are threatened by gentrification, commercialization, and the lingering perception of “otherness”.
Now seen as desirable and pleasingly “urban” in major cities, Japantowns’ and Chinatowns’ cultural authenticity are endangered. While such enclaves remain popular places for tour buses to flock to, the numbers of people of actual Japanese or Chinese descent are dwindling.
People that have lived for generations in a neighborhood, apartment, or building are being driven out by rising costs; costs that were not nearly so inflated less than a generation ago. While in many communities, very often Chinatowns, working conditions are in dire need of reform (to this day many people are woefully overworked and underpaid), the answer cannot be to buy up and dismantle a neighborhood.
Ironically, as fewer Asian people live in historically Asian neighborhoods, much of the essence of the cultures – seen in architecture, food, goods – are getting replaced with a more sanitized, commercialized approximation, produced to appeal to tourists. Many Asian neighborhoods are now shadows of themselves, with holdouts of authenticity clinging to a corner or a street, and the rest taken over by bland reproduction.
Asianness without the Asians.
But what does this mean for the members of such communities?
Once a place for new immigrants to find a foothold in America, with the loss of Asian or really most enclaves, comes a loss of acceptance. When immigrating to America for better opportunities, or to escape persecution, ethnic enclaves provided a place where immigrants could transition – a place to learn English, find guidance in their native tongue, find work and a place to live even if their English is poor.
With the loss of such communities, assimilation into America becomes that much harder.
And what of the children of immigrants? Generations of Americans born to immigrant families who have never set foot in their parents’ or grandparents’ birth country, but still want a connection to those places?
Chinatowns, Japantowns, Koreatowns – all the “towns” – offer a glimpse of authentic culture and history to the descendants of immigrants. They can hear their family’s language in their ears, see a community of people who look like them, learn about what it took for their family to put down roots in America. While places like Chinatowns are almost seen as theme park versions of China or Hong Kong, for many American Born Chinese (ABCs) they are the only communal touchstone they have to the Chinese side of their Chinese-American identity.
It is in Japantowns that those who survived the Japanese internment camps of WWII can preserve their stories for later generations.
Built into many ethnic enclaves is the history of fighting to stay in America even when America didn’t want you. The fact that so few Americans know about such things as the Japanese internment or the Exclusion Acts only supports the fact that such communities – and their authenticity and spirit – must be preserved. Not just for those descended from the survivors, but for those descended from oppressors.
The struggle to protect America’s ethnic enclaves is ongoing. In Chinatowns around the country, second and third generation Chinese-Americans are fighting to hold onto the buildings and businesses that their ancestors worked and lived in. The remaining Japantowns fiercely balance between their history as Americans and their deep pride in Japanese culture, tradition, and art.
The central message is the same: these towns are vital to the preservation of Asian-American culture; they bridge the gap between two worlds.
As Bonnie Tsui wrote in her book, American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods, “For me, Chinatown has been a kind of compass by which to find where I belong in this country. I haven’t always felt at ease in my identity as a Chinese-American, and as a young adult it was comforting to know that there was a place I could go in my city where everyone else looked like me.”
In the forced creation of such segregated communities, America unwittingly helped usher dual-identity Americans into existence. And while those people and the culture that is born into them cannot be extinguished, the very communities that allowed their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents to put down American roots are now in danger.
Though founded in racism, many “ethnic enclaves” have evolved to be important to immigrant history and authenticity. Are the slow deaths of these communities just further manifestations of racial oppression coming full circle?
Featured Image via Antoine Taveneaux, “Chinatown gate, Los Angeles”, Creative Commons
Additional source: Chinese America, The Untold Story of America’s Oldest New Community, Peter Kwong & Dušanka Miščević. The New Press, New York, London, 2005.