Mel's Reviews > Chinatowns in a Transnational World: Myths and Realities of an Urban Phenomenon

Chinatowns in a Transnational World by Vanessa Kunnemann
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's review
Mar 04, 12

bookshelves: 21st-century-non-fiction, london, limehouse, chinatown, library
Read on March 03, 2012

This book is a series of academic essays about different Chinatowns throughout the world. Because I am particularly interested in London's Chinatown and Limehouse I read the three essays on that topic first.

Curious kisses the Chinatown fantasies of Thomas Burke. After reading Burke's other short story collections I wasn't so interseted in reading his Limehouse Nights about Chinatown and the relationships between English women and Chinese immigrants. But this article presented the stories as a much more balanced look into the relationships than I had imagined. While it is a short article it presents Burke as going against the inherant rascism of the time and talking about a subject that was largely ignored or reviled by people of the time. However, this attitude that Burke is going against is more assumed than proved. Still a very interesting and useful article.

Ruth Mayer - Greatest novelty of the age Fu Manchu Chinatown and the global city - looks at the creation of Chinatown in the imagination of the works of Sax Rohmer both as his novels and in the Hollywood re-interpretation of the 1930s. It has some great quotes to take into consideration. As Rohmer's books have so little to do with the actual Limehouse Chinatown it is quite interesting to see how much they have shaped people's views both at the time and today.

"the novels are clearly not an authentic Chinatown, and they are certainly not interested in representing the small Chinese dispora in London at this time. The stories fail dramatically in their effort at local colour effects and tend to represent Chineseness as one clear-cut and repetitive feature in the larger conglomerate of (almost invariably neagtive) 'oriental' characteristics - 117.

Evil, bohemians, The dreary docks countered with the glamourous oriental interiors. Says much more about orientalism than it does about any Chinese persons lives in Chinatown.

It is not London's Chinatown that calls forth Fu Manchu in this fictional universe, but that conversely Fu-Manchu manages to call forth Chinatown wherever he goes - 126

Movies 30s and later becomes imbeded in the yellow peril. "The setting of London's Chinatown is no longer central in these re-narrations. And indeed, what is London's Chinatown agaist the vastness of the world in terms of visual glamour?" - 128 Bela Legousi's movie where he is mixed and trying to create anarchism rather than a supreme Chinese race. Slightly less racist as "Pure chinese of chinatown by contrast, are made out as morally upright figures on the side of law and order, though clearly incapable of clearing up matters on their own. Their harmlessness is underlined at the very beginning of the film, when we see a group of tourists shopping in a chinatown store, engaged in a friendly conversation with a Chinese salesperson, well-versed in English. This scene of harmonious exchange will then be disrupted by a group of white gangsters in fake-Chinese makeup." 130

London's Chinatown and the changing shape of the Chinese diaspora Rosmary Sales et al. - focuses in on the current Chinatown in Soho. But it has quite interesting things to say on the nature of migration and the diasporia community.

"While Chinese people focus on their "yellow skin" as the physical indicator of difference, for Western people the shape of the eyes tends to be seen as a distinguishing feature" [though there is no reference to how they came up with this generalisation] "This illustrates how differences are socially constructed even when based on supposedly inherent physical characteristics" - 201

P. 202 has a great paragraph on space and place and how it relates to Chinatowns.

The essay seems to pay very little attention, beyond mentioning in passing, the plight of illegal Chinese immigrants and the huge difference in the perception of Chinatown to the new illegal immigrants and the established business owners and community organisations. Indeed most of the discussions seem to focus in on the "respectable" Chinese. This is empahsised in the quote

"I think we should organize classes to let these waiters and waitresses learn to behave properly in public... Foreigners don't understand Chinese people... if they see people in Chinatown who have bad manners, it will affect the image of Chinese people". 211

This seems to indicate some internal differences and struggles that would be considered class struggle in English society. But it is not something that the authors pick up on. Indeed they tend to ignore the divide altogether, focusing only on the divide between Chinese and foreigners (British). While they mention that Chinatown "provides a range of support for new migrants, particularly the more vulnerable, for whom Chinatown is an essential element in their daily lives". It neglects to mention how, by forging work permits, cheap labour, providing jobs for fees, and through bogus employment agencies. Rather it prefers to paint Chinatown as a place for established Chinese "for meeting, for socialising and for celebrating family occasions". 213

Ruth Mayer's introduction looks at different Chinatowns, the large San Fransisco Chinatown, brought about after anti-immigration laws and rebuilt as a tourist attraction after the earthquake of 1906. The sporadic German Chinatowns, that never wholly existed as purely Chinese, and the extent people went to to portray them as distinctivly Chinese and exotic. She then goes on to talk about London's Chinatown. Both the modern commercial district and Limehouse. She points out how the Chinese community in Limehouse was always a minority and how it's numbers were exaggerated. "By the 1910s, when, according to John Seed, no more than a hundred families of Chinese descent could possibly have lived in Limehouse, rumours had it that "The Chinese population had grown from 1000 to 8000 and a large number of Biriths seamen were pushed out by them" (East end News quoted in Seed 2006, 75" - 17

There are several references to Limehouse Chinatown, and in particular it's portrayal in ficiton.

witchard, anne 2007 a threepenny omnibus ticket to limey-housey-causey-way' comparative critical studies 4 (2) 225-40
case, shannon, 2002 lillied tongues and yellow claws, challenging modernism. new readings in literasture and culture
seshagiri, urmilla, 2006 modernity's yellow perils, cultural critique 62 (winter) 162-94

It seems that more has been written about the fictional Limehouse Chinatown than the reality but as Mayer states "the obvious gap between myth and reality alwys tended to be negotiated throuh the mythical repotaire and it was assumed that Chinatown looked disappointingly drab and harmless (and empty), because the Chinese presence was sly, hidden and underground (Seed 2006, 79)".

Chinatowns in transition between ethnic enclave and global emblem - Flemming Christiansen
This essay did address some of the inadequacies discussed earlier. It looked at the problem for illegal immigrants and the perception of them as well as the difficultites they faced. It looked at both the global and local level of London's Chinatown and how Chinatowns are changing. Christiansen discussed how many Chinese people complained how the Chinatown had become commercialised and was just for non-Chinese tourists.

Overall this was a very intersting series of essays about the nature of migration, disporia, Chinatowns and Chinese people living abroad. It covered a wide range of topics from historical perspectives, literary interpretations as well as looking at the reality today. It was also a great source of bibliographical references for further reading on the topics I was interested in. I would definitely recommend it to people interested in studying these topics.

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