Chinese Americans and Chinatowns: When They No Longer Need Each Other

Bowen Liu

“THE CHINESE started to leave around the 1950s as Bourbon Street gained more and more attention. Nearly all traces that could be used to prove the existence of a Chinatown are gone,” says Winston Ho, a Chinese American who was born and raised in New Orleans. He has a PHD in History at the University of New Orleans and specializes in Chinese history in New Orleans. He gives me a complicated look as he told me this in his office at UNO.

I am not surprised. None of my Chinese American friends grew up in a Chinatown. They go there mainly for bubble teas, hot pots, and Asian household utensils that they cannot find in Target, Walmart or Costco. Their parents are predominantly middle-class, and they speak perfect English, without any trace of the Chinese accent. Chinatown for the new generation of Chinese Americans becomes a place as exotic and distant for them as for people that are not of Chinese ancestry. But for their ancestors, Chinatown was where they stayed to survive, own lands and flourish with the help of each other.

Americans call it “Chinatown” but the Chinese characters of the sign on the giant gate of every Chinatown are not really “Chinatown”. Their literal translation is, “The Street of Tang People”. “Tang” is the name of a dynasty in China, and it is widely considered by historians as a high point in Chinese civilization, and a Golden Age of cosmopolitan culture. The capital of Tang, Chang’an, was the most populous city in the world in its day. During the time, the Japanese came to China to learn the language and culture. Buddhists, Chinese scholars, and monks especially moved to Japan to teach. They lived in Japan and formed their own neighborhood. Out of respect, Japanese called it, “The Street of the Great Tang” and later, “The Street of Tang People.”

However, more than a hundred years later when the Chinese come to the United States, they were not treated with such respect. The last dynasty of China, the Qing Dynasty, was ruled by the Manju instead of the Han, the predominant ethic group in China. Emperors of Qing Dynasty were so satisfied with the self-sufficiency of China that they decided to cut off trade and communication with other civilizations, especially Western ones. Ignoring the development brought by the Industrial Revolution, Qing thus suffered from the lack of modernization while British armies, fully equipped with modern weapons, decided to raid China of its teas and other goods through the smuggling of opium. When stopped by the authorities, Great Britain waged the First Opium War in 1840.

1866, six years after China went through the Second Opium War, was one of the most tumultuous times in Chinese history. The emperor of China was forced out of the Forbid- den City (the royal palace), and the armies from the United Kingdom, France, the United States and other colonial powers looted Beijing and set fire to one of the greatest Chinese monuments ever – the Summer Palace. Qing was forced to sign a series of contracts with the Western colonial power. Thus China became a half-colonial-half-imperial country. Especially under the signing of the Treaty of Peking in 1860, which forced China to open the border for free, people live close to the sea, the so-called Pearl River Delta in Guangdong Province, and emigrate to North America. Nevertheless, the majority of them don’t speak Mandarin, now the official language of China. Instead, they speak Cantonese, Toishanese, Hakka, Teochew, and Hokkien which is as hard to understand to Chinese as the Scottish accent is to Americans.

Meanwhile in the United States, “The Confederacy was defeated, and the reconstruction of city needs labor, especially for the plantation since slaves were emancipated,” says professor Richard Campanella, a professor at Tulane University. “The Planters need new labor forces and the East Asian and South Asian labors come to their mind.”

“The Planters of Louisiana start recruiting Chinese workers from California and later directly from China,” says Ho. “But the US government was concerned at the time if this will basically make the new labor slaves again, so they gave a lot of obstacles to the recruitment process. “

As a result, the planter had to look for contract labor from somewhere else. With the desire of better working condition, the Chinese moved to New Orleans, then one of the most developed cities in the South.

“It always starts with the laundry business,” Ho told me.

It is a small business that doesn’t need much money to start, and there is seldom a need to communicate in English. The laundry business in the 1870’s is not what most people imagine. The clothes are hand-washed and ironed carefully. Traditionally, Americans considered doing laundry a dirty work and were not willing to do it themselves. The job requires patience, delicacy, certain skills and high-quality service to please the customers. White Americans were not willing to do the business, while black Americans lacked the skill and delicacy. So it became the Chinese’s job.

“Besides laundry business, selling traditional Chinese goods are also extremely lucrative,” says Professor Campanella. “Fou Loy opened a store where it sells the manufacture of China and Yut Sing’s curio shop on Royal Street also gains a lot of attention… The curio shop sold ivory, silk kimono and sometimes drugs, the rich people living in the Uptown just can’t get enough of it. It’s like a fancy store but also sells narcotics.”

As Bourbon Street, which better represents New Orleans, gained more and more attention, the Chinese started to leave around 1950. This did not only happen in New Orleans, but also in other middle-sized cities in America. On my way to the theater, the Uber driver told me that there used to be a Chinatown in any middle-sized city in America, but now they are mostly gone. The remaining ones are in Chicago, San Francisco, and New York.

By the end of the 1960s, the Chinese American community had been transformed. According to the Library of Congress, the new group of immigrants did not come from the same rural provinces of China as the immigrants of the 1800s and early 1900s had. Many came from Hong Kong and Taiwan. From the 1980s, many more people from mainland China started to migrate to the U.S., including university students after the Economic Reform and Relief proposed by Deng Xiaoping in the 1978, which brought market factors into the Chinese economy.

I discussed with Yichi, a friend of mine at Tulane who came to America with a diplomatic passport because of his father’s job, about how we feel about the Chinatown in America. Coming from the same background as mainland Chinese, we both agree that Chinatown is a mark of history, a place that is a unique attraction, but not authentically Chinese.

There is also little doubt that the dominant culture of Chinatown was Cantonese. Chinese people, in all the Hollywood movies, speak Cantonese instead of Mandarin, the official langue of People’s Republic of China. Yet Cantonese culture is a subbranch culture of China, and Chinese people don’t think of it as representative of China, just like Americans won’t think of Texas as representative of America.

Chinatowns are evolving, like any other cultural symbols in America and everywhere else. A growing number of native Chinese restaurants like Haidilao (Sichuan Style Hotpot) and Xiaofeiyang (Mongolian Style Hotpot) have opened stores in New York, Houston, and some other places. This again proves that the attraction of good food is universal. As the Chinese economy continues to grow, the Chinatown in America is bound to look more similar to a shopping mall in the modern People’s Republic of China than it ever has before.

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