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CHINATOWNS: Global, Cultural and Economic Capsules of Continental China?

CHINATOWNS: Global, Cultural and Economic Capsules of Continental China?

Martin Lavicka26 Nov 2014Leave a comment


Written by Dušan Lužný and Petra Tlčimuková

During the year 2013 we had the opportunity to visit two Chinatowns in the U.S. The first visit was to a Chinatown in New York City. Chinatowns are, to our eyes, a fascinating phenomenon. Our fascination lies partly in the fact that there are no Chinatowns present within the Czech Republic. However, as scholars we have been dealing with migration from Asia for some time, and thought that this phenomenon was well worth examining for many reasons. Our interests were further developed during our visit to Chicago’s Chinatown, which is the particular locality that we focus on in this fieldwork reflection.

In Chicago we gathered available data on two ethnic communities that are historically very well established in the local environment, that being the Czech and the Chinese communities. We decided to discuss the existence of the Chinatown as a case study, and at the same time as a comparative study by focusing on the Chicago reality of these two mentioned migrant ethnical groups. Now, let us shortly introduce these two immigrant groups in the U.S., so that we can also see the specific role Chicago has played in the history of their formation.

The presence of the Chinese in the U.S. has many faces, which has been looked at by scholars and interpreted in many different ways. There are those who focus on it as a narrative of success (in terms of sustainability of existing Chinatowns, its development, and cultural and economic blossoming), and those who focus on the historically grounded experience as that of oppression by the white majority, examining the gang myths or dealing with the persistence of illegal residency of Chinese immigrants. We can do the same when reconstructing the history and contemporary existence of Czechs within the U.S. However, different community specifics may result from this analysis.

The history of the Chinese in America, as well as the Czechs, goes back to the Middle Ages. The first records we have of Chinese in the U.S. are from the 16th century, while for the Czechs it is from the 17th century. In both immigrant groups, economical push-factors seem to have played the key role for migration. In the case of the Chinese, we often speak of a Gold Rush, while with the Czechs, besides the desire to become richer, they left their country in high numbers after 1848 when escaping from Habsburg absolutism. We can observe radical shifts in the development in terms of quantity as well as in terms of relations with the local majority. There is clear historical evidence that many U.S. riots against the Chinese lead to a restrictive immigration policy.

In Chicago the first Chinese community and the first phase of the formation of the Chinatown starts from 1870. Many Chinese worked in the laundry business, and those luckier and richer often owned restaurants. In 1900 there were more than 1000 Chinese residing in the city. At that time, the Czech community in Chicago was rather strong, numbering approximately 100,000 Czech immigrants. That was the time when Chicago could have been considered the third biggest “Czech city” in the world. However, considering illegal migration, in both cases the real numbers of immigrants were undoubtedly much higher and that remains true up to this day. The Chinese were forming their first “old Chinatown” while the Czechs had several locations they inhabited, out of which several could be seen as “Czech towns”: “Czech Pilsner” with 22,000 Czech inhabitants, “Czech California” with more than 30,000 Czechs, “Czech Tabor”, Lawndale, Crawford, etc.

The situation started to change later on, when the Czechs seem to have assimilated fully into the local environment which resulted in a complete disappearance of Czech towns. On the other hand, although relocated, Chinatown functions many purposes until the present day. What these two communities in the beginning of the 20th century had in common, was well established ethnically based social institutions – educational and religious ones. For many, it can be surprising that it was Christian (mainly Catholic) churches that served both educational and religious purposes even in the case of the Chinese; the Buddhist and Daoist Chinese temples came much later. An important aspect supporting Chinese communitarianism was also the presence of ethnic banks.

In the year 1931, a Czech immigrant won the communal elections and became the mayor of Chicago city. He was born in the Czech city Kladno and his name was Antonín Josef Čermák. Interestingly, the main street of today’s Chinatown was named after him and that is where these two communities also imaginarily and trans-historically meet.

Now, let us think about why, unlike the Czech communities, the Chinese community and its Chinatown has survived. Contemplating over this question we offer the following answers:

  1. After the Second World War, the Czechs developed a new strategy of acculturation which can be interpreted as full assimilation – they became “full-time” Americans and basically cut off ties with the land of their ancestors. On the contrary, the Chinese started to become Chinese-Americans. The hyphen is very important here; it demonstrates the fact that they overtly dispose of a double national identity while inhabiting the same imaginary and real space.
  2. The Chinese with their sense of communitarianism and much more problematic acculturation, especially with regards to their unstable position in society, chose rather to maintain the double Chinese-American identity.

Still, we should ask why it is so. Our main argument reflects transnationalism which in the case of the Czechs disappeared, i.e. there were no observant transnational actions with the land of their ancestors, while in the case of the Chinese they were easily observable – since the beginning until now they have been travelling back and forth, sending money to continental China, sending children back to schools, thus creating homes both here and there.

However, it is necessary to emphasize that the Chinatown is a place of transformation and its picture is not the same as it was a few decades ago. We offer a few interesting points to think about when discussing the topic of Chinatowns:

  • The Chinese are often not political emigrants, as history shows they were often actively supporting the regimes back in China through politically active ethnic associations in Chicago.
  • The creation of Chinatown can be partly explained by the oppressive white agenda, however, its persistence cannot. Contrary to Czech towns, it is rather a strong sense of community that makes Chinatown survive.
  • It is not, however, only cultural heritage that brings and holds the Chinese together. It is also the impact of what we call visible ethnicity, a factor that in our opinion has made it easy for Czechs to assimilate, while hard for the Chinese to do so.
  • As the last point, we want to emphasise the nowadays character of Chinatowns; the fact that ethnic identity and its “products” have turned into an exotic commodity. This has resulted in the marketization of Chinatowns both by the Chinese within the Chinatowns and by the continental Chinese.

The last point deserves further examination. How does this process function?

There exists a mutual financial opportunism: American-Chinese on one hand try to answer the interests of the continental Chinese, who through decades of maintaining vivid contacts interestingly have become clients of the Chinatown’s Chinese. On the other hand, continental Chinese make large investments in the Chinatowns and they also support their existence and prosperity via Chinese tourism, as Chinatowns are exotic even for the continental Chinese; at the same time, many American-Chinese still send remittances back to China.

Finally, we can ask where is China actually to be localized? We can observe a global network of Chinatowns in Asia and all around the world, which all maintain a direct connection to continental China. However, it is not only the impact of global capitalism as we have tried to demonstrate in this text with the case of Chicago. Chinatowns are undoubtedly a womb of original and ever transformational cultural, social and economic phenomena. As we argue, continental China has had a major impact on its development throughout history.

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