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Chinese Chicago: Race, Transnational Migration and Community since 1870

Chinese Chicago: Race, Transnational Migration and Community since 1870

Martin Lavicka13 Nov 2014Leave a comment


Written by Petra Tlčimuková

Ling, Huping. Chinese Chicago: Race, Transnational Migration, and Community since 1870. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2012.

The historical process of establishing Chinese communities abroad has been paid a lot of attention by scholars. In the case of Chicago, the publication Chinese Chicago: Race, Transnational Migration and Community since 1870 by Huping Ling deserves a special mention, not just because it is the first one to examine the reality of Chinese migrants in this particular locality, but especially as it engages not only local but also transnational factors in the discussion, while striving to provide the reader with a comprehensive historical overview of the community’s development.

The content of the publication is built upon a long-term ethnographic field research. Various methods and data sources were utilized, e.g. oral history interviews, archives, or newspaper analysis (p. 10). What makes this publication especially of interest is a novel and very enriching methodological step that was taken to encounter the transnational needs of the research goal; Ling uses both English and Chinese (including that of continental China) sources of new knowledge on the lives of the Chinese Chicagoans. Based on the data, three topics are closely examined throughout the book to capture the specifics of the Chinese in Chicago (and possibly also beyond) – race, transnationalism and community.

Chicago, a city of immigrants from all around the world, has become an important destination of Chinese labour migrants since the 1870s when the three Moy brothers arrived (pp. 17–20, 30–31). From the historical point of view, Ling emphasises two phases in the local Chinatown development, the major division point being 1912 when the original Chinatown’s inhabitants experienced the repercussions of anti-Chinese mood that affected the whole U.S. Consistently rising rents resulted in the moving of the whole Chinatown from the Loop area to the city’s South Side, where it is located until today. Interestingly, the relocalization is tightly linked to a dynamic shift in the community’s development. Even though she emphasises that a certain inner diversity of the Chinese community existed since its beginning, Ling speaks of a time when a more coherent community (sg.) became explicitly much more diverse, foremost from an ethnic basis (Chinese Chicago as “a multiethnic jungle”, p. 46). Thus in the later phase one should rather speak of Chinese communities (pl.) in Chicago’s Chinatown, the existence of which is historically marked by inner struggles as well as persistent tendencies for ethnic inclusion. As Ling writes: “Chinese Chicagoans have found an answer to the challenge posed by the ever-growing diversity of ethnic communities. They have made concerted efforts to form more inclusive and broader community service organisations that attempt to embrace a cross-regional, cross-cultural, and cross-ethnic clientele” (p. 241).

While discussing the local situation for Chinese immigrants from both a macro and micro perspective, Ling describes the formation of Chicago’s transnational Chinese community while she thematizes the newly emerging phenomena of transnational marriages and overseas mutually functioning economies: “the immigrant community receives a constant flow of human resources and emotional support from the homeland, while the native villages receive a continuing flow of remittances and investments from overseas” (p. 23). Attention is brought to the local impact of these transnational ties and their positive as well as negative reflections – an economic dynamic (See: “Operating Transnational Business”, pp. 58–97), the sense of togetherness and strategies to resist being absorbed by the major society; and, on the other hand, clan conflicts, prostitution, gambling, etc. Thus Ling provides the reader with clear evidence of how transnational ties of Chinese Chicagoans radically influenced the local community character. When focusing on family relations and the institution of marriage, the impact of vivid transnationalism – in terms of both material and ideological exchange – becomes especially apparent. “Through various patterns of marriage and living arrangements, Chinese immigrants in Chicago managed to have a family life or a substitute for it. The immigrant reality also led to changes and adaptations in family life for the Chinese women in Chicago, most of whom now enjoyed a more elevated position in their families” (p. 98). From the smallest family unit to the larger scale of community organisations, Ling provides a complex picture of the social institutions’ hierarchies, functions, roles and historical statuses. Simultaneously, the formative aspect of transnationalism, the struggle between the maintaining and transformative processes, is well described through the depiction of the local faces of economy, culture, religion, etc. (pp. 132–171).

This publication provides fresh insights into the field of Asian studies, particularly into the study of the Chinese in America, but also in the broader sense into migration studies. Besides the unquestionable ethnographic contribution, it proves the theoretical lens of transnationalism to be a useful way of approaching studies of global migration and local adaptation, as it not only brings new ideas of how overseas Chinese communities might develop but also how they continue to function up to this day. With the example of Chicago, Ling shows us the tension but also the symbiosis between the local and transnational demands on the immigrant communities. In a skilled manner, the small stories of individual Chinese immigrants and their families are entwined with the grand historical narrative while creating the first comprehensive community narrative of the Chinese in Chicago by emphasising the interconnectedness of three virtual societies – the Chinese Chicagoans, the larger American society and the Chinese back in continental China.

The edition is supplemented by historical photographs, tables and maps which illustrate the specifics of Chicago’s Chinatowns and its inhabitants in comparison to the overall situation for the Chinese in the U.S.

Petra Tlčimuková, Palacký University Olomouc, Czech Republic

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