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  Beijing Scene

Orientalist America

New York Before Chinatown
by John Kuo Wei Tchen
Johns Hopkins University Press
US$42.50 hardcover

In the midst of fomenting revolution against the British in 1776, George Washington would break away from military defense strategy talks to order the latest porcelain tea service from China. After the Americans won the war against Britain, Thomas Jefferson turned his attention to designing his home in Monticello, where he commissioned a miniature Chinese pavilion and Chinese temple for his private garden.

Such are the remarkable tidbits John Kuo Wei Tchen serves up in New York Before Chinatown. But Tchen, director of the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute at New York University, has ambitious designs with his compendium of Chinese American minutiae. Seeking to reveal a deeper meaning behind America's fascination with Chinese things and ideas, this historical narrative is designed to show how China - inadvertently more often than deliberately - shaped American culture and society as the young country strived to find its feet.

Tchen confines his analysis to the years 1776-1882, during which time perceptions of China and its people shifted dramatically. Whereas at the beginning Americans cast China with a benign - sometimes adulatory - glow, the rosy view had disintegrated by 1882, culminating with anti-Chinese immigration legislation.

Tchen employs an analytical tool developed by literary critic Edward Said of Columbia University. Said developed the critique of "orientalism" in his inquiry into how Western European elites define their own culture against an "imagined" Middle East. In the same way that Europeans perceived a Middle East against which they could reflect their own world, America's founding fathers used China as a means to developing a national personality. Tchen maps out three distinct but overlapping types of orientalism which shaped America's relationship with Chinese people and ideas. The first, termed "patrician orientalism," was driven primarily by social hierarchy. Status was conferred on those who possessed Chinese things and ideas; hence, George Washington's taste for fancy china tea sets, part and parcel of his strategy of "uplifting himself from his humble origins to the status of landed gentry." He constantly sought to emulate British elite culture. His tea-drinking and porcelain-collecting habits embodied these efforts," writes Tchen.

Throughout this period, Washington and others were largely guided by European Enlightenment thinking which idealized Confucian court culture. In essence, Americans saw Chinese as friendly, non-threatening people whose virtues would enhance the dominant culture. In time, however, the United States would emerge on the international scene, keen to match Europe's trade prowess, thereby adding a new dimension to America's view of China. Writes Tchen, "America drew upon China as a means of distancing itself from Europe, and it symbolically sought to dominate China as proof of destined civilizational progress."

As America's national and international ambitions grew, so did the port life of New York. The increased trade dealt not just in goods but people, who came from all over. The regular appearance of Chinese people and ideas in New York combined with the emergence of a ravenous urban public clamoring for new forms of entertainment like the penny press, yellowface minstrel shows and public spectacles.

The appetite for new or foreign experiences would trigger a new type of orientalism. According to Tchen, "commercial orientalism" arose in part from a "marketplace that catered to consumers who would buy only certain products and representations about Chinese things, people and ideas." The treatment of Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, poignantly illustrates how Americans viewed the Chinese at this point. Well-bred and mannerly brothers of Chinese descent, they nevertheless embodied the American impression that Chinese people were strange and beastly. This negative perception of otherness - what Tchen defines as "political orientalism" - intensified in the late 1800s during the Reconstruction era after the Ci vil War, when the number of Chinese workers imported to the East Coast aggravated deep-seated anxieties about America's national identity and its cultural future.

Apprehension gave way to hysteria in 1870 over "the Chinese Question," a term coined by John Swinton, a labor sympathizer who wrote frequent editorials in the major New York newspapers. Swinton spoke for many when he publicly called the Chinese a national threat to white working men. "Selected images of Chinese people and things became part of highly charged debates about who constituted 'free labor' and 'assimilability,'" writes Tchen.

Simultaneously, protests sprang up across lower New York to denounce the recruitment of Chinese labor to displace Irish workers in Massachusetts and New Jersey. The protests provoked an angry response from one of the few public champions of Chinese people in New York: political artist Thomas Nast. The result was one of his more powerful cartoons, "The Chinese Question," which featured in Harper's Weekly in 1871.

Only a few years later, however, Harper's Weekly would feature artwork by Winslow Homer. Homer's drawing, "The Chinese in New York - Scene in a Baxter Street Clubhouse," inaccurately depicted one of the founding Chinese community organizations as an opium den. Fear and loathing had eclipsed fascination.

New York Before Chinatown is a weighty analysis and a sympathetic portrayal of the Chinese. Yet Tchen's conclusions are mostly dispiriting. "In a sense I'm saying that notions of primitivism and orientalism were really intrinsic to the very founding of the identity of this country," the author elaborates in his office in lower Manhattan. "These foundational issues are still played out today in our culture. Certain attitudes about how desires and perceptions were transplanted from Europe and then became a fixture in how this country understands Asia and China in particular. As we experience this new round of globalization, it is reiterated in slightly different ways. But those patterns are still there."

Among those patterns: racially-based immigration quotas, hate crimes against Asian-Americans, the tendency to demonize the Chinese government, and the desire to seek entry into the fabled China market. But what it all meant to the Chinese in America is clear. "Within Anglo-American orientalism, Chinese would be forever viewed as foreigners," Tchen says.


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