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New York Before Chinatown

by: John Kuo Wei Tchen

Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press 1999, $42.50, Hardbound
ISBN: 0-8018-6006-7

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Winter Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(4) page(s): 19 and 20

Bridging the end of the Imperial times Mote wrote about in his book reviewed in this issue, and moving to other times and places, this book is about 1776 to 1882 CE and speaks about the emergence of the Chinese and development of a Chinatown in New York City. Subtitled: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, dates as given, this book offers what the fly-leaf calls 'a provocative look at the role Chinese people played in the fashioning of American culture and politics.' Tchen is a master historian who pieces together fragments and anecdotes and draws a verbal pictograph of New York City. What he finds is a port culture fascinated with luxuries from Asia and other cultures; that alone engages your every moment.

The book is in three parts. The first centers on American fascination with Asia as a source of goods; George Washington himself wanted a proper Chinese tea set. In the second, one learns how Chinese and caricatures of themselves become curiosity objects in a widening commercial landscape. In the final part, ugly American attitudes shape politics and lead to what Tchen calls 'demonization' and the Chinese Exclusion Acts, a time when the book takes leave.

As director of Asian/Pacific/American Studies at New York University, co-founder of the Museum of Chinese in Americas, and a professor of history, Tchen's dedication and education show a master craftsman using little viewed archival material to tell a story never before told. This fascinating book yields understandings of Chinese men and their problems whether or not they managed a wife by immigration or marriage. It is an ambitious study of ideas Chinese, people Chinese, things Chinese, and attitudes of and towards the Chinese more than a hundred years ago.

One learns so much reading this piece of scholarship. Jack, do not let us down, follow it with another about the following century. Probe more recent times and heighten everyone's true understandings of the Chinese in New York since 1882. We need and will benefit from an updated look through your intellectual lens.

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