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American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Chinese Neighborhoods by Bonnie Tsui

by: Bonnie Tsui

New York NY: Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster 2009, $25.00, Hardbound
ISBN: 978-1-4165-5723-4

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Spring Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(1)

This book, a history about the people and places in a handful of Chinatown locations in the United States, is a fascinating read. We have visited and soaked up many of them, and enjoyed what they offered over many years, yet there is still much to learn. It did expand our knowledge. We actually did revisit the one in New York City after reading its three chapters, and we were amazed at all the information we gained.

There are fifteen chapters, three for each of the Chinatown areas. The five delineated include San Francisco which is the oldest, New York City the biggest, Los Angeles and its Hollywood area credited with being the icon, Honolulu the one at the crossroads, and Las Vegas the newest.

Everyone of them was a first stepping stone for many new Chinese immigrants who arrived in America and made it their home, albeit for some a temporary one. In these places called 'Heartland Asian America' what fascinates is what they meant to the specific Chinese selected and told in their own words and seen through their eyes and ears and thoughts. The perceptions of the Chinese Americans selected were through big hearts and greater sense of place.

Reading this book expands knowledge of why every Chinatown matters to its residents; also to outsiders looking in. After finishing the concluding chapter and turning its last page, we felt truly disappointed that the book had ended. We wished there were other Chinatown tales to tell, and did want to learn more about the Chinatowns in Boston, Buenos Aires, Lima, Sydney, Yokohama, and still others we had visited and the many more on our ‘we must get there’ list.

The chapters about specific places and people in these five special places were wonderful. Did we have a favorite, no, but we did have a favorite chapter. It was about a Honolulu man in the one titled: Neighborhood Crossings. This zeroed in not about a place but about the local boy who became an accidental chef. This chapter about Glenn Chu was not a name we recognized. He did not speak the language nor could we identify with him. He was not an immigrant and that hit home. He called himself 'chop suey' and sensed that he changed a lot over time. We appreciated his mix of past, present, and future; his was a great story.

Actually, we have eaten in his Indigo Restaurant though had forgotten that. We did enjoy the Julia Child-Alice Waters influences there. We also sensed and tasted his super-fresh ingredients prepared with his multi-cultural mind set. Though not Chinese and with the wrong skin color and eye shape, we did grow up in walking distance of a Chinatown. Therefore, we felt many of the influences Glenn Chu did. We are not a professional chef, but many things he said about himself hit home. In many ways he represents young folk marrying two cultures and respecting both and things old and new.

Bonnie Tsui sensed his uniqueness and reported his memories and the magic he saw in his Chinatown; also in all the others. She dealt with his culture and others in his neighborhood. She also related his hopes for the future which were exciting, and worth knowing.

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