American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods Review

American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods
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American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods ReviewThis book has a couple of chapters on each of five Chinatowns (San Francisco, New York, LA, Hawaii, and Las Vegas), but doesn't really build to any cumulative point or additional insight. Instead it reads like a collection of pleasant but shallow magazine articles, of the kind you might skim on a long flight or in a dentist's office. Each chapter contains a few of Tsui's interesting interviews with a representative Chinatown resident or figure. And large swaths of the interviews are either transcribed verbatim or paraphrased; this gives the book a nice mix of voices, but also leaves it seeming scattered and disorganized without any real unifying idea.
The passages of the book written in Tsui's own voice are generally glib and unmemorable, at best pleasant magazine writing and at worst embarrassingly trite amateur sociology. At best, there are many moments of family memoir, which don't really provide a unifying frame for the book since Tsui herself, a Long Islander, didn't grow up even in one of these Chinatowns. There are also some pleasant nuggets of cultural history here and there, about Chinese people in early Hollywood or the invention of fortune cookies, but these remain very light and shallow without even pointing the reader to a better source for in-depth information. And at worst, there are countless deadly-glib conclusions about the "meaning of Chinatown." The trite shallowness of Tsui's social generalization is truly stunning, and it made the book hard to slog through without groaning; I found myself skipping from interview to interview trying to avoid the next cheap paradox rather than having to make it through another college-freshman-esque paragraph about the irreducible tensions between assimilation and preservation of cultural identity, lucrative tourism and residential poverty, and so on. Even Tsui's interviews with scholars in fields like urban studies and cultural history are reduced to glib oversimplifications rather than developed arguments.
There's also a subtler problem with the book, one displayed in Tsui's choice of Chinatowns. In each city she's chosen to write about the culture and the residents of an old historic Chinatown while she ignores -- or even denigrates! -- newer, and often more vital, immigrant neighborhoods. In San Francisco she ignores the Richmond district; in Los Angeles she fails to discuss the San Gabriel Valley; in New York she barely mentions Flushing. In each case, this means writing about a moribund historic neighborhood, and focusing on stale cultural tourism, rather than visiting a place bustling with new immigrants and extraordinary food. If the book really were a history, this would be a defensible choice -- but apart from the interviews there's really no research, and only a very thin received historical account, here.
So this is ultimately a purely touristic book, informative only on the most superficial level while its trite attempts at analysis and historical reflection fall flat. Even non-Chinese readers, if they've grown up near a Chinatown or known its residents, will learn relatively little from reading it. Rather than anything like a real "people's history," without a single animating perspective, without much political, historical or cultural insight, this book seems like a cultural backgrounder for suburbanites.American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods Overview

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