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Beginning in the colonial period Tchen describes the struggle to establish a distinct American identity in orientalist terms. He writes, "The beginnings of US modernity in (the) decades after the revolution...were characterized by the rise of self-made men and radical changes in everyday economic, political and social life." The flux of this period was mediated through Chinese consumable goods as US American identities, caught between the modes of patrician Europe and the needs of the new nation, cohered. Tchen emphasizes the passion for collecting Chinese porcelain, which became known as "china" and the merchants who sold it "Chinamen and women." In this way oriental objects came to represent Asian people, a conflation that persists.
While the "tasteful display" of oriental objects was a signifier of wealth and class in Europe and colonial America such "luxury and profuseness" was viewed by some as cause for alarm. British novelist Tobias Smollet warned against oriental luxuries as harbingers of "Indigence and Effeminacy: which prepared the Minds of the People for Corruption (and) Subjugation." Smollet and his contemporaries read a threat into the absence of actual Chinese people that their luxury items represented. His use of feminine terms as a frame for moral degeneracy that prefigures a "fall" is a sexist tactic not exclusive to orientalist scenarios but nonetheless often finds its expression there. The eastern other often vacillates between a degenerate effeminacy and a robust, sexually threatening vitality: an iteration that Tchen describes later as the "Chinese devil man."
Tchen notes that despite such warnings the fashion for oriental objects ran unabated in colonial America. He writes, "Average Americans chafed at any sumptuary limits on consumables deemed foreign and therefore taboo." I'd argue that this early American exercise in white privilege is a scenario that plays itself out in our current moment not over Chinese tea, but Middle Eastern oil. Even as racialized representations of Arabs--which echo the effeminate/hyper-masculine representations of the 19th century Chinese--abound in our culture the hunger for Middle Eastern oil only grows. As in the "American century" our "desire for `oriental' goods (is) stronger than the threat of `oriental despotism.'"
This pattern of orientalist imagining of eastern others from paternalistic delight, to sexual fear (characterized by moral outrage) to demonization (characterized by physical and or mental abjection) plays itself out in the past via Tchen's study and the present through the ethno-racist tropes applied by the Bush presidency in its foreign policy. The arguments John Kuo Wei Tchen makes in New York Before Chinatown have, through the events of the past several years, become overt expressions of the material culture of the United States.New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776-1882 Overview
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