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S.F. Was Key Juncture for Chinese Immigrants

The Creosote Journal
 — Aug 11 2011 - 4:32pm

Conversation with the author of ‘American Chinatown’

In her new book “American Chinatown,” Bonnie Tsui charts the changing landscapes of five American neighborhoods. They are ethnically Chinese, hosting other Asian communities, and often share a tough history of exclusion and poverty, tempered from the beginning with resilience and savvy self-presentation. The five Chinatowns Tsui describes — San Francisco (the oldest), New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu and Las Vegas (the newest) — have been places of constant reinvention: immigrants coming to build new lives and identities, urban neighborhoods in economic and cultural flux. Today more than ever, they’re a portrait of changing urban dynamics and intergenerational complexity. I met with her to discuss the discoveries she made in writing her 2009 book.

When and where did the inspiration come to you to write American Chinatown?

The inspiration for the book really came from my family’s own personal history coming through New York’s Chinatown.

It was a place that welcomed them when they needed to be welcomed. I kept coming back to this idea of it as a physical and mental space, and I found myself seeking out Chinatowns in places that I traveled to, like Buenos Aires.

For a lot of young Americans today, who may have grown up in the suburbs, there is this renewed interest in living in the kind of high-density cities and Chinatowns their grandparents may have left.

For a resident, it is very unromantic. That’s probably one of the best words I can think of to describe it. It’s a kind of hardscrabble, crowded reality, and the truth is that the people that live in Chinatown are people that wouldn’t necessarily live there if they could choose to. 

Read the complete interview here.

A version of this story appeared on creosotejournal.com. The Creosote Journal is dedicated to the development and support of emerging voices from the contemporary West.