Jan Lin. Reconstructing Chinatown: Ethnic Enclave, Global Change. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998, 248 pp. $US 49.95 cloth, $US 19.95 paper.

In public discourse and representation, Chinatowns in most developed societies have often been depicted as overcrowded and dilapidated places, beset with social problems such as sweatshops, undocumented immigrants, poverty, and organized criminal syndicates, that require clean ups, redevelopment and concerted efforts by governments to maintain law and order. Using a range of methodologies (official statistics, participant observation, ethnography, content analysis), Jan Lin argues succinctly that New York’s Chinatown is a social and political construction representing a place of livelihood and social life for its denizens, that is undergoing profound economic and cultural changes.

This book begins with an introduction reviewing emerging academic literatures on immigrant communities and race and ethnic studies. In the context of globalization, global cities, and new urban sociology, the author gives a critical analysis of the emerging work on the political construction of race and ethnic categories.

Chapter 1 describes the historical development of ethnic enclave economy in New York’s Chinatown and Chinese immigration to the U.S. over the last several decades. It highlights the observed significant pattern of changes from a predominantly “bachelor society” to a “family-centered immigrant enclave” as a result the exclusionary legislation against Chinese immigration being lifted in 1965. The chapter also examines the internal dynamics of the enclave economy and the residential conditions of its workforce.

Chapter 2 details the struggles of the sweatshop workers in the garment and restaurant industryies through their public collective action - pickets and demonstrations. Although labour-organizing struggles in the restaurant industry have not been as successful as in the garment industry, evidence indicates that these community-based organizing strategies have not just raised public awareness and public attention to the reality of “slave working conditions” but have successfully persuaded relevant government departments to increase their investigative and regulatory efforts to protect the workers’ rights and civil rights.

Chapter 3 examines the impact of overseas Chinese capital on the Chinatown banking industry and land market development. The foreign investments in Chinatown and the continuing outflows of labour and capital from East Asia are discussed in the context of globalization forces, the economic growth and accumulation of capital in East Asia (Hong Kong, Taiwan) in the 1990s, and the political uncertainties and socio-economic and socio-political changes in the Great China Region. These combined forces have transformed the ethnic enclave with construction of bank office headquarters, residential towers and hotels.

Chapter 4 looks at the combined outcome of residential and commercial congestion at the core, the desire for more space and privacy, and a desire for upward mobility as contributing factors to the development of satellite Chinatowns. While these satellite communities have attracted considerable foreign investment, this chapter also highlights the emergence of a new sweatshop zone with underground sweatshops for the garment industry attempting to avoid the regularized union industry standards being enforced in the core.

Chapter 5 draws attention to the internal social changes in Chinatown’s power structure. The chapter details the effectiveness of the emerging coalition of Asian American workplace and community organizations that mediate and broker relationship with the broader society displacing the traditional mercantile elite bound by ties of clan kinship. Despite considerable factionalism in the emerging enclave polity, acts of resistance and public collective action against state incursions, such as police brutality and land development, have demonstrated the collective determination of Chinatown’s working people and residents to defend the sanctity of their community, challenging the conventional stereotypes and representations of Chinatown as simply a crime-ridden and treacherous urban realm and Chinese Americans as merely an abject labour force.

Chapter 6 delineates the community-state relationship. Because of Federal government revenue-sharing cutbacks, local governments have become increasingly dependent on local economic growth and real estate development for their revenues, and have responded by attracting investment of overseas capital in Chinatown. Special land-use rezoning and state-sanctioned redevelopment plans to entice foreign investments which would devastate the existing character of the enclave are vigorously opposed by community activists, forcing these state-directed schemes to scale back. However, job retention efforts to protect and preserve the livelihood of the Chinatown garment industry and other activities to promote urban tourism are widely supported by store merchants, community development groups and arts organizations.

Chapter 7 analyses the prevailing and persistent negative representations of Chinatown and Chinese Americans in media reporting, prime-time television shows and movies. The author argues that these representations are political constructions, reflecting the legacy in the earlier decades of Sinophobia and nativism and the perceived geo-political threat of China. Nevertheless, these negative images are changing due to collective efforts by community activists, writers and artists (the launch of various cultural projects, such as the Chinatown History Project, exhibits and films), which challenge and problematizie these ideologically-based Orientalist/Orientalized depictions of their place, people and identities.

Chapter 8 synthesizes the major themes (e.g., sweatshop workers as agents of change, group solidarity and representational change, community power, the ongoing influx of Asian labour and capital, etc.) as discussed in the previous chapters. While revisiting the nuances of globalization and community change and the ongoing public discourse over immigration, foreign investments, urban renewal and urban social problems, the author offers a cautiously optimistic projection of this ethnic enclave in the polyglot environment of New York City.

The book’s most significant contribution is to problematize the public stereotypes of Chinese workers as servile and accepting victims in the debased environment of Chinatown. It has provided empirical evidence to demonstrate that despite internal conflicts and power struggles, collective actions are likely to consolidate a sense of group solidarity and political empowerment. Overall, the book is highly recommended for those who are interested taking a critical approach to race and ethnic studies, immigration issues and the development of ethnic enclaves in North American. There remains, nevertheless, the question whether descendants of these denizens would be prepared, socio-economically and socio-politically, to accept and to reify the deconstruction and reconstruction of “Chinatowns” as “representations” of their collective identity and venues of their struggle to be incorporated into their assumed “taken-for-granted” homeland.

Lawrence Lam
York University
larrylam@ yorku.ca

August 1999
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