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Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Chinese Diaspora: Self- Identity & Chinatowns

As a British Chinese born in London, Chinatown in central London is home for me. Though whilst I do not or did not live anywhere near walking distance in and around Leicester Square, I regularly visited Chinatown, once a week. Sometimes I will go there to get food from a Chinese restaurant - though the food is expensive-, or buy groceries from the Chinese supermarket.

Chinatown was, and still is, a way for me to experience Chinese culture.

There is a Chinatown in almost every part of the world: from France, Germany, UK, America, Canada, Netherlands to Peru, South Africa, Japan and South Korea. And even in the Dominican Republic. San Francisco, California is the oldest Chinatown within the United States, whereas in New York City in the lower East Side of Manhattan, it is the largest.

In Wikipedia terms, Chinatown is - any ethnic enclave of expat (triate) Chinese, Hong Kongese, Macanese, Taiwanese people based outside of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao. Chinatown is where displaced, racialsed subjects move into a city outside of China and Hong Kong, & assert their "otherness" by building communities within communities, cities within cities.

For Luk, Chinatown is a concept, rather than something that exists physically or just for visual purposes. Like something that has to be stared at like a tourist attraction. Chinatown is a concentrated area that consists of Chinese inhabitants engaging in various social, economic & cultural activities. It is a place where Chinese, as well as people of other South East and East Asian communities such as Japanese, Korean, Indonesian congregate and meet up & to escape from potential discrimination or racism that could take place in mainstream society.

Many new Chinese immigrants relying on Chinatown material supplies strongly reject its cultural segregation. Seen as historical exclusion of Chinese within mainstream (White) society & contemporary example of racial discrimination (Zheng, 192).

Chinatowns act as a convenient spatial metaphor for Chinese diaspora. This metaphor sees Chinatown as a space of Chinese Diaspora. It is a model of negotiating otherness. It is a way of serving and presenting to European, Australian, American communities its own images, desires, notions of China and Chinese culture itself (Cho, 2010). Why travel to & visit China or Hong Kong when you can experience a taste of Chinese culture in your very own country or city by going to Chinatown?

The origins of the term 'diaspora' can be traced back to Greek history and civilisation.
In Hebrew, it means 'exile'.  For Ma, the modern day definition describes diaspora as a 'migration of minority groups residing in different foreign areas, but who originate from a common ancestral homeland. Yet maintaining some connection towards their internal homeland, whilst sharing their culture with others (Ma, 2003).

For Kunnemann and Mayer, Diaspora suggests connections made between people based on a common homeland (The Chinese Diaspora & Chinatowns- Chinatowns in a Transnational World, 199). It's to do with identifying and meeting certain cultural traditions, customs, ways of living and doing things, based on your ethnic origin, but in your country of birth.

Chinatown is both a social and cultural focal point for the Chinese community residing in that particular country it is in, that it shares some commonalities with traditional Hong Kong Chinese and Chinese through cultural traditions, most notably that of food, dialects, kinships, items such as lanterns, Red envelopes, philosophy and beliefs (Luk). It is a neighbourhood, a centre that s/he can identify as their own. It is a social environment for the Chinese to congregate and engage in, and it is cultural by means of illicitting the eastern values, but also reminding him/her of their roots and what it means to be Chinese outside of their mother land territory.

Chinatown is the place where Chinese Americans, Canadians, British, Australians, Peruvians, French people communicate to shop keepers, assistants, waiters and servants in Cantonese or Mandarin, (or English, French). It is a place where as generations go by, a new concept of what is Chinese and British, American etc is created (Tsui, 86).

Their existence demonstrates that Chinatowns are organised and centred around the concept of Chinese-ness. In Gregory's terminology (1995), he pinpoints towards the interrelationships made between people of Chinese origin born in China and Hong Kong who maintain their Chinese culture and identity and the overseas Chinese race, born in European, Oceana and North American cities. That the Chinatowns in these areas are 'imaginative geographies' (Luk). By this, he insists that Chinatown was and is a creation for people of Chinese descent.

Unlike Walmart and other big corporations, Chinatowns do not operate in terms of economic structure or the millions of Chinese and non- Chinese people, who walk into Chinatown every week; its status and way of survival is measured on how big the city's population of Chinese migrants and natives are (Luk). The larger the Chinese population within the area, the more likely native Hong Kong and Chinese people will emigrate to Australia, The UK, US, Canada, France to set up businesses, to find work, or to raise children of Chinese origin born in either of those countries.

Hegemonic ideas about belonging and not belonging from a racial, cultural perspective, the socio-cultural space in which minority groups, migrants call as home (Beyond Chinatown, 214). For people of Chinese origin or descent, Chinatown is for them, that sociocultural space.

Since being in Sao Paulo, Brazil for nearly over 2 months now and visiting Liberdade, which is primarily a safe haven for Japanese Brazilians & Japanese culture, I realised that Liberdade as interesting as it looks, will never be bigger than Chinatown. It doesn't feel the same as being in Chinatown, where I can easily identify with the people in the area. It's mainly due to the area being predominantly for Japanese and Japanese Brazilians, which is great for them and I'm glad for them that they have something like this. But for me personally, Liberdade makes me miss Chinatown more.

Whenever I visit Chinatown, it reminds me of not only who I am, but ethnically, what I am as a British born Chinese person. I feel a sense of 'this is me', and knowing I am surrounded by people who look like me, and like myself are not native Chinese but who still eat Chinese food with chopsticks, speak to Chinese relatives in Cantonese, who still has a Chinese name. That is never going to change.

Chinatown is culturally important to me; it speaks for the millions of Chinese folk not born in China and Hong Kong, but who want to get in touch with their cultural roots through shops, clothing, food etc, and to revisit them time and time again.

One may choose not to visit Chinatown, ever again in their lives. But deep down, culturally, mentally, socially, your ties remain in China or Hong Kong, depending on where one's parents are from, originally and thus, you still have that deeper connection. And it is one that will never go away. No matter what part of the world you are born in, and still being ethnically Chinese.


American Chinatown: A People's History of 5 Neighborhoods, Bonnie Tsui
Chinatowns in a transnational world: myths and realities of an urban phenomenon. Ed. Vanessa Kunnemann, Ruth Mayer.
Chinatown - Wikipedia
Claiming Diaspora: Music, Transnationalism & cultural Policies in Asia, Su Zheng 
Eating Chinese: Culture on the menu in small town Canada, Lily Cho, 2010
Chinatown in Britain - Diffusion and concentration of the British new wave, Wei Ki Luk
Beyond Chinatown: New Chinese Migration & The Global Expansion of China, Metre Thun ed.

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