five cities, five chinatowns

After reading American Chinatown, I suddenly have the pressing urge to learn Chinese.

Bonnie Tsui’s book is about the Chinatowns of San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Las Vegas. She weaves together local history and interviews with residents, which then form a personal story that really illustrates the dynamic character that’s inherent in any Chinatown. She touches on a lot of different topics and manages to both give details and keep it light, whether she’s discussing lion dancing or the pressing need for decent housing for recent immigrants.

My favorite Chinatown is of course San Francisco, since I was born in the Bay Area and that has to count for something. But I really want to visit Las Vegas’s Chinatown – apparently it didn’t grow organically but was masterminded to appeal to local Asians and Asians visiting from abroad and is quite recent, yet seems authentic in all respects. Most Chinatowns aren’t entirely ‘real’, in that although they might be old, conscious efforts are made to appeal to both tourists and residents. I love it when reality and fiction mesh to form real life, and it seems like this happens in Chinatowns all over the country. Tsui really managed to address both sides of the equation in her book: the problem of giving residents what they need (like affordable housing, schooling, shopping, community) while yet being familiar (and in some ways stereotypical) enough that visitors want to come by (hopefully then learning more about what a Chinatown really means to the people that live there).

It was a really enjoyable read and I feel like I now better understand this part of ethnic America. I liked it enough to want to scrounge up another book about Chinese-American culture (or food…mmm).  And learn how to make fortune cookies. I could really do with a fortune cookie right about now..

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