Community Activism and Scholarship
Academics are generally weary of community activists whose intellectual objectivity they suspect. However, realities are shaped by the struggle of opposing forces. There is no one single objective truth; instead, many different interpretations emerge from events as they unfold. A participant is, therefore, in a [End Page 321] better position to appreciate these unfolding realities. Scholars who stand on the sidelines and do not witness the developments are thus missing out on a whole body of knowledge. As a burgeoning field, Asian American studies can ill afford this kind of loss, particularly in view of its already thin base of knowledge—partly the result of a buried past due to the nation’s racist history, and partly because Asian Americans are the fastest growing minority in the U.S. whose history is still in the making. Academics who insist on “scholarly objectivity” have to rely on a limited volume of established facts, or uncritically accept “information” provided by partisans. Results from this type of research are neither objective nor bounteous.
The contrasts between the two books under review illustrate this point well. Even though Lin’s book Reconstructing Chinatown: Ethnic Enclave, Global Change deals with the working-class ethnic enclave in New York City’s Chinatown and Saito’s Race and Politics: Asian Americans, Latinos, and Whites in a Los Angeles Suburb focuses on a professional, middle-class suburban Asian American community on the outskirts of Los Angeles, they start their analyses from the same vantage point, that is, the impact of globalization on Asian immigrant communities in modern America.
For Lin, the rapid circulation of capital and labor under the present conditions of globalized production, which criss-cross national borders, has undermined many of the conventional distinctions between advanced and less-developed economies. New York, for instance, is one of the command centers of the global economy—a glittering city of wealth, high-finance, and corporate headquarters, staffed by highly skilled and well-paid executives. Yet it is at the same time a city of “downgraded manufacturing” and low-paying service industries, with unregulated economic activities serviced by a marginalized underclass—usually immigrant workers from “third world” countries. Lin wants us to understand Chinatown within this global context.
With the influx of capital from Asia, New York’s Chinatown has developed into a dynamic economic hub, attracting a diverse Chinese population from all over the world and across the whole spectrum of classes. Its accelerated increase has spilled over the confines of old Chinatown in lower Manhattan and created a number of satellite Chinatowns in Queens and Brooklyn.
This flow of Chinese investment, Lin argues, is part of the larger foreign capital movement into the U.S. which resulted from the structural decline of the American economy since the 1970s, due mainly to the deficit caused by the Vietnam war and the transfer of petro-dollars to Arab oil states. Lin is at his best when describing the banking and real-estate activities of Hong Kong and Taiwan [End Page 322] capital that take advantage of America’s political stability and high interest rates. Not surprisingly, this was Lin’s original research project in the late 1980s. However, his analysis becomes trite when discussing how this capital has filtered down into the Chinatown community, as well as what social and economic conflicts have resulted from the influx. He provides the readers with what amounts to a laundry list of community groups with brief statements on what they do, or sometimes even just what they claim to do—without critical analysis. In this bloodless portrait of Chinatown, Lin fails to inform the readers of the power dynamics at play among these different groups, namely to present them in a connected way which would show us who does what to whom, and who gets what and how.
Lin gives readers a mere glimpse of a whole spectrum of different organizations, including groups that fight gentrification...