- Chinese St. Louis: From Enclave to Cultural Community
Chinese St. Louis is one of the important case studies on the Chinese American community in recent years which provides a firsthand microanalysis of one Chinese community in the United States.The book gives a vivid picture of a changing Chinese community in heartland America. It is a detailed history of the first 100 years of the Chinese Americans living in "hop alley" in St. Louis. Since the 1960s, the Chinese Americans there have slowly developed into a cultural community with a wide array of community organizations, language schools, religious institutions, and cultural activities.
The author's focus is on the building of a model of cultural community. She suggests that a cultural community, in addition to preserving cultural heritage and achieving ethnic solidarity, "can also be identified by its economy, demography, and geography" (p.13). She further argues that "two factors have contributed the most to the emergence of a cultural community: social and economic integration, and the preservation of ethnic identity" (p.234). According to her, the "cultural community model" has been a key to understanding Chinese communities in America.
While I appreciate the author's effort in defining a Chinese cultural community, I should point out that it is common for ethnic societies in America to become cultural communities. In St. Louis itself, the Irish community went through a similar journey from fighting for survival to exercising educational, economic and even political power (Faherty 2001). The Italians started to form an ethnic community in St. Louis in the early 20th century, a little later than the Chinese, while still struggling in the so-called "cottage industry" stage. After the community shrank drastically during World War II and in the following years, the Italian Americans were able to form a significant cultural and economic community in St. Louis by the 1980s (Mormino 1986). The Jews similarly went through some hard times in building a community in St. Louis (Ehrlich 1997). It is a common process for ethnic communities in America to start at the subsistence level, experience a series of harsh setbacks, and finally develop into cultural, economic and political powerhouses. The author of Chinese St. Louis asserts that "European immigrants up to the 1960s had mostly constituted the earlier and larger ethnic components of America. By that decade most of the European ethnic groups had moved out of their ethnic communities and merged with mainstream, 'white' society" (p.15). However, one should note that by maintaining their religious and cultural ties, many European immigrants are still keeping their physical communities in the metropolitan areas, such as the Jewish community in the Fairfax area of [End Page 320] Los Angeles. On the other hand, the majority of ethnic Chinese in Los Angeles are connected to mainstream society rather than to Chinatown which has gradually become a center for the aging Cantonese population and ethnic Chinese immigrants from Southeast Asia. Certainly, for the Chinese and other colored people, the struggle to maintain their cultural identities and dignity would have been harder than for most European immigrants. Nevertheless, that does not make the author's "cultural community model" a convincing Chinese model. America is a nation of immigrants, and many ethnic communities have shared a similar course of development in history. Virtually all the ethnic societies in America would be cultural communities going by the author's definition of the "cultural community model."
Meanwhile, this "cultural community model" does not represent all the characteristics of the Chinese American community at large. The model may apply to some Chinese American communities, such as in St. Louis or in the Chinatowns in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. However, many Chinese American communities do not follow the course of development in the model, such as the Chinese community in Silicon Valley, California, which has been studied by Bernard Wong (2006). In places with concentrations of hi-tech companies like Boston, Austin, Los Angeles and, of course, Silicon Valley, Asia-Pacific American scientists had become the norm by the 1970s and...