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The New Chinese America: Class, Economy, and Social Hierarchy (review)

From: Journal of Asian American Studies
Volume 14, Number 3, October 2011
pp. 446-448 | 10.1353/jaas.2011.0026

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Xiaojian Zhao has written an important and timely book on the growing complexities of Chinese American communities today. In The New Chinese Americans: Class, Economy, and Social Hierarchy, Zhao makes a convincing case that the Chinese American communities have been transformed in the past 25 years. Zhao's volume is a striking update of Chinese American communities since the publication of Peter Kwong's first edition of The New Chinatown (Noonday Press, 1987), and it is a revealing exercise to read these two books back-to-back to get a sense of how Chinese American communities have changed. Two of the most significant changes stem from the People's Republic of China (PRC). First, from the 1980s, the number of immigrants from the PRC surpassed those from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Combined with ethnic Chinese from other parts of the diaspora, the number of Chinese Americans had increased fourfold between 1980 and 2006 (from approximately 800,000 to 3.56 million). These demographic changes have made the Chinese American population, once again, majority foreign-born and have added multiple complexities to the community. Second, the past twenty-five years have witnessed the transformation of U.S.-China relations with the PRC becoming not only the U.S.'s largest trade partner (with $400 billion in bilateral trade) but also its largest foreign creditor. The rise of the PRC in the global economy and international affairs has posed difficult questions for Chinese Americans. It suffices to say that given these dramatic shifts, Zhao's book comes at a critical time to examine how these fundamental changes are transforming Chinese American communities.

Zhao's book undertakes this daunting challenge through fieldwork and interviews (128 interviewees participated in the research for the book) supplemented by Chinese-language sources (primarily newspapers) and an updated bilingual bibliography of the latest studies on the Chinese American experience—including academic works in Chinese language. While the word "community" did not make it into the book's subtitle, the book relies on traditional community studies: Zhao examines the geographically, socially, and linguistically bound lives of Chinese immigrants and examines how various structures and identities shape their lives. This methodological orientation makes this book about readily identified Chinese immigrant communities and neighborhoods bound by ethnic institutions and ties. While a few second- and later-generation Chinese Americans who do not have explicit ethnic ties are mentioned, the overwhelming focus of the book is on various Chinese immigrants who are enmeshed in ethnic institutions: of the 128 interviewees who participated in the study, 92 were direct participants in the ethnic economy either as employers or employees. Moreover, mainland Chinese and undocumented immigrants were oversampled—with 59 and 52 interviewees, respectively—and their stories provide a corrective to existing studies that have overlooked both of these populations. The urban and suburban Chinese American communities in the New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco metropolitan areas provide most of the setting with Chinatowns in Queens and Manhattan and the Chinese "ethnoburb" in San Gabriel Valley receiving sustained attention.

The first chapter of the book makes the demographic case for the new Chinese American experience. Zhao's extensive knowledge of Chinese immigration history and the latest trends in migration from the PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the different parts of the Chinese diaspora makes for efficient work. Her discussion of the "invisible" (or undocumented) population of Chinese immigrants is especially valuable for pointing out the most vulnerable members of the immigrant community. She also does an excellent job describing the multiple paths to undocumented status in today's globalizing world. As Zhao points out, the vast majority of undocumented Chinese are not smuggled by snakeheads—most them have simply overstayed their visas as tourists, university- or government-sponsored visitors, temporary workers, or students. She also points out the inherent difficulty in counting temporary visitors and undocumented immigrants. In one example, she notes that the Office of Immigration Statistics estimated that 25,000 Chinese entered the United States illegally in 1995, the same year when Zai Liang—in a study that was partially funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation—found that Fujian Province alone sent 66,500 illegal immigrants to the U...