- Chinese San Francisco, 1850—1943: A Trans-Pacific Community
While other scholars have studied the Chinese community in San Francisco, especially during the period from the initial arrival of immigrants during the gold [End Page 186] rush of the mid-19th century to the onset of World War II, Yong Chen’s study offers fascinating, new insights by recreating the social, cultural, and political world of his subjects. Critical of previous approaches that either focused on the perspectives of non-Chinese or else responded to paradigms formulated externally to the community, Chen seeks to uncover the “common cultural systems” of the Chinese in San Francisco in order to understand how they perceived the world around them. (p. 4) To accomplish this task, Chen analyzes developments in Chinese history that shaped the lives of Chinese Americans and also utilizes sources in Chinese, the primary language of communication in San Francisco Chinatown. The community’s linguistic preference supports Chen’s argument concerning the trans-Pacific or transnational orientation of the Chinese in the United States. Especially during the 19th century, Chinese in the United States were shaped by the values and sensibilities of Chinese culture. Chen argues that this orientation was not merely reactive to the experiences of racial discrimination in the United States but also a reflection of the strength of national and not simply parochial regional identification prior to emigration. This cultural nationalism persisted and evolved into a political form of nationalism in the 20th century, even as members of the San Francisco community increasingly adopted American social norms and cultural ideas. The population’s desire to maintain economic, cultural, and political connections with China challenges approaches that use assimilation as the dominant narrative of immigration. At the same time, Chen critiques the sojourner thesis that suggests that Chinese immigrants viewed the United States only as a temporary home. The coexistence of westernization and Chinese nationalism among Chinese in San Francisco suggests the need to go beyond dichotomous paradigms of assimilation versus separatism or settler versus sojourner by analyzing how Chinese in the United States developed flexible and multilayered identities in response to their historical and geographical contexts.
Chen’s access to Chinese language sources and efforts to use Chinese history and culture to understand the world of Chinese San Francisco allow him to unearth new findings and offer new interpretations about the much-studied community. For example, Chen uses medical advertisements in Chinese newspapers and Chinese language advice books to gain insight into the predominantly male community’s concerns about sex and masculinity. He also analyzes the style and subject matter of Chinatown theaters to argue that immigrants from the Canton region participated in rituals that sustained memories of and perpetuated knowledge about Chinese national culture. Chen’s interpretation of the 1905 boycott of American goods, a widespread effort initiated in China to protest racial discrimination in the United States, highlights the importance of reform movements in the ancestral land in fostering a new sense of political engagement and consciousness among Chinese in the United States. One of the book’s most noteworthy sources, an English and Chinese language diary by Ah Quin, allows Chen to examine the daily life and mindset of a Chinese Christian entrepreneur. While Ah Quin was based in San Diego, his travels and concerns suggest that his life was shaped by his ties with San Francisco, the capital of Chinese in the United States, as well as China.
Although a rich and interesting study, Chinese San Francisco occasionally falters by both overreaching and underusing its evidence. In challenging existing [End Page 187] theories regarding immigration, Chen reinscribes some of the same paradigms, especially as they relate to cultural identity and gender/sexuality. While Chen criticizes approaches that assume Chinese and American as static and mutually exclusive categories, his study and interpretation occasionally follow this line of thinking. For example the first part of the book focuses on the Chineseness of the San Francisco community. One way in which Chen demonstrates their cultural...