- Economic Citizens: A Narrative of Asian American Visibility
In a 1915 Cecil B. DeMille silent film, Sessue Hayakawa plays Haka Arakau, the eponymous "Cheat," a Japanese merchant (he is a Burmese trader in the 1918 rerelease) who is obsessed with his collection of ivory Orientalia—statues, incense burners, boxes, and garden gargoyles—that proves economically salient to his booming business. Consumed by the things that make him wealthy, merchant Arakau marks his precious possessions by branding his signature on their bases. Attractive female socialite Edith Hardy, played by Fanny Ward, flirts with the dapper Arakau at film's start, eventually borrowing $10,000 from him after embezzling from the charity that she heads up. She loses the money in the stock market and is unable to repay him in a timely fashion. In anger and sexual frustration, he brands her as he does his objects, marking her as his possession. DeMille's film suggests that Oriental objects in circulation, so coveted by Western clients, allow him social circulation among white women while his race denies him the legal privilege to marry one of them. Two narratives of exchange emerge in the film. One is that of economic exchange, where Asian objects are traded for dollars. The other is one in which economic transactions translate into cultural ones, here where access to money does not guarantee Asian men romantic, sexual, or marital access to white women. Arakau's trial and eventual imprisonment are fueled by compendium narratives involving the threat of Asian capital and of Asian sexual encroachment on white women.
Such are the narratives that Christine So explores in Economic Citizens: A Narrative of Asian American Visibility. So deftly discusses how "racialized identities are constructed through the machine of capital" and how "economics itself is racialized" (14). Through the logic of economic exchange, So re-examines numerous "highly commodifiable" Asian American novels once dismissed by [End Page 373] critics for their assimilationist bent, falling under what Sau-ling Wong calls guided Chinatown tours, or critiqued for the seemingly strict gendered or racial identities they seemed to foster (5). She finds numerous "images of money, commodities, buying, lending, banking, and selling," monetary themes that have remained unexplored by critics but are important to the production and consumption of Asian American characters (3). If economic exchange stabilizes an object's value by creating its worth on the market, So aruges, then the economic success of those Asian American characters who buy, lend, bank, and sell would seem to mark their stability and success in public and private markets. However, So reads instances of anxiety over the relationship between Asian Americans and nationality that emerge within monetary exchanges and the alienation that arises when only certain subjects can carry cultural currency. She draws her materials from mainstream novels that encompass four time periods: World War II ethnographies of China-town; travel narratives published during the height of anti-Japanese sentiment in the 1980s; the Asian mail-order bride businesses of the 1990s; and fairly recent, sweeping historical memoirs of Chinese American women.
In her first chapter, So discusses how the "exotic goods" that mark social and economic spaces in San Francisco's Chinatown in the first half of the twentieth century offer a new literary appreciation of Asian American literature, specifically of Jade Snow Wong's memoir Fifth Chinese Daughter (1950), Pardee Lowe's memoir Father and Glorious Descendant (1943), C.Y. Lee's The Flower Drum Song (1957), and Virginia Lee's The House that Tai-Ming Built (1963). These novels have been charged with exoticizing Chinatown spaces, exactly what renders them appealing to mainstream readers, So reminds us. So's reading scrutinizes anxieties over how goods are produced, circulated, and consumed both inside and outside Chinatown's borders in order to disrupt readings focused on the exotic and on characters' assimilation. She juxtaposes the tedious work protagonist Wong, in Fifth Chinese Daughter, performs in her own home for fifty cents a week against the equally tedious work—for room, board, and twenty dollars a week—in the home of an...