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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 408-415

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American Orientalism

Mae M. Ngai

John Kuo Wei Tchen. New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776-1882, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. xxiv + 295 pages. Illustrations, notes, and bibliography. $42.50.

Edward Said's seminal work, Orientalism (1978), identified and critiqued a nexus of European intellectual and cultural views about the East as a constituting element of Western colonial identity and power. Although Said wrote about Orientalism as a body of knowledge produced by British and French imperialism about the Middle East and India in the nineteenth century, the concept of Orientalism now often serves as shorthand for negative Western stereotypes about all Asians, across time and across a capacious area that stretches from Turkey to Hawaii. That slippage is perhaps testimony to the enduring power of Said's analysis, even as critics have called for more historically and nationally specific analyses of Orientalism.

Is there a nineteenth-century American Orientalism? Said argued that American Orientalism did not emerge until the immediate post-World War II period, when American social science reworked European Orientalism into area studies, just as the United States displaced Britain and France as the dominant Western power in the Middle East. 1 This may be correct insofar as Orientalism is narrowly defined as an academic discipline. But if we take a more expansive view of cultural knowledge, then might we identify an earlier Orientalism that comprises more than episodic cultural representations, an Orientalism that is constitutive of American national identity and racial power?

A partial answer may be found in the field of Asian American studies, which has approached this question from the vantage of the historical and contemporary racialization of Asian ethnic minorities in the United States. A growing corpus of scholarship has studied processes of racial formation as cultural representations and stereotypes, as legal constructs, and as embodiments of cheap labor. Orientalist tropes--China as despotic, the Asiatic as heathen, servile, clannish, and inscrutable--are deeply implicated in these constructions and in the marginalization of Asian American communities. [End Page 408]

Asian American studies has also offered new insight into the workings of United States imperialism. It has re-centered the colonization of the Philippines and United States economic and military projections into Asia and the Pacific throughout the twentieth century as critical sites for constructing both Asian America and America's self-image as a modern nation. This work both recovers the experience of Asian Americans and offers a window to understanding central themes in American history and culture. It also opens up the question of nationalist historiography and the perils of working unproblematically within the normative framework of the nation-state and American exceptionalism specifically, which relies on the erasure of conquest and empire. 2

Asian American studies complicates the meaning of Orientalism by re-framing the question of distance and the location of the subject. Said carefully distinguished Orientalism, a distant geographic and historical imaginary created by European colonialism, from the actual history of real people in the "Orient." But if oriental difference relied on distance, that difference was altered, but not eliminated, by the mass immigration of Chinese to the American West in the mid-nineteenth century. The racialization of Chinese and other Asian immigrants is thus properly understood both as a domestic racial production, which takes place as part of U.S. national development and in relation to African American slavery, segregation, and other domestic racial formations; and as a product of America's colonial reaches into Asia and the Pacific. Understanding the relationship of these two dynamics would seem essential to unraveling American Orientalism. 3

Asian Americanist literary and cultural critics have produced much of the recent scholarship addressing these issues. At its best, this work has both enriched Asian American studies and opened up new avenues of thinking about U.S. national identity, culture, and power in American studies. If a weakness exists, it is the dearth of history in the conversation. Theoretical work that problematizes the relationship between representation and experience and close readings of novels...


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