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Radical History Review 83 (2002) 199-202
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New York before Chinatown
Matthew Frye Jacobson
John Kuo Wei Tchen, New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776-1882. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
Thirty years have elapsed since Stuart Creighton Miller demonstrated, in The Unwelcome Immigrant, that a robust set of anti-Asian images and attitudes flourished on U.S. soil long before significant numbers of actual living and breathing Asian immigrants had set foot there. 1 John Kuo Wei Tchen's New York before Chinatown brings Miller's insight to full fruition. Through an appealing double maneuver, Tchen exposes not only the absolute centrality of "Asia" and "Asianness" to dominant American political thought from the Revolutionary generation on down, but also the street-level consequences of American orientalism for those relatively few Chinese mariners and settlers who did inhabit New York in the decades before a full-fledged Chinese ghetto took shape there.
Three glacial periods of U.S. orientalist thought frame this account. First, a reigning "patrician orientalism" during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the flow of Asian goods and ideas (and, to a lesser extent, people) began to inform the very notion of American nationality among a generation at once certain of its superior Old World pedigree and anxious about its New World distinctiveness; the "commercial orientalism" of the mid-nineteenth century, when market forces gave birth to an incipient community of imported Asian residents within the [End Page 199] raucus, motley port culture of New York, and when things "oriental" became commodified—most often as "curiosities"—in popular print culture and in innovative forms of urban amusement; and the "political orientalism" of the latter nineteenth century (the era of exclusion), when questions of national identity and sovereignty came to rest on dominant interpretations of the Chinese "menace" within U.S. borders. This set of political concerns relied in its turn on the common presumptions of what might be called America's ethnological imagination, a deep-seated white supremacism at once inflected by the orientalist fancies of commercial culture and cast in the compelling language of the social and biological sciences.
Tchen renders these general contours with admirable subtlety, ever noting, for instance, the blurry temporal boundaries differentiating one period from the next, and the entangled and mutually dependent character of these three brands of orientalism. But his overarching scheme of three periods represents a persuasive and generative paradigm; it provides a kind of prehistory of Asian immigration, and it explains some of the pervasive currents in American political culture over a rather impressive sweep of historical time.
Tchen opens his account with a peculiar but telling anecdote about George Washington, who, amid the chaotic scenes of revolution, was busy refurnishing his New York home with "mahogany knife cases, a carpet, a damask tablecloth, a feather bed, pillows, a tureen, eight porcelain mugs, two dozen plates, and other miscellany." Conspicuous among the sauceboats and fluted bowls were some expensive "'china' bowls," a possession that Washington and his contemporaries had invested with considerable symbolic power. Washington's ritual of acquisitive domesticity was not unrelated to the historic events then shaking the New World loose from the grip of the Old, by Tchen's reckoning: the outfitting of the general's home, like the revolution itself, was at its core a matter of "distinction," part of that generation's effort "to formulate a cultural identity" (3, 4). Ultimately Tchen expands on this initial observation in a protracted analysis of economics, global trade, and "taste," situating the young nation's budding China trade "as a means of distancing itself from Europe" and seeking "symbolically. . . to dominate China as proof of [a] destined civilizational process" (59). These opening chapters draw on the actualities and the attending rhetoric of East-West trade in order to illumine the symbolic requirements of American nationality-in-the-making. The founding generation may have cherished its European pedigree as a "civilized" nation, but so did it posit an unbridgeable gulf separating Old World and New. Both the image and the actual objects...