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Anthropological Quarterly 76.4 (2003) 789-800



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Transnationalism, Religion, and Immigration

Eriberto P. Lozada Jr.
Davidson College

Kenneth Guest. God in Chinatown: Religion and Survival in New York's Evolving Immigrant Community. New York: New York University Press, August 2003. pp. 256

With the centrality of processes of globalization—economic, political, religious, and cultural—transnational fieldwork, once a clarion call for reform by anthropologists, is increasingly become common in many detailed and focused ethnographies, such as James Watson's 1975 seminal study of the emigration patterns of a Cantonese lineage in Hong Kong and London or Ellen Oxfeld's 1993 study of Chinese entrepreneurs in Calcutta and Toronto. Kenneth Guest's study of Chinese transnational religious communities is a good example of such a transnational ethnography, spanning Fujian province and New York City and the movement of people in-between. The Chinese immigrants who journey to the United States in pursuit of their visions of the good life rely, as Guest concludes, on social networks generated by immigrants through their participation in transnational religious communities. Religious communities serve as the primary area for the mobilization of social capital necessary for people's survival of the immigration process through the exchange of information and financial support in the United States. As a result, religion is a major factor in the identities of Chinese immigrants to the United States. In this ethnography, Guest starts his exploration of the role of transnational religious communities on the social and economic survival of undocumented Chinese [End Page 789] immigrants in New York by examining the people involved in a variety of religious communities (Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, and Daoist) and their connections with communities in China. While the scope of Guest's study is ambitious, he brings in the detailed particularities of these transnational processes by bringing out the voices of these immigrants who live globally, demonstrating the heterogeneity of the so-called "ethnic enclave" that is usually singularly identified as Chinatown.

Immigration and Heterogeneity in Chinatown

By relating the individual experiences and life histories of a number of recent Fuzhou immigrants to New York's Chinatown, Guest situates both the contemporary situation of immigrants (legal and illegal, men and women) from China and the history of Chinatown in the wider context of American immigration history. Although the social solidarity of an apparent shared Chinese ethnicity helps immigrants survive in a foreign land, Guest documents how the internal dynamics of a socially-stratified community, with its dense networks of social obligations for the immigrants, also serve to establish a socioeconomic hierarchy—a hierarchy where recent immigrants find themselves at the bottom. Chinatown is not a harmonious place for these recent immigrants, a gateway for them to pursue the American dream; instead, it is a highly-stratified community where differences of regional origin, language, educational background, and other socioeconomic and political markers serve as mechanisms with which Chinatown elite economically exploit these highly vulnerable newcomers.

Herein lies both the weakness and strength of Guest's ethnography in general. Guest clearly states that his focus on immigrants from Fuzhou serves to give voice to the social category most exploited in the process of immigration, as is seen in his critique of the elite aspect of Ong and Nonini's (1997) and Ong's (1999) studies of Chinese transnationalism in chapter two; Guest asserts that Ong and Nonini's focus on the business elite masks the diversity within the social experiences of transnationalism. While Guest convincingly demonstrates the difficult plight faced by immigrants by giving voice to these marginalized newcomers, he does a less thorough job with what he labels as the elite—those more wealthy residents of Chinatown who had emigrated from other Chinese communities such as Hong Kong or southeast Asia, or had immigrated earlier. For example, while Guest demonstrates the heterogeneity within Chinatown, I was surprised at the relative lack of discussion of Cantonese or Hakka immigrant [End Page 790] experiences, and other than allusions to differences in regional association and language, the experiences of these immigrants were homogenized as "Chinatown elites." Making explicit comparisons between Fuzhou and Cantonese or Hakka...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1518
Print ISSN
0003-5491
Pages
pp. 789-800
Launched on MUSE
2003-11-07
Open Access
No
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