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T h e L a d y f r o m S h a n g h a i: C a l i f o r n i a O r ie n t a lis m a n d “GUYS LIKE U S’’ M ic h a e l D a v id s o n “Alvah says that while guys like us are all excited about being real Orientals and wearing robes, actual Orientals over there are reading surrealism and Charles Darwin and mad about Western business suits.” “East’ll meet West anyway. Think what a great world revolution will take place when East meets West finally, and it’ll be guys like us that can start the thing. Think of millions of guys all over the world with rucksacks on their backs tramping around the back country and hitchhiking and bringing the word down to everybody.” —Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums “G U Y S LIKE U S ” With the passage of Proposition 187 restricting health and educational benefits to undocumented workers, California has revived a long­ standing pattern of animosity toward those upon whose labor the state has depended. Whereas supporters of the bill spoke of the economic impact of “illegal aliens” upon the state’s budget, California’s historical record shows that this budget has been heavily subsidized by Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese, Mexicans, Eastern Europeans, Pacific Islanders, and other immigrants who have formed a substantial per­ centage of the workforce. By focusing on economic impact rather than racial conflict, proponents of immigration reform have created a seem­ ingly value-neutral forum in which to assess issues of immigration, affir­ mative action, welfare, and entitlements. But as Alexander Saxton, Tomás Almaguer, Ronald Tikaki, David Roediger, and others have pointed out, anti-immigrant sentiment historically has not been fueled by economic interests alone but has rested on racial distinctions by which white settlers could differentiate their own immigrant pasts from those of darker skinned neighbors. This is especially the case with immigrants from China, who formed the largest non-native portion of the labor force at the moment of the state’s emergence onto the national scene. 3 4 8 WAL 3 5 .4 WINTER 2 0 0 1 Although the popular imagination regards the first Chinese as indentured servants, many arrived on the western shore as entrepre' neurs, working in placer mining camps of the 1850s and establishing their own claims on “Gold Mountain.” When the gold ran out (or when they were run out of the placer fields by white mining interests), they worked in large numbers for the first transcontinental railroad and later in frontier towns operating restaurants, laundries, and dry goods businesses. Although many Chinese moved to overcrowded urban Chinatowns, a substantial number achieved greater economic success in agriculture and harvest labor. Fears of an “Asian invasion” began with the annexation of California in 1848, manifested through anticoolie legislation and exclusionary mining taxes, culminating in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Law and sealed with the Immigration Act of 1924- Much of this sentiment has persisted, particularly during World War II with the incarceration of Japanese Americans in internment camps and today with localized attacks on U.S. residents of Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese descent. A recent bumper sticker, “Buy American: Remember Pearl Harbor,” exhibits more than Kiwanis boosterism ; it revives a century-old racist fear of cheap Asian labor, even when that labor no longer works on domestic soil. While Asians have been demonized as the “yellow peril,” they also form a major part of a larger western cultural imaginary. From Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the Babylonian Samson Tyre and Rubber Company building in Los Angeles to the Japanese tea garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and pagoda variations on craftsman houses in the Berkeley hills, from Korean or Vietnamese signage on urban boulevards to the retro-chinoiserie of postmodern restaurants— the western city is also a Chinatown. Orientalist fantasies of exoticism, sexual mystery, and adventure persist in the works of writers from Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Joaquin Miller through Dashiell Hammett, Nathaniel West, and Kenneth Rexroth. “Chinatown” is both a movie and a heterotopic space in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 347-371
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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