Chinatown: cultural identity and diaspora, deterritorialization and time-space compression
Areas known as Chinatowns came into existence through the migration waves of Chinese people in the 1840s searching for a better life. Due to intolerable hatred and pressure from the American people and government the first Chinatown emerged in San Francisco as a unified entity with shared features. Since then they spread out and now exist more or less throughout the world. In today’s globalized multicultural world the question is if the Chinese diaspora still finds themselves in a situation similar to the one 170 years ago or the concepts of ‘deterritorialization’ and ‘time-space compression’ provide a basis for a new Chinatown. With the help of the conceptual frameworks of cultural identity and diaspora by Stuart C. Hall, Arjun Appadurai’s concept of deterritorialization, and lastly Harvey’s theory of time-space compression the current situation of Chinatowns will be examined. This essay speaks in general terms, so it is unclear, but unlikely, whether or not the concepts fit with each Chinatown in the world.
Chinatowns are historically a unified entity of clustered expatriate Chinese. The origin of the Chinatown can be dated back as far as 1594 when the first emerged in Manila, the Philippines (Raitisoja). Since then, Chinatowns have developed throughout the world. Following the Opium Wars in 1839-42 and again in 1856-60 and a series of natural catastrophes that resulted in famine, uprisings and rebellions, Chinese people migrated in huge numbers in search of better opportunities. At that time, the news of gold and prosperity in America reached China, so it became the place to seek their fortune. However, the migrants found that it was not easy being Chinese in America during that period. First, they were met with ambiguous feelings about taking labour from Americans and secondly, everyday life became a reality of racial discrimination and malevolence, as they were considered racially subordinated to Caucasians. Consequently, rigid legislative actions were taken against Chinese immigration culminating in the contentious Exclusion Act of 1882 (LoC: 4, 5). These discriminations eventually throng the Chinese into the sanctuary of a neighbourhood, a Chinatown, and the first real Chinatown to emerge outside Asia was indeed in San Francisco in 1848. Here they found themselves among people unified by geographical, cultural, ethnical and linguistic features, which they used to create a vibrant and vivacious community, in order to tolerate and escape from the appalling and hostile environment. Today, the Chinese diaspora is scattered all over the world and has created many new Chinatowns but the question here is whether or not the sense of a shared cultural identity, history, heritage, and ancestry is beginning to dilute and if it actually remains the same as it was 150 years ago. That is, whether Chinatowns around the world are supposedly significant cultural bearers in a world with increasingly little room for uniqueness and distinctive features but that might be conceived as being a romantic idea. Hall’s theory about cultural identity in diaspora is highly applicable in the case of Chinese diaspora in Chinatowns as he argues that we should think of cultural identity not as being ‘transparent or unproblematic’, but instead an on-going process in which identity is a production (Hall: 222). He defines the first position of cultural identity as “…one, shared culture, a sort of collective 'one true self', hiding inside the many other, more superficial or artificially imposed 'selves', which people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common” (Hall: 223). That is, historical experiences shape and reflect our cultural identities. The second position states that the forming of cultural identity “is a matter of 'becoming' as well as of 'being'. It belongs to the future as much as to the past” (Hall: 225), where cultural identities...
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Library of Congress. ”Chinese – Taking Care of Our Own” Library of Congress. N.d. Web. 10 Oct.
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