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New York Before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776-1882 Paperback – Aug 22 2001

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins Univ Pr (Aug. 22 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801867940
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801867941
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.5 x 22.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 522 g
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #827,176 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description


This study sets a new standard for Asian American scholarship... Exhaustively researched, deftly argued, beautifully written, and sumptuously illustrated, New York before Chinatown is one of the best books on Asian immigration and its impact on American culture ever written. -- Andrew Gyory Journal of American Ethnic History An outstanding book. It simply leaves you wanting more! -- K. Scott Wong International Migration Review

About the Author

John Kuo Wei Tchen is director of Asian/Pacific/American Studies and an associate professor of history at New York University. Tchen received an American Book Award for Genthe's Photographs of San Francisco's Old Chinatown, 1895-1906 and he edited Paul C. P. Siu's The Chinese Laundryman. In 1980, Tchen cofounded the Museum of Chinese in the Americas.

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First Sentence
The use of Chinese things, ideas, and people in the United States, in various imagined and real forms, has been instrumental in forming this nation's cultural identity. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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By "harrylyons5p" on June 26 2004
Format: Paperback
This is a very good book on a subject that is very interesting. I thought that John Kuo Wei Tchen did a great job.
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Amazon.com: 2 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Excellent March 16 2007
By Joseph Shahadi - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
In New York Before Chinatown John Kuo Wei Tchen explores the dramatic shift in representations of Chinese people throughout the 19th century that, he argues, are essential to the development of modern "white" identity. Tchen expands the late Arab/American critic Edward Said's theoretical framework "orientalism", which famously illuminated the fear, loathing and desire of the West for the East, to include cultural phenomena intrinsic to US American life. In doing so he argues that orientalism has been instrumental in forming US American cultural identity. Writing in 1999 Tchen modestly offers this study as an attempt to tease out "subtle patterns" in U.S. history. The academic discretion he employs in so framing his argument belies its power and, in a post 9/11 world seems almost quaint. There can be no question that orientalist scenarios are shaping our contemporary historical moment.

Beginning in the colonial period Tchen describes the struggle to establish a distinct American identity in orientalist terms. He writes, "The beginnings of US modernity in (the) decades after the revolution...were characterized by the rise of self-made men and radical changes in everyday economic, political and social life." The flux of this period was mediated through Chinese consumable goods as US American identities, caught between the modes of patrician Europe and the needs of the new nation, cohered. Tchen emphasizes the passion for collecting Chinese porcelain, which became known as "china" and the merchants who sold it "Chinamen and women." In this way oriental objects came to represent Asian people, a conflation that persists.

While the "tasteful display" of oriental objects was a signifier of wealth and class in Europe and colonial America such "luxury and profuseness" was viewed by some as cause for alarm. British novelist Tobias Smollet warned against oriental luxuries as harbingers of "Indigence and Effeminacy: which prepared the Minds of the People for Corruption (and) Subjugation." Smollet and his contemporaries read a threat into the absence of actual Chinese people that their luxury items represented. His use of feminine terms as a frame for moral degeneracy that prefigures a "fall" is a sexist tactic not exclusive to orientalist scenarios but nonetheless often finds its expression there. The eastern other often vacillates between a degenerate effeminacy and a robust, sexually threatening vitality: an iteration that Tchen describes later as the "Chinese devil man."

Tchen notes that despite such warnings the fashion for oriental objects ran unabated in colonial America. He writes, "Average Americans chafed at any sumptuary limits on consumables deemed foreign and therefore taboo." I'd argue that this early American exercise in white privilege is a scenario that plays itself out in our current moment not over Chinese tea, but Middle Eastern oil. Even as racialized representations of Arabs--which echo the effeminate/hyper-masculine representations of the 19th century Chinese--abound in our culture the hunger for Middle Eastern oil only grows. As in the "American century" our "desire for `oriental' goods (is) stronger than the threat of `oriental despotism.'"

This pattern of orientalist imagining of eastern others from paternalistic delight, to sexual fear (characterized by moral outrage) to demonization (characterized by physical and or mental abjection) plays itself out in the past via Tchen's study and the present through the ethno-racist tropes applied by the Bush presidency in its foreign policy. The arguments John Kuo Wei Tchen makes in New York Before Chinatown have, through the events of the past several years, become overt expressions of the material culture of the United States.
1 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Chinatown June 26 2004
By "harrylyons5p" - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This is a very good book on a subject that is very interesting. I thought that John Kuo Wei Tchen did a great job.