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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: July 2014

9 - Chinatowns and Borderlands: Inter-Asian Encounters in the Diaspora



It was in North America, in New York City on the east coast and San Francisco on the west coast, that ‘Chinatown’ came into the lexicon of American English. Both residential and commercial, these were ethnic enclaves imposed and enforced by the dominant society. While denied access to equal rights and political incorporation as ‘aliens ineligible for citizenship’, their denizens were needed for their cheap labour and the economic niche they created and occupied to meet the needs and desires of the larger society. Ironically, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 only sealed the existence of Chinatowns as permanent enclaves, for it broke the pattern of ‘sojourning’—travelling back and forth—that had marked diasporic Chinese practices. Unable to return to the United States if they left, most chose to stay put, thus increasing and stabilising the Chinatowns population, ensuring its survival for many decades. Long after enforced residential segregation ended, Chinatowns have persisted in the United States as tourist magnets, representing an Orientalism of both desire and repulsion in the popular American imagination.

American Chinatowns reinvented themselves as a new kind of ethnic enclave when immigration reform in 1965 facilitated the entry of new immigrants from Asia after a long period of exclusion. Renewed immigration coincided with the dawn of a new era of globalisation, marked by deindustrialisation in the global core—the United States—and an innovative development strategy called ‘export-based industrialisation’ in the global periphery.