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Chinatown: A Portrait of a Closed Society.

Chinatown: A Portrait of a Closed Society. Gwen Kinkead. HarperCollins, $23. To a publisher hungry for that quintessential New York story, a proposal about Chinatown must seem like a fat pitch. The themes practically leap from the morning headlines. Crime? Chinatown's got gangsters, hit men, and heroin traffickers. Social problems? Its sweatshops rival the 19th-century's. Struggling immigrants making good? Where else will you find peddlers who have saved up to $50,000 hawking toy phones and cheap socks only months after escaping the clutches of Communism? It seems like a sure winner.

Of course, things aren't so simple, as New Yorker writer Gwen Kinkead discovered. Why have so few white writers probed Chinatown during its 130-year existence, she asks a local journalist. "The reporters get lost," he tells her. "They get into the quicksand and they disappear."

Kinkead already knew this. Her father, a New Yorker writer himself, tried to report on Chinatown in the thirties and was thwarted by a wall of silence. Perhaps driven by his faflure, she leaps with admirable courage into a much changed Chinatown and manages to emerge with some sharply observed and even revelatory anecdotes. Unfortunately, part of the story gets left in the quicksand.

At its best, the book reads like a travelogue. Kinkead is a gregarious guide who can mix it up with the locals enough (thanks to her translator) to give her readers a glimpse of this forbidden city and its "invisible people." We meet Mr. Lin, a civil engineer in China who was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and came to America on a tourist visa in 1986. Working for a Korean grocer and living in a crowded, filthy hovel with nine men, he had already saved $70,000 toward a business--but had never visited Central Park--when Kinkead met him. "Rice very cheap," he tells her to explain his remarkable frugality. In perhaps the book's most charming section, Kinkead pays a boisterous visit to an elite group of Chinese chefs who share secrets about preparing samy, whole fish, bear paw, and armadillo while gambling and downing beers like the Romans at Saturnalia.

There are also admirably detailed discussions of Chinatown's family associations and its criminal syndicates, or tongs, which now rank just below La Cosa Nostra on the Justice Department's list of organized crime groups. Though her material on organized crime is drawn from well-publicized court cases, Kinkead manages to breathe new life into it through detailed interviews with law-enforcement officials and informants. However, she fails to shed much light on the most tragic element of the Chinese syndicates: the disaffected youths who are recruited as street soldiers and become exploited pawns of their adult bosses.

As much as I enjoyed the vignettes, the book would have benefited from providing a stronger sense of Chinatown's impact on the larger Chinese-American community and its place in New York immigrant history. Seclusion within a protective ghetto is hardly unique to the Chinese, yet Kinkead never clearly makes that point. And her discussion of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act--the only law in U.S. history to have excluded an entire people based on their nationality-that helped to create and shape Chinatowns nationwide is thin. That act, and subsequent laws that existed until World War II, prevented most Chinese from bringing their wives and children to America. Until the firties, Chinatown was a preponderantly male "bachelor society" whose members toiled arduously to support families in China while dreaming---often in vain --of returning there to die. It was only after the Immigration Act of 1965 that the gender gap closed, families multiplied, and significant numbers of Chinese began moving beyond Chinatown's protective borders.

A deeper problem stems from Kinkead's analysis of Chinatown as a "closed society." "So few whites hang around Chinatown that any wlio do are assumed to be there on police or government business, and people shut off automatically at the sight of a white person--particularly one asking questions," she writes. Chinese immgrants can be tough interviews. But to suggest that they are put off by the presence of white people is a stretch. This is, after all, a neighborhood that endures thousands of tourists tromping through its streets and gawking in its windows each year--the overwhelming majority of them white.

Every reporter must confront the difficulties of gaining access, so why should she raise the issue here? Because Kinkead's purpose is to define Chinatown as singularly apart and insular. Thus, every diffident shopkeeper and suspicious waiter fits into her larger concept of Chinatown as a claustrophobic, jail-like place from which the immigrants would flee if only they had the chance. Her verbal images help drive home her point: Recent immigrants are "prisoners of Chinatown" who are "isolated" and "feel trapped." A woman equates leaving Chinatown with "an animal escaping a cage." And when they do "escape," they "can't assimilate because they can't speak English."

I don't mean to suggest that this is all wrong. But I do think that Kinkead is missing something: namely, that Chinatown is a far more open and cosmopolitan place than it has ever been. This is no longer the grim enclave of bachelors who dug their heels into lower Manhattan because they were prevented from assimilating. Beyond its restaurants and garment factories, Chinatown has become home to an Asian financial center staffed by an emerging class of lawyers, bankers, and entrepreneurs. These are people who deal daily with tlie outside world, namely Wall Street and City Hall, and who know something about the American system and how to use it. Though Chinatown remains the economic engine for working-class Chinese, its growing service sector is likely to determine the community's future.

There is a less tangible point to be made here as well. To the rapidly growing community of Chinese immigrants and their children throughout the metropolitan area, Chinatown is more than just a place to eat, shop, find work, or bunk down on the cheap. It is a community where people meet up with friends, nourish their cultural needs, and refuel in a familiar ambience. It is a place that immigrants come to because it welcomes them. That is the double-edged nature of immigrant communities: What makes them seem closed to outsiders is also what makes them nurturing to those within.

This book has infuriated many Asian-American writers who see it as one more act of cultural imperialism by a white author who has painted lovely details only to produce a flawed canvas. I don't find this completely fair. Kinkead is a sensitive and observant chronicler, and the book is valuable to anyone who wonders about Chinatown. But it should not, and will not, be the last word on the subject.
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Author:Dao, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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