In the midst of fomenting
revolution against the British in 1776, George Washington
would break away from military defense strategy talks
to order the latest porcelain tea service from China.
After the Americans won the war against Britain, Thomas
Jefferson turned his attention to designing his home
in Monticello, where he commissioned a miniature Chinese
pavilion and Chinese temple for his private garden.
Such are the remarkable
tidbits John Kuo Wei Tchen serves up in New York Before
Chinatown. But Tchen, director of the Asian/Pacific/American
Studies Program and Institute at New York University,
has ambitious designs with his compendium of Chinese
American minutiae. Seeking to reveal a deeper meaning
behind America's fascination with Chinese things and
ideas, this historical narrative is designed to show
how China - inadvertently more often than deliberately
- shaped American culture and society as the young country
strived to find its feet.
Tchen confines his analysis to the years 1776-1882,
during which time perceptions of China and its people
shifted dramatically. Whereas at the beginning Americans
cast China with a benign - sometimes adulatory - glow,
the rosy view had disintegrated by 1882, culminating
with anti-Chinese immigration legislation.
Tchen employs an analytical tool developed by literary
critic Edward Said of Columbia University. Said developed
the critique of "orientalism" in his inquiry into how
Western European elites define their own culture against
an "imagined" Middle East. In the same way that Europeans
perceived a Middle East against which they could reflect
their own world, America's founding fathers used China
as a means to developing a national personality. Tchen
maps out three distinct but overlapping types of orientalism
which shaped America's relationship with Chinese people
and ideas. The first, termed "patrician orientalism,"
was driven primarily by social hierarchy. Status was
conferred on those who possessed Chinese things and
ideas; hence, George Washington's taste for fancy china
tea sets, part and parcel of his strategy of "uplifting
himself from his humble origins to the status of landed
gentry." He constantly sought to emulate British elite
culture. His tea-drinking and porcelain-collecting habits
embodied these efforts," writes Tchen.
Throughout this period, Washington and others were largely
guided by European Enlightenment thinking which idealized
Confucian court culture. In essence, Americans saw Chinese
as friendly, non-threatening people whose virtues would
enhance the dominant culture. In time, however, the
United States would emerge on the international scene,
keen to match Europe's trade prowess, thereby adding
a new dimension to America's view of China. Writes Tchen,
"America drew upon China as a means of distancing itself
from Europe, and it symbolically sought to dominate
China as proof of destined civilizational progress."
As America's national and international ambitions grew,
so did the port life of New York. The increased trade
dealt not just in goods but people, who came from all
over. The regular appearance of Chinese people and ideas
in New York combined with the emergence of a ravenous
urban public clamoring for new forms of entertainment
like the penny press, yellowface minstrel shows and
The appetite for new or foreign experiences would trigger
a new type of orientalism. According to Tchen, "commercial
orientalism" arose in part from a "marketplace that
catered to consumers who would buy only certain products
and representations about Chinese things, people and
ideas." The treatment of Siamese twins, Chang and Eng
Bunker, poignantly illustrates how Americans viewed
the Chinese at this point. Well-bred and mannerly brothers
of Chinese descent, they nevertheless embodied the American
impression that Chinese people were strange and beastly.
This negative perception of otherness - what Tchen defines
as "political orientalism" - intensified in the late
1800s during the Reconstruction era after the Ci vil
War, when the number of Chinese workers imported to
the East Coast aggravated deep-seated anxieties about
America's national identity and its cultural future.
Apprehension gave way to hysteria in 1870 over "the
Chinese Question," a term coined by John Swinton, a
labor sympathizer who wrote frequent editorials in the
major New York newspapers. Swinton spoke for many when
he publicly called the Chinese a national threat to
white working men. "Selected images of Chinese people
and things became part of highly charged debates about
who constituted 'free labor' and 'assimilability,'"
Simultaneously, protests sprang up across lower New
York to denounce the recruitment of Chinese labor to
displace Irish workers in Massachusetts and New Jersey.
The protests provoked an angry response from one of
the few public champions of Chinese people in New York:
political artist Thomas Nast. The result was one of
his more powerful cartoons, "The Chinese Question,"
which featured in Harper's Weekly in 1871.
Only a few years later, however, Harper's Weekly would
feature artwork by Winslow Homer. Homer's drawing, "The
Chinese in New York - Scene in a Baxter Street Clubhouse,"
inaccurately depicted one of the founding Chinese community
organizations as an opium den. Fear and loathing had
New York Before Chinatown is a weighty analysis and
a sympathetic portrayal of the Chinese. Yet Tchen's
conclusions are mostly dispiriting. "In a sense I'm
saying that notions of primitivism and orientalism were
really intrinsic to the very founding of the identity
of this country," the author elaborates in his office
in lower Manhattan. "These foundational issues are still
played out today in our culture. Certain attitudes about
how desires and perceptions were transplanted from Europe
and then became a fixture in how this country understands
Asia and China in particular. As we experience this
new round of globalization, it is reiterated in slightly
different ways. But those patterns are still there."
Among those patterns: racially-based immigration quotas,
hate crimes against Asian-Americans, the tendency to
demonize the Chinese government, and the desire to seek
entry into the fabled China market. But what it all
meant to the Chinese in America is clear. "Within Anglo-American
orientalism, Chinese would be forever viewed as foreigners,"