Chinatown Unbound: Trans-Asian Urbanism in the Age of China

Chinatown Unbound: Trans-Asian Urbanism in the Age of China


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‘Chinatowns’ are familiar places in almost all major cities in the world. In popular Western wisdom, the restaurants, pagodas, and red lanterns are intrinsically equated with a self-contained, immigrant Chinese district, an alien enclave of ‘the East’ in ‘the West’. By the 1980s, when these Western societies had largely given up their racially discriminatory immigration policies and opened up to Asian immigration, the dominant conception of Chinatown was no longer that of an abject ethnic ghetto: rather, Chinatown was now seen as a positive expression of multicultural heritage and difference.

By the early 21st century, however, these spatial and cultural constructions of Chinatown as an ‘other’ space – whether negative or positive – have been thoroughly destabilised by the impacts of accelerating globalisation and transnational migration. This book provides a timely and much-needed paradigm shift in this regard, through an in-depth case study of Sydney’s Chinatown. It speaks to the growing multilateral connections that link Australia and Asia (and especially China) together; not just economically, but also socially and culturally, as a consequence of increasing transnational flows of people, money, ideas and things. Further, the book elicits a particular sense of a place in Sydney’s Chinatown: that of an interconnected world in which Western and Asian realms inhabit each other, and in which the orientalist legacy is being reconfigured in new deployments and more complex delimitations. As such, Chinatown Unbound engages with, and contributes to making sense of, the epochal shift in the global balance of power towards Asia, especially China.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786608987
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 01/25/2019
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.21(w) x 9.11(h) x 0.79(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Kay Anderson, Professorial Research Fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University, Australia.

Ien Ang, Distinguished Professor of Cultural Studies, Western Sydney University, Australia.

Andrea Del Bono, PhD Graduate, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University, Australia.

Donald McNeill, Professor of Urban and Cultural Geography, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University, Australia.

Alexandra Wong, Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University, Australia.

Read an Excerpt



Chinatown Unbound

'Chinatown', as a distinctive ordering of space in cities the world over, has always been a richly storied place. For many decades represented as a stigmatized and closeted ghetto of aliens, today it tends more often to be portrayed as a valued tourist destination and multicultural asset to cities as distant from each other as Singapore and San Francisco, Toronto and Melbourne, Amsterdam and Havana, London and Yokohama. Strewn globally across the nodes of a diaspora that now numbers in the tens of millions, and in this age of China's so-called rise, Chinatown has undergone a status transition in a number of the world's cities: from marginal enclave under various regimes of colonialism to 'positional good' in a world of circulating symbols and cross-city referencing (Lowry and McCann 2011).

This book considers the shifting status of one such Chinatown, in Sydney, of all Australian cities the most defined by Asian social networks and identities, as it evolves to the present day. With an eye to 'new horizons of the global' (Ong 2011, 1), the book attempts to go behind the stereotypes and multiply the understandings of a place whose relentlessly communal scripting, we will argue, requires recasting for the present day.


The Chinatowns of North American, Australasian and European cities have been the focus of successive generations of social science research. According to early studies, these colourful quarters of vibrant exoticism owe their existence to the generations of Chinese migrants that made their lives there. The restaurants, pagodas, curio stores, red and gold shop fronts, green-tiled upturned roofs, ceremonial arches and neon lights are conventionally seen as intrinsically connected to the Chinese and their immigrant experience in the West (see figure 1.1).

This model of Chinatown, as an enclave whose intrinsic Chineseness presumably shapes an internalized history, spawned a wave of academic work from the 1960s to 1980s. Spanning the fields of history, sociology, anthropology, geography and ethnic studies, research in this tradition documented the composition and character of (mainly North American) Chinatowns. In geography, Chinatown was conceptualized as a launching point in the assimilation of Chinese immigrants, as an urban village pitted against encroaching land uses and as a transposed Chinese architectural form (e.g., Cho and Leigh 1972; Burnley 1975). In history, sociology and anthropology, the practices of cultural transfer abroad and dynamics of social organization and community stratification in new environments were documented (e.g., Crissman 1967; Salter 1978; Wickberg and Con 1982). In the early 1970s David Lai summarized the then-prevailing conceptualization of Chinatown in North America as 'a concentration of Chinese people and economic activities in one or more city blocks which forms a unique component of the urban fabric. It is basically an idiosyncratic oriental community amidst an occidental urban environment' (1973, 101). Succinctly, this is the model according to which Chinatown is a colony of the East in the West. As such, in Gwen Kinkead's (1992) depiction of New York City's Chinatown, it is a 'closed society' isolated from the movement and modernity of the surrounding city: insular, traditional, communal and, to outsiders, enigmatic.

That this kind of orientalist appreciation of Chinatown remains current in the Western popular imagination even today is exemplified by a recent article in Traveller, the tourist supplement of the Sydney Morning Herald. In an article entitled 'My Kind of Chinatown', the author pronounces:

What makes a really good Chinatown? It has to provide a distinctive enclave of otherness. ... The best Chinatowns must be authentically Chinese ... the best Chinatowns are in-your-face Chinese. They aren't polite, pretentious or pretty, but they have strange sights and happy energy. Street vendors rub winter-melons to a sheen, young ladies rub feet to wince-inducing relaxation, chefs puff cigarettes at kitchen doors as cats slink among the dust bins. Convivial restaurants are jammed, shops elbow-jostling, and everywhere daily life unfolds. (Johnston 2013)

This book explicitly resists the understanding of Chinatown as a space of timeless, romanticized otherness to be savoured – an exotic place for tourists to explore and enjoy. Instead, Chinatown should be seen as a real, densely lived and worked place, defined by everyday transactions, practices and interactions, and very much entangled with its surroundings at urban, national and transnational levels – a place with complex social and cultural histories involving a multiplicity of Chinese and non-Chinese actors, and currently configured and reconfigured within the local and global dynamics of the broader city within which it is located.

In this respect this book follows in the footsteps of Vancouver's Chinatown, published by one of us more than a quarter of a century ago (Anderson 1991), which inverted the logic of the orientalist portrait. Specifically, it turned the explanation of such enclaves away from an essentialized Chineseness, acknowledging the power of Chinatown's many creators to define and manage identity and place. Tuned to the genealogical method of post-structuralist critique that at the time was destabilizing seemingly natural categories (including those of race), as well as to Doreen Massey's (1991) 'extraverted' notion of place, the Vancouver study tracked Chinatown's production within multiple scales of Canadian governance: from the time Chinatown was marginalized by state practices as Vancouver's vice town through its 1930s depiction and doctoring as a 'little corner of the Far East' to the district's rendering as a slum fit for renewal in the 1960s, and beyond to its figuration and fashioning as Vancouver's civic asset and 'contribution' to multicultural Canada in the 1970s and 1980s. Bringing into a single narrative the often-opposed periods of pre- and post-war Canadian history, Vancouver's Chinatown elicited Chinatown's making through mutable guises of racialization, both classical and contemporary.

Problematizing Chinatown within this century-long passage of time enabled a more fundamental conceptual purpose too. Following Edward Said's Orientalism (1979), this was to historicize time, space, place and 'race' in the power-differentiated dynamics that produced Chinatown as a colony of the West (more so than the East). In the classic vein of identity-politics critique that was emerging across the social sciences and humanities during the 1980s, Vancouver's Chinatown demonstrated the sense in which the racialization of identity and place was not cast in stone but was constituted by the global vectors of colonial history and international migration.

Likewise, the critical conceptualization of 'Chinatowns' in a settler colony on the other side of the Pacific, in Australia – where colonial histories of white racism also persisted through the policy shift to multiculturalism in the 1980s – could be 're-oriented' as Western formations (Anderson 1990). That is, they could be understood as enactments of white racialized regimes, deployed not only in the interests of white domination but also by people of Chinese origin themselves. Other Chinatown studies of the period demonstrated, too, how racialization practices took shape and exerted force within the dynamics of economic restructuring, especially gentrification pressures and labour exploitation in the likes of Manhattan's Chinatown (Zhou 1992; Kwong 1997; Lin 1998). In short, any particular Chinatown needs to be understood in its profound economic, political and ideological embeddedness rather than in terms of some racialized, cultural and communal essence.


The twenty-first century introduces an order of complexity and contradiction – indeed, disorientation – to the dualisms of West and East around which both critical and popular accounts of global Chinatowns have been framed. For in the contemporary world of transnational movement and exchange – as a generation of globalization scholars has by now amply demonstrated – global West and global East increasingly converge and diverge in a dialectic that is transforming regions, cities and localities. (On globalization and urban localities, see, e.g., Smith 2001; Mitchell 2004; Hum 2014.) Across the transnational field of the Asia-Pacific region, the 'gateway' cities that house the large majority of Chinese-origin immigrants and their descendants have been transformed as 'active markets' (Knight Frank 2015, 5), for Asian investment (Sassen 2001; Ley 2010) involving small and large players, and criss-crossing mobilities and socialities of capital, languages, technologies, media content and ideas that far exceed the geographical movement of bodies (Wong 2017). The rise, since the late 1970s, of China as an economic force in global capitalism has, in particular, rendered out of date the power coordinates implied by the discrete categories and hierarchies of 'the West' versus 'the East'. Heavily freighted with both fear and fantasy (Pan 2012; Vukovich 2012), China's so-called ascendency is reconfiguring geographies, as well as possible subject and speaking positions for enunciating knowledge about them.

These shifts provoke a reappraisal of some unexamined assumptions in previous analyses of the Chinatown phenomenon, including those inspired by critical race studies. For arguably, even in the critique of Western cultures of race and racism, it might be possible to discern the unexamined centring of a white 'we' that is 'us' and 'here' (West) and a 'they' that references 'them' and 'there' (Asia). Not only does this narrative ordering fail to sufficiently grasp the increasing entanglement of 'here' and 'there' and 'us' and 'them' within the historicity and spatiality of global modernity and capitalism, but it also risks imputing an inexhaustibility to a Western racist imaginary, which forever relegates the non-Western, non-white subject to the realm of passive otherness.

Indeed, a too-tidy account of self/other distinction would risk overlooking the racial, class and gender intersections that have always complicated dominant patterns of solidarity and marginalization. For example, in the Canadian context, an alliance of white women employees with their Chinese employers fought against a 1930s City of Vancouver vendetta against the reputedly morally dubious practices conducted inside Chinatown restaurant booths (Anderson 1996). In the Australian context, a class alliance of Chinatown organizations with white building and labour unionists joined forces against a City of Melbourne plan to 'orientalize' that city's Chinatown in the 1980s. In each of these cases, the emphasis was less on genealogically denaturalizing Chineseness and Western senses of positional superiority than on considering relationships of class and gender across racialized difference (Anderson 1998).

Yet, arguably, those accounts of intersectional identifications – the rich and more comprehensive exemplification of which is registered in important volumes such as Cities of Difference (Jacobs and Fincher 1998) – still upheld the premise that ethnic enclaves were characteristic, even emblematic, sites of 'difference'. Critically and descriptively, the project here was to read and disrupt representations of their (usually reviled) otherness. A number of issues, however, ensued from this starting point. Alterity – for all that it was historicized in the routine of critical race theory, and even complicated by class and gender positionings – continued to figure as an a priori structural marginality, rather than being posited as a topic for interrogation in each new situation and phase of encounter. While working hard to avoid the trap of essentialism, 'otherness' was habitually aligned with particularity, and cultural distance and 'sameness' with a presumed norm.

This problem – of a departure point for the study of cultural relations that presumes marginality even as it tries to critique the power-differentiated hierarchies that produce it – has been evident in other works too. For some decades, critical post-colonial work has sought to theorize from 'the margins'. Influenced by the critique of orientalism and the emergence of subaltern studies in the 1990s, this diverse body of work interrogated the hierarchical dualism whereby 'centres' are loci of power and privilege and 'margins' are spaces of disadvantage and oppression, in part by attempting to revalorize marginality as a site of resistance. But thinking from the south, for example – perhaps most famously condensed in Raewyn Connell's Southern Theory (2007) – risks defensively reiterating a counter discourse that 'speaks back' to the metropole, rather than transforming and taking theorizing itself 'elsewhere'. From behind its own fortified shield, 'southern theory' can potentially and paradoxically re-centre a spatialized marginality as eternally strange, lacking and alienated. It risks locking the subjectivities and agencies of the so-called marginalized inside the confines of a seemingly limitless figuration of absolute 'difference'.


Certain epistemological challenges for research on the contemporary complexities of urban intercultural relations follow from these observations. As Jacques Derrida (1990) posed in philosophical terms a few decades ago, we might increasingly ponder in relation to migration-related 'difference' and the institutional frames that have historically inaugurated it: 'difference' yes, but in relation to whom? Under which circumstances and conditions, where? Difference according to what measures? And equally: what, precisely, is difference being set against? Who is not different? Is the 'centre' that functions epistemologically as norm and totality itself so coherent? And relatedly, if somewhat tangentially here, how might we think 'inclusivity' beyond the conventional idea of the 'inclusion' of minority difference into a taken-for-granted centre? These are questions of scholarly positioning to which we return at various points in the chapters of this book. It is sufficient here to note that an unintended upshot of those 1990s accounts (of relationships across axes of difference) was to continue to anchor a narrative plot of minority/ majority disconnection, even as categories of distinction were themselves problematized.

Difference and differentiation are, of course, fundamental elements of embodied being and relationality. The naturalized categories of difference obviously exist in the everyday understandings of actors and as strategic tools of social and political mobilization. Indisputably, too, the term 'Asian' continues to operate as a racial signifier in a settler-colonial immigration nation such as Australia (Kwok and Khoo 2017). And the demands of moving across languages and cultures for non-citizens – not to mention for those displaced by political turmoil – cannot be denied or dismissed, any more than the unequal relations that often underlie racialized or ethnicized forms of identification. Yet the polarizing logic of sameness/difference is not the only point of departure for figuring cultural relations in contemporary cities. The prosaic negotiations of 'super-diversity' (Vertovec 2007) in daily urban life drive intercultural encounters in various directions, not only – even if often – towards cultural racism and stigmatization of 'foreigners', as pointed out by scholars focusing on the complex experiences of 'everyday multiculturalism' (Wise and Velayutham 2009), where 'bumping into alterity' is a routine occurrence (Noble 2011). In this regard, ethnicity – or racial difference – may or may not be the key determining factor: it may or may not matter in the conduct of social practices in particular contexts. This cautions us against the uncritical adoption of an 'ethnicity bias' which presumes its salience in advance of its study (e.g., Fox and Jones 2013); instead, we should heed the calls of sociologists such as Rogers Brubaker (2006) and Andreas Wimmer (2013) to focus not on ethnic identities as givens, but on the always-provisional and contestable making of ethnic categories and boundaries. This tallies with well-known theoretical moves within cultural studies that stress that identities are a question of 'becoming' rather than being (Hall 1990), and that argue strongly against the 'ethnic absolutism' (Gilroy 2002) plaguing contemporary understandings of race relations and multicultural realities. In the context of cities – particularly with regard to sanctioned sites of difference such as Chinatown – Nina Glick-Schiller and Garbi Schmidt's (2016) attempt to uncover the 'simultaneity of unities and diversities' in the city-making efforts of all urban residents, not only migrant but also non-migrant, is useful here. Similarly, Janine Dahinden (2016, 2208), in her appeal for a 'post-migration' social science, wishes to reorient ethnicity research away from 'migrant populations' to 'overall populations'. These lines of enquiry would seem to usefully confound the frozen conjurings of 'insider' and 'outsider' that risk sustaining stories of cultural disconnection and disparity.


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Copyright © 2019 Kay Anderson, Ien Ang, Andrea Del Bono, Donald McNeill and Alexandra Wong.
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Chinatown Unbound
2. Chinatown in Australia’s Asian Century: From Enclave to Global Hub
3. Building Chinatown: Commercial Vernaculars, Urban Governance and Asian Spatial Templates
4. China’s Town? Chinatown’s Shifting Demography
5. Towards ‘Asia-Town’? Chinatown’s Cultural Diversity
6. Doing Business in Chinatown: Beyond the ‘Ethnic Sub-Economy’
7. Branding Chinatown: From Flexible Chineseness to Multi-Asianness
8. Consuming Chinatown: The Rise of a Trans-Asian Urban Youth Culture
9. Curating Chinatown: Public Art beyond Orientalism
10. Conclusion: Chinatown’s Future and the Prefiguration of an Australian Trans-Asian Metropolis

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