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Duke University Press Books
Chineseness across Borders: Renegotiating Chinese Identities in China and the United States / Edition 1

Chineseness across Borders: Renegotiating Chinese Identities in China and the United States / Edition 1

by Andrea Louie
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  • Product Details

    ISBN-13: 2900822332632
    Publisher: Duke University Press Books
    Publication date: 03/22/2004
    Edition description: New Edition
    Pages: 256
    Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

    About the Author

    Andrea Louie is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University.

    Read an Excerpt

    Chineseness across borders

    Renegotiating Chinese identities in China and the United States
    By Andrea Louie

    Duke University Press

    ISBN: 0-8223-3263-9

    Chapter One


    A Toyota Coaster minibus bumps along a narrow road through the Chinese countryside, dodging potholes and bicyclists. Inside the bus is a group of ten Chinese Americans, some peering out at the rice fields and water buffaloes, some napping, others listening to music or chatting. Although they are of Chinese ancestry like those they pass in the hot July sun outside their air-conditioned bus, they do not fit easily into this landscape. They wear shorts and T-shirts, hold cameras and tape recorders, and move around as a collective unit. These behaviors, and the newness and excitement with which they appear to experience their surroundings, would tell an observer that they are not locals, even if they could not be heard chatting with one another in English.

    The bus constitutes a self-contained, mobile world-a comfort zone in an unfamiliar place for the Chinese American visitors, most of whom are setting foot in China for the first time. They have come to tour their ancestral villages and to attend a festival for Chinese youth from overseas sponsored by the PRC government. Accompanying the group is a Chinese American trip leader who is fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, and a number of village dialects.He is there to negotiate the logistics of their trip, and he also serves as a cultural broker of sorts who helps interpret for them what they see and hear in the villages. He coaches them in proper etiquette for official banquets, makes sure no one loses his or her passport, teaches them how to bai san (pay respects at one's ancestors' graves), and helps them ask relatives and other local villages about their family history and genealogy. Also on the bus are two guides and a driver whom the group respectfully addresses as sifu (md. shifu) (master) because he is a master of driving and vehicle repair, the leader tells them. One Chinese guide, who accompanies the group throughout their two-week journey around the Pearl River Delta area, is from the Guangdong Provincial Office of Overseas Chinese Affairs (Qiao Ban), the office that is sponsoring the China portion of the trip. The other guide (a different person in every region) is from the China Travel Service, China's official travel agency, and is there to coordinate food, lodging, and other local logistics. The group's two weeks in China are spent participating in a seemingly endless series of briefings by local officials, tours to local parks and temples, banquets, shopping trips, and bus rides. Village visits, however, are the highlights of the trip. Although similar in format in each village, they are emotionally intense as participants meet relatives or friends of the family, see ancestral homes, find genealogy books, and become the center of attention for local officials welcoming them "home."

    The group's anticipation builds as each participant's turn arrives to visit their ancestral village. Will they be able to locate it? Will any relatives or people who remember the family be present? Will the ancestral house still be standing? Like tourists, they spend little time in the villages and must be introduced to the people and places there, experiencing them through the mediation of their Chinese and Chinese American guides. They record their experiences through photographs to share with family and friends and to commemorate their presence in these places. For most, their visit to China is brief but highly significant. Although the village experience may remain an important moment in their lives, it will be more as a symbolic connection to ancestral heritage, reformulated through recollections, than as a place in which they will continue to participate over time.

    In one sense, these Chinese Americans are closely linked to their origins in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong through ties of history and genealogy. Indeed, until a generation or two ago, some members of their extended families likely had very intimate ties to the village, either having lived there themselves or having had close connections to someone there. However, the connections of these Chinese Americans are significantly different from those that characterize the relations of first-generation immigrants with their homelands. The ties of immigrant generations are based on affective sentiments, obligations derived from social relationships and memories developed from firsthand experience in these places. Those of Chinese Americans born and raised in the United States are based on images of China and ancestral villages constructed from afar. They have not participated in the continuous back-and-forth movement between China and the United States characteristic of earlier generations. They are also different from contemporary Hong Kong elites who easily and regularly cross the Pacific on jet planes (Ong 1999; Mitchell 1996). Unlike return migrants, they do not visit China to see familiar people and places. Their reasons for traveling to China are quite specific-they hope to (re)connect to the rural China of the past that their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents left, a place to which they never have been but are attached to through historical and genealogical connections.

    The relationship between Chinese Americans and China over the past fifty years has transformed from one that fit many of the characteristics of a transnational community to the less cohesive and perhaps more complex one we see here. A relationship that was once marked by continuous back-and-forth travel and communication or, more important, shared social interests and a sense of community, has evolved into one in which a shared past may be the only common denominator. The summer culture camps that will be introduced in this chapter (and the Youth Festival that brings these camps together that will be discussed in chapter 5) represent intentional efforts from both sides to bring together two parts of a population that once were intimately linked through transnational ties. These events take place in the wake of the Open Policy and economic reform of the early 1980s, during which China reopened to the outside world after decades of socialist experimentation. The camps and festivals are significant in that they are based on the Chinese government's assumptions that Chinese identities, and indeed ties to the land of China itself, are derived from racial and historical origins in China. The myth of common origins provides raw material for a politics of cultural citizenship, Chineseness, and place in both the United States and China. An examination of these camps provides a basis for a question that is central to this book: How are these assumptions about Chineseness challenged by both Chinese and Chinese American participants within forums such as the Youth Festival that were originally based on these very ideas of common origins? How do these differing interpretations of and efforts to shape Chineseness emerge from within the broader context of the Open Policy, economic reforms in China, and the changing transnational relations between Chinese Americans and China? My fieldwork in China in 1993 and 1995 shows that ideas of roots and nativeness are also changing in complex ways in the wake of the Open Policy. Mainland Chinese, especially in the coastal south, increasingly have opportunities to move within China and to have contact with overseas Chinese coming to invest in or visit China. Official PRC government rhetoric, which has a long historical precedent, calls on overseas Chinese to return to build the nation (jianshi zuguo) out of patriotism and love for their hometowns. At the same time, sentimental ties to native places that are assumed on behalf of the Chinese abroad are rapidly changing for both Chinese Americans and mainland Chinese.

    I begin here by discussing Guangdong as a historically transnational area from which emigrant Chinese communities in the United States originated. Relations between Chinese communities abroad and mainland China have focused on native place, or hometown, as the point of attachment to China. The centrality of native-place identities to Chinese both in China and abroad provides a background to Chinese government policies that link the love of overseas Chinese for their hometowns to love of the nation. These connections were key to turn-of-the-century nationalist activities in which Chinese overseas played a key role. However, the relationship between overseas Chinese and China has changed over time. And while in the wake of the Open Policy and economic reform the Chinese government has invoked a "politics of native roots" to once again call on the Chinese abroad to invest in China, the sentiments of the Chinese abroad toward these places have changed. American-born Chinese Americans may be interested in finding out about their ancestral villages in China, but their involvement in them, and in Chinese nation-building, contrasts with that of previous generations. At the same time, mainland Chinese are beginning to distinguish between ways that various types of overseas Chinese (from Taiwanese investors to Chinese Americans) relate to their hometowns, while their own views toward their places of origin are changing.

    Whereas native-place connections previously were a building block for all social relations in China and a focus for sentiments of rootedness and familial linkages, such connections are becoming increasingly abstract for mainland Chinese. Yet at a basic level, finding roots in one's ancestral village in China is understood by mainland Chinese, both officials and folk alike, as a goal that all Chinese abroad must certainly yearn to fulfill. The Chinese abroad are expected to hold steadfast to these linkages, which represent perhaps their only remaining connection to China. The Summer Camps and Youth Festival represent collaborative efforts between the mainland Chinese government and organizations abroad to facilitate Chinese American visits to their ancestral villages in the wake of the Open Policy. While they are the end product of historical connections between Chinese Americans and Guangdong Province, they are also the basis for the negotiation of a new "relationship" built on fleeting interactions with one another.

    Guangdong as Transnational

    Located on China's southern coast, Guangdong Province has historically been a transnational space, defining itself in relation to both the rest of China and the outside world. The history of overseas emigration from China has been marked not by a one-way flow of migrants from China to places abroad, but by patterns of back-and-forth movement and exchange. Emigrant regions in Guangdong and destinations abroad have been linked in numerous ways, from specific ties based on familial relationships to more abstract identifications of overseas Chinese with their ancestral regions or the Chinese nation. A number of original and detailed ethnographic and historical studies on overseas Chinese emigration have focused on how the continued involvement of overseas Chinese in their native places and in nation-building efforts created communities that were transnational in scope and orientation (see Chen 2000; Glick Schiller 1999; Hsu 2000; Kuah 2000; Watson 1975). As these scholars have shown, transnational perspectives on Chinese emigration and immigration are central to understanding processes of community formation and change. These linkages shaped migrants' social worlds, which extended beyond everyday face-to-face interactions.

    The majority of emigrants to the United States from the mid-1800s until the 1960s originated from the Pearl River Delta area of Guangdong Province. This region, marked roughly by a triangle between the former British colony of Hong Kong, Guangzhou (Canton), and Macao, is dotted with qiao xiang, hometowns of Chinese who have gone abroad. Most U.S. Chinatowns have historically been dominated by groups from areas of the Pearl River Delta, including Sei Yup (Si Yi), Sam Yup (San Yi), and Jungsan (Zhongshan). Emigrants (the majority male) from China maintained ties and loyalties to their native villages in a number of ways. They made return visits to marry and father children, sent remittances, engaged in village affairs from afar, and maintained an orientation to China during their absences. In part because their options abroad were limited, emigrants endeavored to return "home" to retire and to eventually be buried in their native soil. They read local gazetteers (qiaokan) published by their native districts in China, which kept them updated on events at home, and they included the population abroad as part of their social world (Hsu 2000). They measured their status and success by how much they were able to earn in the United States and bring back to China to provide for their families. Legends of the United States as the Gold Mountain were fostered by returning immigrants laden with money and gifts. Unbeknownst to their relatives and friends in China, however, they had labored intensely and sacrificed greatly for these things.

    But while these early immigrants maintained ties to China, they also constructed new relationships in the United States. Native place (tongxiang hui) and surname associations (huiguan) provided a means both for maintaining connections to China and for organizing social, cultural, and political life where Chinese emigrants resided. These interests were intimately linked-the Chinese abroad viewed their futures as tied to the national strength of China, which would determine their ability to make money and live well in America and to eventually return to their native regions to retire. Affective and political ties to native places formed the basis for connections that turn-of-the-century Chinese nationalists constructed between love for the native place and love of the nation. Building on native-place ties, reformers and revolutionaries at the turn of the twentieth century appealed to overseas Chinese on the basis of their concern for issues affecting their hometown and kin. They tapped ties to ancestral villages as symbols for nationalist construction that elevated the emigrants' affective sentiments for people and places to signifiers of racial and cultural ties to the nation. Love for the native place formed the building blocks for nationalism on the mainland.

    The example of the Chinese Hand Laundry Association (CHLA) in New York illustrates the emergence of Chinese American identities that remained tied to the fate of the motherland. The CHLA was a Chinese American grassroots organization founded in 1933 that grew out of traditional "district/ clan/family institutions, as well as clannish perceptions and ideas," and it used "traditional" clan, town/village, and gongsifang (corporate) connections to solicit participants (Yu 1992: 41). Its leaders rallied members to become involved in a "new form of overseas Chinese nationalism" that was both a product of the laundryowners' experiences in the United States and of the complex and changing relations between China and the United States. These activities signified the members' emerging consciousness as Chinese Americans whose fate in the United States remained tied to activities in China. The organization's activities centered on the struggle for a better life in America, connecting China's weak position internationally and its undemocratic politics internally to the powerless situation of the Chinese abroad. Their campaign to support China in the war against Japan was named "To save China, to save ourselves" (Jiu Guo, Zi Jiu), an indication of how closely connected they saw their own fate abroad and that of the motherland. Their politics also addressed the power monopoly of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in Chinatown, supported by the KMT (Guomindang), by drawing on events in China to support their struggle. The political involvement of Chinese laundryowners in the CHLA represents both a new form of overseas Chinese nationalism and a new consciousness as Chinese Americans.

    Native Place in China: Transformation of a Transnational Relationship

    Native-place ties, which transcended national boundaries to become central to the organization of emigrant communities, have historically been at the root of social organization within China. Native place has traditionally referred to the particular village or region where one's ancestors originated. It signifies not only the physical place itself but also the deep attachments to the land, customs, and people from that place that are forged through generations of shared ancestry and history. It is through these bonds and sentiments, signified by genealogical connections to the ancestors buried there as well as contact with the soil and water, that space is turned into place. Ties to native place are inherited, so that even immigrants to other parts of China would still claim their grandfather's native place as their own place of origin, even if they had never been there. As James Watson observes in the context of the New Territories area of Hong Kong, "Native place" (heung ha) holds great significance as "an individual's home district or village somewhere in China.... The term has very strong psychological connotations relative to security and kinship" (1975: 129). Local customs, cooking styles, and local products become markers of identity and ethnicity for both those who have left their native place and those who continue to live there.


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    Table of Contents

    Introduction: On Boundary Crossings1
    1Identities Fixed in Place: Ancestral Villages and Chinese/Chinese American Roots39
    2Welcome Home!(?): Crafting a Sense of Place in the United States through the In Search of Roots Homeland Tour69
    3Crafting Chinese American Identities: Roots Narratives in the Context of U.S. Multiculturalism95
    4The Feng Shui Has Taken a Turn (feng shui lun liu zhuan): Changing Views of the Guangdong Chinese toward Life Abroad Following the Open Policy127
    5The Descendants of the Dragon Gather: The Youth Festival as Encounter between the Chinese and Chinese American Other161
    6Remaking Places and Renegotiating Chineseness189

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