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American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods Hardcover – August 11, 2009

4.0 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Tsui (She Went to the Field) offers a meandering personal geography of the Chinatowns in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Honolulu and Las Vegas. Straining to be a travelogue, sociological snapshot and history of Tsui's own family's immigrant experience, the account is repetitious and perfunctory. The author doesn't spend sufficient time on her subjects—including an Asian studies professor born in San Francisco's Chinatown, or the ethnic Chinese artist originally from Vietnam who made his way to Honolulu's Chinatown via Indonesia—to clinch the reader's interest or to compose a compelling narrative of the neighborhoods. She maintains that she never feels more at home than when visiting an American Chinatown, but her limited insights may lead readers to feel like the tourists she disparages, the ones who visit Chinatown for an afternoon but fail to look beyond its faded facades and kitschy gift shops. Her treatment strikes its most superficial chord when she reaches the banal conclusion that American Chinatowns represent heartland Asian America. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"A wonderfully revealing and compassionate trip into the real lives of men and women who straddle the world's two great powers. The graceful travelogue is from a hidden world in our own backyards. Tsui plunges into Chinatowns that are, like China itself, reinventing themselves before our eyes, showing not only what it means to be Chinese in the world, but also the spirit of self-invention that made America great." -- Evan Osnos, Beijing Correspondent, The New Yorker

"A fascinating and thoughtful look at a thoroughly American phenomenon." -- Gish Jen, Author of The Love Wife

"In this masterful work, Bonnie Tsui charts the fascinating history of America's Chinatowns. From geography to economics to linguistics, she presents a vibrant, intimate portrait of communities that have played a crucial role in shaping the American landscape. There are dozens of evocative, exhilarating, and touching stories here, from those of a beauty queen to a Vegas poker dealer in training. Candid, witty, and always engaging, Tsui is a wonderful guide for these many journeys." -- Sara Houghteling, Author of Pictures At An Exhibition

"Bonnie Tsui has written affectionately and astutely about a subject very close to my heart: Chinatown. In speaking with old-timers, the first generation to grow up in Chinatown, and the newest immigrants, she has captured the ways that five Chinatowns connect their inhabitants to culture, history, language, food, and to China itself -- even if they've never been there. She has looked beyond the colorful tourist facades to find unique neighborhoods that serve as home for some, refuges for others, and places of memory for all." -- Lisa See, Author of Shanghai Girls and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

"An intimate glimpse into Chinatown...Tsui details fascinating facts about the history of each Chinatown, while also delving into how each has influenced their cities at large. But the book works so well because Tsui captures the essence of each Chinatown by telling the stories of its people." -- Ann Tatko-Peterson, Contra Costa Times

"An updated real-life insider look at the Chinatowns in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu and Las Vegas [with] depth, perception and insight." -- William Wong, The San Francisco Chronicle --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; First Edition edition (August 11, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416557237
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416557234
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 6.2 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,407,389 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Anonymous VINE VOICE on August 12, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This book has a couple of chapters on each of five Chinatowns (San Francisco, New York, LA, Hawaii, and Las Vegas), but doesn't really build to any cumulative point or additional insight. Instead it reads like a collection of pleasant but shallow magazine articles, of the kind you might skim on a long flight or in a dentist's office. Each chapter contains a few of Tsui's interesting interviews with a representative Chinatown resident or figure. And large swaths of the interviews are either transcribed verbatim or paraphrased; this gives the book a nice mix of voices, but also leaves it seeming scattered and disorganized without any real unifying idea.

The passages of the book written in Tsui's own voice are generally glib and unmemorable, at best pleasant magazine writing and at worst embarrassingly trite amateur sociology. At best, there are many moments of family memoir, which don't really provide a unifying frame for the book since Tsui herself, a Long Islander, didn't grow up even in one of these Chinatowns. There are also some pleasant nuggets of cultural history here and there, about Chinese people in early Hollywood or the invention of fortune cookies, but these remain very light and shallow without even pointing the reader to a better source for in-depth information. And at worst, there are countless deadly-glib conclusions about the "meaning of Chinatown.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Notwithstanding the subtitle, this book is more a documentary-style survey than a history. The author conducted a large number of interviews with people living in or connected with Chinatowns in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Las Vegas. Some insights about the history of these various Chinatowns emerged, but the book is primarily an oral history of various people's experiences with Chinatown, most of it from a contemporary perspective.

My favorite was the Los Angeles segment, largely because of the description of how the film business has impacted Chinatown over the years. Opportunities for Chinese-American actors to play leading roles were rare until recently. Even when a film was set in Asia, the leading roles would often go to Caucasian actors in "yellowface." But there was also opportunity in these films for residents of the Los Angeles Chinatown, as extras in a "cast of thousands." Hilariously enough, during filming, sometimes the whole population of Chinatown ended up at the film studio playing Chinese peasants. It was a good way to pick up a little extra money.

Tsui does a good job describing the paradoxes of Chinatown. To big-city Chinese visiting America, Chinatown looks dirty, shabby, and old-fashioned. Their Chinese cities are clean, modern, and convenient, sometimes more so than American cities. The iconic "oriental" look of San Francisco's Chinatown is not its original incarnation. Before the earthquake of 1906, Chinatown just looked, architecturally-speaking, like part of the Old West. After the earthquake, in an effort to win goodwill for Chinese-Americans in San Francisco, Chinatown's backers had white architects construct the area's "Oriental" look that we associate with Chinatown today.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
A very informative book about Chinatowns. The author did her work, made a lot of researches, interviewed many local personalities, and at the same time learned more about her roots. There are many side stories on interesting people who helped formed the history of each of the 5 individual Chinatowns. From where I came from (Philippines), there is also a huge Chinatown which is like a magical place when my parents used to bring us there when we were young. Until now, we cherish the memories as we eat, sample exotic delicacies, try medicines and even cheap electronics. I have been to Chinatown in Honolulu, New York, Washington DC and Los Angeles. Most of them are crowded and noisy. But always a very interesting and enjoyable place to visit.

The book digs deeper than what was in the surface. It tells the story of a very close knit community. How its inhabitants have lived and left and came back. How members of families left their original country to chase their dreams and future for their families. How they find protection and comfort within the shelter of these towns. It also explain how some aspects of Chinatowns are not really authentically Chinese but were built and heavily influenced by the local surrounding to fight for its own existence. And how many have predicted that Chinatowns will eventually die of its own death but amazingly remain alive.

Overall a great read full of fascinating facts about the subject.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I really enjoyed The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food so I hoped that American Chinatown would be an equally enjoyable and informative read. Sadly, informative is the only part of the equation that I found. I must disclosed that I only made it through the lengthy introduction and the large section on San Francisco's Chinatown. I can't fault Ms. Tsui's information or her thorough coverage of the topic - she was really a bit too thorough with the many references to a "gilded ghetto" - but the delivery just wasn't that enjoyable.

In the section on San Francisco's Chinatown, she covers the history of the neighborhood, its origins in racism and the reason for the almost cartoonish architecture, and the current affordable housing issues for new immigrants and those who choose to stay in the neighborhood. She interviews activists, historians and youth that live and work in the area. But as a reader, I never got a real picture of the neighborhood. I've been to this Chinatown and it was only from my own memories that I had a sense of the places she referenced. For a place that is so full of history, sights, sounds, smells and tastes, Tsui's version of San Francisco's famous Chinatown was decidedly dry and uninteresting. Where was the life of this area? Where were the stories that really gave the reader a flavor of the past? Twice she mentioned a waiter, Edsel Wong, that made Sam Wo's restaurant famous but she never tells the reader the story so we understand the reference. Details like this might have made the book more interesting for me.

Overall, it seems well-researched and it could have been an interesting topic for readers - whether they have a connection to a Chinatown or not - but it just fell flat.
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