Thesis Musings: On Chinatown and New York City

How important is the role of history in discussing Chinatown? Does it have an essentializing effect on the viewing of the people and spaces in it? And yet also ignorance often stems from lack of knowledge of the past. This is particularly important, since the community of Asian-Americans dates back to the earliest immigrants to North America, yet they are still viewed as unassimilable and isolated.

It was evident in my class the other day when another student drew a line between New York and the Chinatown within New York, stating that Chinatown was a uniquely local place. Not only is this a false statement, it is damaging because it firmly places Chinatown in its own bubble despite its contributions to New York as a global city. This ignorance outright denies the fact that many of Chinatown’s products and labor arrive from all over the world – vendors who are from across East/Central/South Asia, grocers and manual laborers from Latin America, products that are manufactured in the Global South, consumers who come from all over the world to partake in the aesthetic of Chinatown – the linkage that Canal St has with the world is one that cannot be dismissed.

Certain industries become valorized and as a result, others are devalorized. Areas that create ‘superprofits’ such as finance are valorized, and devalorizes manufacturing and low-value services since these sectors cannot provide superprofits – women and immigrants therefore predominate in these sectors. An informal economy emerges, often operating as such in order to survive. The informal economy then places importance on the community and household as a commercial space.

This complicates the dichotomy of man/woman and public/private as bodies become increasingly mobilized. Survival and agency means that men and women often have to break down the dichotomies of public/private space in order to adapt to the global neoliberal economy. And yet, many of the discourses surrounding women in the workspace still cling to these binaries, devalorizing their labor and rendering it invisible. This is what Sasken calls “the narratives of eviction,” the narratives that do not fit neatly into given discourses.

Despite the discourses, immigrant women, particularly in Chinatown, are visible on the street level. They often play very public and social roles in the maintenance of the “ethnic enclave.” This in turn has brought “Third World” issues right into the center of the world’s most advanced economy: New York City.


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