The Chinatown You Think You Know Isn't Real

Mar 28 at 9am

By Vida Kuang

As a kid growing up in Chinatown, I remembered staring at masses of people winding through the streets like ants on a mission; everyone had a place to go, but from my window, everything looked crowded. Tour buses would drive through Stockton Street, their seats filled to the brim with beaming tourists and tour guides who would exclaim, “And over there to your right you’ll see Chinatown’s Chinese Hospital, where martial artist Bruce Lee was born.”

With time, I felt like an object on display, the kind visitors would eagerly pay money to catch a glimpse of or hope to own. My subjectivity is magnified when I’d catch someone taking a photo of me or my mother at the fish market, for instance. In these moments, I’d find myself wondering if we were performing to their expectations by existing in Chinatown as “ethnic” Chinese. That’s the type of self-inflicting logic that living here has given me. Our daily life was laid out, whether we it wanted to be or not, before a constant audience. I’ve internalized it all, and it’s since warped my sense of racial identity. Part of Chinatown’s allure is motivated by the false belief that authenticity is validated by the people and objects that look and act the part.

Our daily life was laid out, whether we it wanted to be or not, before a constant audience. I’ve internalized it all, and it’s since warped my sense of racial identity.

But those who fetishize Grant Avenue’s pagoda facades probably don’t know that those supposed sites of authenticity were the very buildings the community once relied on to evade displacement. Shortly after San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, city authorities attempted to use the disaster to move Chinatown residents to the city’s southern edge. The neighborhood, with its proximity to the bay and city center, was prime land to rebuild an ideal San Francisco, one that was fabricated by prejudice and a marred sense of racial purity. Chinatown community leaders appealed to the city, promising that they could rebuild the area as an asset to San Francisco; in exchange, the community could stay. So they hired white architects, who drew up some of today’s most familiar “Chinese” landmarks that grace postcards, guidebooks, and photographs. People often disregard this poignant moment in history when a community struggled to reconcile with how they were imagined by outsiders.

Instead, people choose to remember and retell the many lurid tales that came afterwards: stories of Chinatown’s brothels, the Tong Wars, the Golden Dragon incident, and today’s American myth of the immigrant family working hard to achieve the American dream. These stories, laced with plastic swords, paper lanterns, and fortune cookies, make for the most enticing pitch to locals and tourists alike, who yearn for sensationalism yet never bother to wonder who the people behind these narratives are.  

When I catch a person snapping a photograph of my mother, a butcher squatting for a smoke break, or someone else going about their daily lives in the neighborhood, I fight the bitter urge to ask the photographer how they will use these faces to spin a new backstory that doesn’t relate to our reality. How much more of my community will they take for their fantasies? My frustrations scream the otherness I’m forced to embody in my own home. Voiceless, as I stare back at the camera, I realize the racial and class disparities between the photographer and the photographed, and the ahistoric narrative that motivated these moments.

At a Pratt Institute talk, Spike Lee spoke of how gentrification embodies the Christopher Columbus Syndrome, which is characterized by an “in group” versus “out group” dynamic in the gentrification process. In particular, the out group embodies markers of privilege: being white, young, educated, and capable of greater class mobility. In Chinatown’s case the out group ranges from tourists, those who come into the neighborhood once a month for dim sum, and students or young professionals looking for cheap rent. Today’s oppression resurfaces in subtle ways but is still rampant under the guise of micro-aggressions, institutional racism, and – most importantly – gentrification. It manifests itself when the word “ethnic” is used synonymously with “non-white” or when one moves into a predominantly non-white neighborhood because it’s trendy and poverty is romanticized.

People come to Chinatown because living expenses are cheap, but few actually realize that its affordability contains an invisible cost of undervalued labor and underpaid workers.

It’s problematic that young white professionals are moving into ethnic neighborhoods across the Bay Area to live out these fantasies because it’s driving the displacement of largely low-income residents. People come to Chinatown because living expenses are cheap, but few actually realize that its affordability contains an invisible cost of undervalued labor and underpaid workers. Local businesses and landowners in Chinatown have the unfortunate tendency to develop for tourists, but little thought is given to the benefit of residents, most of whom, like my family, live in SROs. A community organizer I spoke with said, “Tourists give little thought to the people who live in buildings they shop beneath. This is not to say that residents here are victims of their environment, nor are they powerless. People fought. They fought for basic tenant rights and to live with dignity.”

For years, however, residents have organized to demand for community improvements like the new SFMTA Chinatown station and the Chinese Hospital addition. Although these developments will certainly improve the lives of workers and seniors in the neighborhood, many nonetheless question whether these improvements will prompt rising rents. Given the Central subway’s accessibility to Silicon Valley commuters, how will Chinatown fare with a direct bloodline to a largely young-professional demographic? How will the community change? What will Chinatown look like in another 10 years? These worries reflect the same historic tensions that occurred more than 100 years ago, which raises the question, how can we dissolve these racialized and classist tensions? What does it mean to be a responsible community member? How can an individual come to understand and internalize these problems as one’s own?

The ways in which ethnic communities are historicized and constructed are all part of a system that favors the privileged.

In San Francisco’s case, the solution isn’t about villainizing tourists or young professionals. People need a home, but the issue lies in the ways people carve out their homes without being sensitive to a community’s history. Gentrification is not progress when communities’ underlying social issues are displaced elsewhere, especially when people with greater socioeconomic privileges are uprooting marginalized people. The ways in which ethnic communities are historicized and constructed are all part of a system that favors the privileged. Taking a photo of a stranger to represent a story that isn’t actually theirs or creating businesses that alienate the locals contributes to the legacy of socioeconomic and racial barriers. Instead of deciding what people are or what a community should be, new and old neighbors must get to know each other on an individual level and consciously work together. Because that’s the only way that a community will be a home for everyone.  

Photo via Thinkstock

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