Outsider Insights Into Chinatown

By , Robert O'Malley is English editor at the Sampan, a Boston Chinese-English newspaper.

IT's a part of the city usually seen in passing, perhaps with the eyes of a tourist or diner in a Chinese restaurant. In many respects, the way Americans see Chinatown is also the way they see Asian cultures in general: closed, distant, perplexing. While they may be open to the imagination, they seem closed to the understanding.

At a time when Chinese immigrants continue to arrive in the United States in record numbers, two writers have attempted to clarify some of the obscurity that surrounds Chinatown and Chinese immigrant life. With varying degrees of success, they offer two strikingly different views of the strengths and weaknesses of New York's Chinatown - one of the country's oldest and largest Chinese immigrant enclaves.

When Gwen Kinkead began to explore New York's Chinatown in 1989, she asked a retired Caucasian editor of a Chinese newspaper why so few white people had studied Chinatown. Amused by the question, he explained that "the reporters get lost" and the people won't talk to them. "The Chinese laugh at the stories that come out of Chinatown," he said. "Most are inaccurate."

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Undaunted, Kinkead persisted over a period of two years and managed to get a fair number of people to talk to her. The result is Chinatown: A Portrait of a Closed Society (HarperCollins, 204 pp., $23), a book that offers a general overview of New York's Chinatown but focuses most of its attention on the neighborhood's dark side, with its garment-industry abuses, illegal gambling, drug smuggling, and tongs and gangs.

In the course of her investigation - much of which was published in the New Yorker - Kinkead visits day-care centers and businesses, family associations, and restaurants. She visits garment shops, a mainstay of the Chinatown economy, and gong si fong, the crowded living quarters of single men where two people are stuffed into a living space smaller than some closets.

Though she has collected enough information to draw the rough outlines of a Chinatown portrait, her account sometimes lacks the kind of in-depth personal testimony from average residents that best captures the inner life and tone of a community. Through her eyes, Chinatown often remains at a distance from the reader.

When the author visits a garment shop with labor inspectors and finds an underage 16-year-old girl working with her mother, the reader waits for her to explore in depth why this family is working in this shop. While the implication is that immigrant workers are exploited by Chinatown garment factories, she offers too little about how Chinese immigrants see these jobs or what they will to put up with to ensure a better life for their children.

Kinkead instead locates the heart of her story in an investigation of the Chinatown underworld, which law enforcement officials say is responsible for half of the heroin smuggled into the United States.

Although most of her information has been gathered from law enforcement agencies, Kinkead's portrait of On Leong and Hip Sing, the two most important tongs, and the Ghost Shadows and the Flying Dragons, the gangs that carry out their dirty work, is compelling and makes up the book's strongest chapters.

While organized crime's involvement in drug smuggling from Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle is Chinatown's most serious - and certainly most sensational - problem, it doesn't reflect the sensibility of the majority of Chinese immigrants, most of whom come to the US to find a better and more secure life for themselves and their children.

In the end, Kinkead seems to view Chinatown as a disturbing and unfortunate place. Several times she refers to its inhabitants and workers as "prisoners," and refers to Chinatown as a "desperate" and "troubled" community. While this may in many instances be true, it's uncertain whether most Chinese living there would describe it in quite those terms. The narrative doesn't contain enough authentic Chinatown voices to make these kinds of statements credible.

While Kinkead suggests that many Chinese are "prisoners" of New York's Chinatown, Min Zhou, the author of Chinatown: The Socioeconomic Potential of an Urban Enclave (Temple University Press, 233 pp., $44.95), describes a more hopeful Chinese community.

An assistant professor in the department of sociology at Louisiana State University, Zhou relies heavily on census data and other statistics to study Chinatown as an economic entity. She also includes a fair amount of firsthand testimony from people who live and work in the neighborhood. Though limited in number, the voices here seem closer to the world of the average Chinese immigrant than some of those found in the Kinkead book.

Though Zhou's "Chinatown" often reads like a government report - especially when contrasted with Kinkead's fluid journalistic prose - its author nevertheless argues effectively that Chinatown serves a valuable purpose for immigrant Chinese.

She argues that Chinatown continues to offer them - many with limited language ability and knowledge of American culture - the opportunity to earn money and compete for jobs more effectively than would be possible in mainstream society.

Rather than view Chinatown as a sinister and dangerous place, Zhou, who was born in China and has family connections in Chinatown, views it as a successful economic enclave that offers Chinese immigrants the opportunity to improve their lives within the confines of a more familiar and to them less threatening environment. At the same time, it moves them a step closer toward assimilation into the mainstream world, which for Chinese happens in their own distinct way.

While recognizing abuses in the garment industry and the low status of women, Zhou nonetheless suggests that many Chinese are willing to accept these conditions as part of a temporary stage in their ongoing effort to make a better life for themselves and their children.

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