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How It Is in Chinatown : THE NEW CHINATOWN by Peter Kwong (Hill & Wang: $16.95; 175 pp.)

January 03, 1988|Jade Snow Wong | Wong is the author of "Fifth Chinese Daughter" and "No Chinese Stranger " (Harper & Row)

China and the Chinese people, representing a culture so vastly complex and different, have always interested Westerners, European and American. More has been written in English about things Chinese by non-Chinese than by the Chinese themselves. The 1938 Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to Pearl Buck, who won international acclaim among avid readers in the non-Chinese world for her observations of peasant life in China.

There is a mystique, and there are misjudgments even about the Chinese living here in the United States. One reason is that American schoolbooks have neglected to mention the history and culture of China and the Pacific Area, so the void in the average American mind is vaguely stuffed with hearsay or movie stereotypes. Another is that while Chinese have been coming to America for more than 150 years, they have written very little about themselves. Peter Kwong's revelations about New York's Chinatown contribute to correcting a void, and give us some explanations.

By his own definition, Kwong is an "uptown" Chinese; that is, a Chinese educated in Western studies, dislocated from ancestral domiciles by World War II, transplanted to America, making a living independent of Chinatown, able to move easily and socially in the American world. "Uptown" Chinese differ from "downtown" Chinese, those immigrants confined to Lower Manhattan's Chinatown borders. Limited in English, they struggle to make a living while subject to four squeezes: exploitative Chinese employers, a powerful traditional community hierarchy, greedy landlords, indifferent labor unions. With acceleration and increase in arrivals of new immigrants in the last 40 years, their number grew to about 100,000. Kwong traces the factors for the seeming prosperity in New York's Chinatown.

Perhaps only an "uptown" Chinese with skill, objectivity and sympathy can engage in this kind of expose. He had to care, but he also had to dare. Kwong was born in China, did undergraduate work in quantitative sciences, graduate work at Columbia, then became interested in politics. After research and hundreds of field interviews, he writes with a sociologist's approach in a journalistic manner. We get a capsule history of Chinese immigration to America (nobody leaves home unless conditions are wretched or untenable), with changing history/politics accounting for changing kinds of immigrants, "uptown" and "downtown." Uptowners are of course privileged, educated, wealthier Chinese who emigrated because of political changes. Downtowners, as Kwong describes from the 1980 Census, are 80.4% foreign born, 54.8% not speaking English well or at all, while 71.4% have not finished high school. They are unskilled and work mostly in two categories: 450 restaurants and 500 garment factories. They can hardly be articulate. Kwong speaks for them, pointing out that diligent Chinese seamstresses, a ready source of cheap labor, saved New York's garment industry. Their industriousness at the bottom created wealth for contractors, manufacturers and the ILGW (International Ladies Garment Workers Union). In other chapters, the book reveals Chinatown's power structure, linked to Taiwan commercial interests, to banks, to real estate, to Tongs, to street gangs.

In size, Chinese in America are the second-largest immigrant group next to the Mexicans, and they comprise the largest Asian group. The phenomenon of New York's Chinatown is repeated with variations in other Chinatowns, such as San Francisco where I grew up. Though we knew about Tongs and the power structure, when we lived with our families among them, which one of us could write about what we knew? I lived and worked in my father's blue jeans factory, violating child labor laws. My father, the contractor/employer, made a meager living, caught between low prices paid by his manufacturer/boss and the cost of maintaining a loyal work force of Chinese women. Kwong talks about hundreds of Chinese contractor/employers in New York who solve the American manufacturers' labor problems, enabling them to profit by a quick supply of the latest fashions.

American-born Chinese grow up, then out of Chinatown. They may be more articulate, but they have been exhorted by laboring immigrant parents to obtain degrees in lucrative professions that don't require getting hands dirty or facility in English: the sciences. Few American Chinese major in the humanities; even fewer become writers. Chinese as well as non-Chinese can benefit from this book, and Americans will find that there is more to Chinatown than dim sum and cheap novelties. We read of quotas against Asian applicants in American colleges. What motivated record numbers of applicants? Are they, or who among them, the "model minority"? Ignoring them will not make them go away, for in fact they have just gotten visible. Helping them as a group, recognizing them as individuals, would develop human potential in all the Chinatowns.

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