Contested Space of San Francisco Chinatown in Sui Sin Far’s
Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings
- Author: Choi Yoon-Young
- Publish: The Journal of English Language and Literature Volume 58, Issue6, p1023~1039, Dec 2012
The rising urban space in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century was an exemplary site of struggles between the dominant white population and those who migrated from the imperial peripheries. By setting up the space of Chinatown as a segregated sphere within the urban space, the dominant white American society attempted to recreate the sense of distance between themselves and the racial “others.” Accordingly, the dominant narrative representations of San Francisco Chinatown at the turn of the century endeavored to produce and maintain the spatial dichotomies between the orderly spaces of natives and the disruptive immigrant communities within the larger boundary of modern American city space. As a Eurasian woman writer, Sui Sin Far attempted to provide distinctive portrayals of the space of Chinatown and its inhabitants that were far different from those of her contemporaries. Through her portrayals of San Francisco Chinatown in her collection of short-stories,
Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings(1912), Far challenges against the false stereotypes and misreading of this unique immigrant space within and efforts to present the Chinatown as a heterotopic diaspora space where the “insiders” and the “outsiders” of the American urban space intermingle and influence each other.
urban space , Chinatown , immigrants , spatial mapping , heterotopia
“We Are Here Because You Were There” has become one of the most evocative anti-racism slogans held by the (post-)colonial diasporic subjects inhabiting the metropolises of the West. As the Western domination of Asian countries gradually shifted in its form from direct colonialism to indirect interventions with the system of globalized capitalism, the position of Asian immigrants in the metropolitan cities became a double-bind locus for the persisting projects of western imperialism in Asia. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigrations from Asian and African colonies to European or American metropolises had been mainly provoked by the Western societies’ demands for cheaper labor in their still developing capitalist economies. However, the growing infiltration of the racial “others” into the Western urban spaces disrupted the rigid spatial division that the imperialists had endeavored to maintain between themselves and the colonized subjects. The development of immigrant communities within the metropolitan spaces could thus hold double meanings. On the one hand, these communities could provide physical and/or emotional sanctuaries for the immigrants who had been abruptly displaced into unfamiliar environments. On the other hand, these spaces could be exploited by the imperialists in their attempt to maintain the spatial division between themselves and the colonized “others.”
The rapid growth of Asian immigrant population was one of the most significant aspects of the rising urban spaces in the late nineteenth-century United States. Although China was not an official colony of the United States, it came under a heavy influence of American military and economic controls from the mid-nineteen century like many of its neigh- boring countries. The United States had greatly depended upon the cheap labor force of the Chinese immigrants in the nation’s project of industrial development such as building railways or mining. Yet, at the same time, the great influx of the Chinese population into the United States provoked great uneasiness for the dominant white American society. The tension between the labor-management relations was aggravated by a devastating commercial panic and depression in the late 1860s. Thousands of white laborers were unemployed, and they began to blame the Chinese workers for their troubles. Even under such circumstances, however, the number of Chinese immigrants constantly grew and eventually a neighborhood called “Chinatown” emerged as one of the most distinct immigrant community within the American urban spaces. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “Chinatown” ghettos proliferated in both cities and small towns throughout North America.1
The increase in Chinese population during the last three decades of nineteenth century exacerbated dominant white Americans’ fear of Chinese immigrant spaces. The idea of Chinatown as a self-contained and alien society, in turn, justified persistent acts of surveillance, investigation, and statistical surveys that “scientifically” corroborated the racial classification. The exposés of Chinatown began to increase in forms of government investigations, newspaper reports, travelogues and fictions. These narratives established “knowledge” about the Chinese race and aided in the making and remaking of Chinatown. While various fictional and non-fictional accounts proliferated at the turn of the century, most of these works would support the anti-Chinese sentiments of the period. In order to reaffirm the inferiority, or notoriety, of the Chinese immigrants
which served as the rationale for exercising discriminative gestures and xenophobia toward them— most of these accounts attempted to stress the radical differences that separate the Chinese aliens from white Americans. The space of Chinatown was depicted as the dark, uncivilized subterranean world which stands in direct contrast to the decent, rational aboveground space of white Americans.
Sui Sin Far entered the literary field during these periods when such binary attitudes prevailed.2 As a Eurasian woman writer, Far attempted to provide distinctive portrayals of the space of Chinatown and its inhabitants that were far different from those of her contemporaries. San Francisco Chinatown, one of the major sites explored in Far’s narratives, emerged in the late nineteenth century in response to intense periods of anti-Chinese violence between 1870s and 1890s and the government’s authorization of residential segregation in 1878.3 The drastic differences between Far’s stories and the dominant white American narratives of these periods in their representations of San Francisco Chinatown reveal the tension between the immigrants and the natives—along the axes of race, class, and gender—in the nineteenth-century American urban space. In this essay, I examine the dominant narrative representations of San Francisco Chinatown at the turn of the century which endeavored to produce and maintain the spatial dichotomies between the orderly spaces of natives and the disruptive immigrant communities within the larger boundary of modern American city space. Through her portrayals of San Francisco Chinatown in her collection of short-stories,
Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings(1912), Far challenges against the false stereotypes and misreading of this unique immigrant space within and efforts to present the Chinatown as a heterotopic diaspora space where the “insiders” and the “outsiders” of the American urban space intermingle and influence each other.
1Although the area called “Chinatown” had a variety of inhabitants throughout the late nineteenth century, the predominance of Chinese residents meant the entire location had only one racial identity. While the physical boundaries of these Chinatowns constantly shifted, the name signaled a potent racial designation of Chinese immigrant inhabitation. Businesses and residences occupied by Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Mexican, Canadian, and Anglo Americans continued to thrive in so-called Chinatown, but they were of little interest in the accounts regarding the space. While the physical boundaries of these Chinatowns constantly shifted, the name signaled a potent racial designation of Chinese immigrant inhabitation. 2Edith Maude Eaton, who published her works under the pen name “Sui Sin Far,” is regarded as the first fiction writer of Asian descent to achieve professional publication in North America. 3Although Far examines the Chinatowns in several different cities throughout the North America in her narratives — such as, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Montreal, Seattle and New York—I will mainly focus on her depiction of the Chinatown in San Francisco. As Philip P. Choy points out, in The Coming Man, the situation of San Francisco Chinatown is distinctive in many ways since it became the “‘dumping ground of the entire country’ with no help from the state or federal government to handle the influx of Chinese kicked out from the other American communities” after the Chinese Exclusion Act (137).
California was both the foothold of Chinese immigrants where they made their greatest contribution to the nation’s economic development, and the locale where anti-Chinese sentiment first turned severe. As a city that housed the largest Chinese population in the United States, San Francisco produced a great amount of fictional and non-fictional discourses on Chinatown and its inhabitants throughout the turn of the twentieth century. The rhetoric and propaganda of anti-Chinese sentiment — the so-called “Yellow Peril” discourse —intensified as the struggles over labor-control and capital increased amongst different social groups.4 The claim that Chinese labor displaced white labor provoked massive riots in many American cities. The huge number of Chinese immigrants who were forced to leave those cities sought refuge in San Francisco’s Chinatown. For the Chinese immigrants, the period of free migration to the United States ended with the 1880
Angell Treatyand the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.5However, the question of how to control the already established community of Chinese immigrants within the city remained as a persistent problem.
The dominant narrative discourses presenting the “reality” of San Francisco Chinatown at the turn of the century typically divided the city into two separate spaces. The vivid visceral narration of the journey through Chinatown became one of the standard forms of knowledge used in popular accounts to establish the “truth” of Chinatown as the preemi- nent site of vice, immorality, degradation, crime, and disease. The image of Chinatown as a contaminated and corrupted space emerged concurrently with the urban public’s ambition to make their city the ideal space both in physical and moral sense.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the cities in the United States were legally and politically redefining their roles, constituency, and capacity to regulate their fast growing urban space. The interests of capitalist development, industrialization, and rapid urbanization pressed city residents to take on the responsibilities of keeping the city space in a balanced order. Creating a salubrious urban utopia became a political vocation and practical challenge for nineteenth-century city residents across the United States. This agenda reflected a practical response to the problems besetting the cities undergoing explosive growth. Numerous American cities confronted the uncontrollable accumulation of sewage, exponential increases of population, rapid spread of housing settlements, and recurrent eruptions of fatal epidemics.
Problems of disorderliness continued on moral aspects. Sudden gravitation of the population to the cities had put its residents in an unprecedented space where countless people of different race, culture, and class intermingled together. While many urban residents could enjoy the progress and prosperity presented by industrialization, great anxieties on the issues of unchecked licentiousness and iniquities were provoked at the same time. Everywhere in the city lay the danger of moral corruption and the immigrant community was one of the major targets of public censure where they found the unbridled profligacy.6 City officials and reform workers began to assign missions of preserving order and civility in urban affairs by attempting to monitor the presumably alien space of immigrants.
The urban narratives in the nineteenth century appear in a range of forms, such as newspapers, government reports, travelogues and novels. The sensationalized reality represented in these narratives offered the readers the disclosure of private reality of the city. Chinatown became one of the most popular subjects for these narratives which sought to explore the mysterious aspects of the urban spaces.7 Most of the narra- tives would define Chinatown as the material manifestation of the alien within the modern American city, emphasizing Chinese difference, or rather deviance from, and danger to dominant white society and the entire nation.8
4An article in a Californian newspaper, Marin Journal, published in 1876, proves a useful example of anti-Chinese sentiments of the period: “We have won this glorious land inch by inch from the red man in vain; we have beaten back the legions of George the Third for nothing; we have suppressed rebellion and maintained the integrity of our country for no good purpose whatsoever, if we are now to surrender it to a horde of Chinese, simply because they are so degraded that they can live on almost nothing, and underbid our own flesh and blood in the labor market. The people of California cannot endure it” (Sandmeyer 38). 5In 1882 the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which disallowed Chinese workers to immigrate. It consolidated the disenfranchisement of all Chinese people by prohibiting any state or federal court from admitting Chinese immigrants to naturalized citizenship. Many Chinese laborers sought safety in San Francisco along with the white laborers who flocked to the city because of a severe economic downturn in the eastern United States. See Andrew Gyory’s Closing the Gate: Race Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act for more on this issue. 6For instance, in “Newspaper Representation of China and Chinese Americans,” William Huntzicker identifies the Chinese immigrants as the most censured group in the mainstream nineteenth-century American publications. 7B.E. Lloyd’s Lights and Shades in San Francisco (1876), G. B. Densmore’s The Chinese in California: Description of Chinese Life in San Francisco. Their Habits, Morals, Manners (1880), J. W. Buel, Metropolitan Life Unveiled; or, the Mysteries and Miseries of America’s Great Cities (1882), and Walter Raymond’s Horrors of the Mongolian Settlement, San Francisco, California: Enslaved and Degraded Race of Paupers, Opium Eaters, and Lepers (1886) are several examples of most popular travelogues during these periods.
The extensive accounts regarding the space of San Francisco Chinatown can be categorized into two major spheres: the physical space and the moral space. The accounts on the physical space of Chinatown are usually related to the body politics of its inhabitants. Rumors about Chinese immigrant community as the center of epidemic were produced through various forms of narratives. In
The Unwelcome Immigrant, Stuart Creighton Miller notes on the prevailing fear amongst the urban public in the late nineteenth century that “Chinese filth and disease would endanger the safety and welfare of American society” (160). Miller further points out that the “germ theory of disease” was a very popular premise, with which the medical professionals played an important role in “feeding the fears of American journalists over Chinese germs” (160).9 Nayan Shah, in Contagious Divides, charts the representations of Chinatown in San Francisco as the medical menace in the nineteenth century through the government health reports.10 Creating stan dards of normalcy and deviance was a critical strategy in evaluating a space. Against the norm of the white middle-class ideal, Chinese customs and practices were designated as signs of abnormality and inhumanity. The shared knowledge of Chinatown produced explanations that tenaciously connected the Chinese race to place, behavior, and cultural differences and framed the endurance of the Chinatown ghetto as a living repository of the strange, the peculiar, and the inassimilable in San Francisco.
Various reports, put out through newspapers and travelogues, portrayed the San Francisco Chinatown as a metaphorical underground space as opposed to the wholesome city on the surface. For instance, Curt Abel- Musgrave, the editor of a local newspaper, took the widespread notion of Chinatown as a “subterranean world” to its extreme. In his report about a cholera epidemic unleashed in the city, Abel-Musgrave conceptualized the space of San Francisco as two distinctive cities—the “healthy paradise” of the true San Francisco above-ground and the “hell” of Chinatown underground (5). The sensational imageries overpowered to emphasize the typical and pervasive nature of the problem of density and crowding. Usually these narratives would emphasize firsthand descriptions, rich in visceral sensory details. The images of cramped, hidden, and subterranean living quarters that resembled “pen,” “dens,” “coffins” and “dungeons” were common in these accounts which claimed that these spaces were fit for animals, criminals, and the dead, not for human habitation. 11
The symbolic dichotomy of the city above-ground and the Chinatown underground persisted in moral dimension. The precise mapping of vice onto Chinatown can be well observed in the “Official Map of ‘Chinatown’ in San Francisco” produced in 1885 by the municipal authorities (Tchen 20). This “official” map, which was color-coded to divide the Chinatown into different sections, focused to locate the sites of moral degradation—such as gambling resorts, opium dens and brothels. Similarly, one of the most crucial objectives of the government reports published during these period was to penetrate the underground world of Chinatown.12 The itinerary of these reports ignored other Chinatown spaces—such as the merchants’ homes, dry goods stores, temples, meeting rooms, and Chinese opera theaters— since these more visible sites offered little evidence of moral degradation that demanded constant surveillances over the area.
Most of the indictment on the iniquity of the Chinese immigrants resulted from the difference of their cultural and social norms from those of the middle-class white Americans.13 The examination of Chinatown spaces, conditions, and social relations provided a material and representational terrain to explore the extreme contrast between the “Chinese race” and the “American people.”14 The Chinese lack of “civilization” and “standard of living” emerged from the obsessive descriptions of Chinatown as a space of difference antagonistic to the rest of the city. These narratives would usually underscore the presumed absence of respectable nuclear families in Chinatown and Chinese immigrants’ lack of Christian faith as the indications of cultural and moral inferiority of Chinese people. Such contrast fed the tension between the aberrant and the normal and the racial difference that separated the Chinese aliens from dominant white Americans and, therefore, reinforced the spatial dichotomy between the natives and the immigrants within the American urban space.
8In The Yellow Peril, William F. Wu provides a detailed analysis on the representation of Chinatown in the fictional works of white American writers, such as Frank Norris, C. W. Doyle and Chester Baily Fernald, during these periods. According to Wu, these fictional accounts generally contained “cultural inaccuracies and deletions that together create a misleading picture of Chinatown rather than a realistic one” (126). 9Choy also points out that the “presence of the bubonic plague was a deliberate scare fabricated by the Board of Health in a campaign to convince San Franciscans of the necessity to get rid of the Chinese and to burn Chinatown” (102). 10Shah appoints three key spatial elements — “dens,” “density,” and the “labyrinth” —in the creation of city officials’ “knowledge” of Chinatown: “The enclosed and inhuman spaces of dens were where the Chinese lived. High density was the condition in which they lived. And the labyrinth was the unnavigable maze that characterized both the subterranean passageways within the buildings and the streets and alleys aboveground. Theses spatial elements established the basic contours of the representation of Chinatown and provided the canvas for detailed renderings of Chinese living styles, conditions, and behaviors. The investigations and the accompanying publicity not only established the Chinatown spatial elements of dens, density, and the labyrinth but also generated the stereotyped imagery that would be used more intensively over the decades and that illuminates how racial categories in the United States were produced in the late nineteenth century and persisted in the twentieth century” (18-19). 11The “abjectness” of the Chinese “mode of life” was manifested in the comparisons to farm animals, feeding a perception not only of Chinese immigrants’ inferiority but also of their inhumanity. In Geographies of Exclusion: Society and Difference in the West, David Sibley observes rats and pigs to have a “particular place in the racist bestiary because all are associated with residues —food waste, human waste —and in the case of rats there is an association with spaces which border civilized society, particular subterranean spaces like sewers, which also channel residues and form which rats occasionally emerge to transgress the boundaries of society” (28). 12Thomas Logan, a California State official, was the central figure who commissioned the extensive investigation of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late nineteenth century. According to Shah, Logan and other investigators simultaneously held a “keen appreciation that the ‘truth’ of Chinatown was hidden from public view. The most revealing journeys, then, had to be conducted at night, when the ‘true character’ of the quarter —with its gambling houses, opium dens, and brothels —revealed itself” (29). 13In this sense, the image of Chinatown as a corrupted space is similar to that of what Julia Kristeva terms “the abjected space.” For Kristeva, “abjection” does not result from the lack of “cleanliness” or “health” but from those that disturb “identity,” “system,” or “order,” for they draw attention to the “fragility of the law” (4). 14For instance, G. B. Densmore’s central argument in his travelogue, Chinese in California, was the “radical difference between Caucasian and Mongolian civilization” (117-21).
While almost every account of Chinatown was drawn from the outsider’s point of view, Far’s
Mrs. Spring Fragrance and OtherWritings can stand as a counter-discourse as the viewpoints of the narrators come from within.15 In defiance to the binary mapping of the dominant narratives, the San Francisco Chinatown that Far presents is a space that goes beyond the dichotomy of center and periphery, of light and darkness, and beyond the distinction between “us” and “them.”
As opposed to the white, typically male gazes of the outside observers, the scenes of the San Francisco Chinatown in Far’s narratives are mostly observed by the insiders of the Chinese immigrant community. One of the major characters in Far’s stories, Mrs. Spring Fragrance—who is a recently immigrated Chinese woman— questions the unidirectional description of Chinese immigrant community in the public discourse: “the American woman writes books about the Chinese. Why not a Chinese woman write books about the Americans?” (39). As if she is mocking the exoticizing of the Chinese by the Americans, Mrs. Spring Fragrance exclaims, “Ah, these Americans! These mysterious, inscrutable, incomprehensible Americans! Had I the divine right of learning I would put them into an immortal book!” (33). In the eyes of a Chinese immigrant observer, now it is the dominant Americans who stand as unfathomable aliens. Such shift in the perspective has led many critics to observe Far’s narratives as a direct counter-narrative to conventional portrayals of the relationship between white Americans and Chinese immigrants.16
However, a closer examination of Chinatown in Far’s accounts reveals that her representation of the space extends even beyond the reversal binarism that the existing critical readings suggest. As Min Hyoung Song points out, the interaction between the white Americans and the Chinese immigrants in Far’s Chinatown is not a “unidirectional process of making otherness into the self in a program of homogenization,” but rather a “synthesis where the self actually opens itself up to otherness and results in change for both parties” (26). In this sense, the space of Chinatown that Far attempts to portray is not a merely binarized, hierarchical space of light and darkness, of virtue and vice, or of “us” and “them” but rather a space which could be identified as “heterotopic.” In his essay, “Of Other Spaces,” Michel Foucault discusses the term “heterotopias” as spaces of alterity that call into questions the hierarchical organization of all other social space.17 Heterotopias function in a critical relation to the binarized space that remains: they expose the untenability of the hierarchized divisions of space into domains of public and private, leisure and work, or legitimacy and illegitimacy. The San Francisco Chinatown depicted in Far’s narratives can be considered as such a space. It is a sedimented community space that condenses at once barbershops, boarding houses, and gambling halls—which are the traces of mid-nineteen-century bachelor societies — with schools, churches, or family service businesses— which are the signs of the transition to family society and the influx of women at the turn of the century—and the restaurants, stores, and factories where the later-joined Chinese immigrants worked.
In Far’s account, San Francisco is no longer a site of opposite binaries of the immaculate space of white American city “above-ground” and the murky “dens” and “labyrinths” of “underground” Chinatown. While the typical narratives by white Americans focus on the shady aspects of the immigrant communities, Far comes up with much more diverse imageries of the space. On the one hand, Far continues her critique over the prejudiced viewpoints of the white Americans through her white characters. As missionaries, reformers, or news reporters, the white Americans in Far’s narratives “visit” the Chinatown and observe its space through their eyes which are already preoccupied with stereotypical understandings of the immigrant “aliens.” In “The Wisdom of the New,” Far provides two different street scenes of the San Francisco Chinatown through the perspectives of a white American and a Chinese immigrant. The description of the immigrant space, which Adah Charlton presents in one of her nocturnal visit to the Chinatown, illustrates a quite different portrayal from those of the government investigators such as Logan. Instead of the dark, underground opium dens and brothels, Charlton sees the Chinatown with its lanterns shedding a “moonshiny radiance” over the street, booths decorated with flowers, and its inhabitants all “out of doors” in their “lavishly colored silks” (54). And yet, Charlton’s observations still remain as that of an outsider, and she posits herself as a tourist from the East who has to be guided by another white woman who would “[explain] to her its meaning” (54). Mrs. Dean—Charlton’s escort in this tour—is a reformer “who devoted herself . . . to the betterment of the condition and the uplifting of the young workingmen of Chinese race who came to America” (52). Still, Mrs. Dean maintains her position as a patronizing overseer who treats the Chinatown and its denizens as “object[s] of interest” (54). Even with their sympathetic gestures to the immigrants, Charlton and Mrs. Dean continue to mark Chinatown as an exotic space, a space that is alienated from the rest of the city.18
On the other hand, the space of Chinatown that Pau Lin—a recently immigrated Chinese woman in the same story—witnesses offers very different imageries. Under Pau Lin’s eyes, Chinatown is no longer an “underground” or a “fantasyland” that stands as the antithetical space to the normative white American San Francisco; rather, it is a place where diverse cultures and people collide. While there still live the “sing-song” women of the shadowy alleys, there are also the respectable merchants’ wives who shudder at those women (49). The man fallen into the gutter is a “drunken white man” and a Chinese in American clothes accompanies a blond woman (49). Pau Lin’s Chinatown with its street crowded with people from “all nationalities” is no longer the dark shadow of the respectable white city or the exotic space of “others” (49).
15Most literary genres that represented the Chinatown, such as travelogues, would usually place the writer as an outsider of the Chinese immigrant community who would occasionally visit or tour the Chinatown. 16For instance, Annette White-Parks argues that Far’s narrative reverses the center and periphery relationship between White Americans and Chinese Immigrants by placing the latter at the fictional and moral center while white Americans are placed as the “other” (17). For more examples of critical readings that suggest distinctions between Far’s portrayals of Chinese and Chinese Americans and portrayals by other writers see Solberg’s “First Chinese- American Fictionist” or Amy Ling’s “Pioneer Chinamerican.” 17Foucault defines heterotopias as sites of crisis and deviation—such as prisons, sanitariums, or cemeteries —or sites that juxtapose several incompatible spaces or temporalities —such as the festival, museum, or colony. 18In The Chinese Americans, Benson Tong notes on this tendency of “exoticizing” the Chinatown by the Chinese themselves as a reaction to the medical and moral stigmatization: “After the 1906 earthquake, city leaders in San Francisco, taking advantage of the destruction of Chinatown, again threaten to move it to the city’s outskirts. Leading Chinese merchants realized that they had to shatter Chinatown’s slumlike image. To that end, a gilded ‘Oriental City’ soon emerged —pagodas and falsely curved “Oriental” roofs began to dot the skyline, Chinese pageantry was revived, and thousands of light bulbs transformed Chinatown into a fantasyland” (82).
Far’s deconstruction of the spatial binarism furthers on as her narratives enter into the private spaces of the Chinatown. As opposed to the white American narratives which mainly focus on the public function of the immigrant space, Far’s stories provide the readers with private accounts of the space. Liu Kanghi’s apartment that a white American woman, Minnie, visits in “The Story of One White Woman Who Married a Chinese,” provides a contrasting image to those of the typical white narratives. The residential space of the Chinese immigrant man is described with phrases, such as “large,” “cool” and “elegant simplicity” (79), which give an opposite notion from its typical image as a “densely packed space” of a “coffin” or a “pen” prevalently adapted in the white American reports. Furthermore, Liu Kanghi’s residence is not simply a reverse representation of the “coffin-like” images of immigrant residence that the dominant white narratives have presented. Rather, it is a space where different cultures and traditions intermingle. Another example of such concoction can be observed in Wan Lin Fo’s apartment in “The Americanizing of Pau Tsu.” While the immigrant man, Fo, tries to “Americanize” himself by furnishing his apartment “in American style,” his Chinese bride, Pau Tsu brings in the Chinese furnishings and turns the place into a mixture of an “American flat” and an “Oriental bower” (86).
On the ontological level, Far’s Chinatown is the “contact zone” where different social forces, roles and identities collide into each other.19 As the city of San Francisco at the turn of the century becomes a space where the traditional social distinctions and hierarchies become destabilized, it results in similar effects for the Chinese immigrants. Now “the son of a cobbler” who learns English can “command a position of consequence” more easily than “the son of a school-teacher unacquainted with any tongue but that of his motherland” (43). The upper-class Chinese man like Wou Sankwei, in “The Wisdom of the New,” immigrates to the United States and becomes a laborer in order to escape his desperate situation of becoming a “woman man”—a man without any financial competency. For the immigrants like Wou, the American society becomes a place where “one can be a man, and can work at what work comes his way without losing face” (43).
At the same time, the male immigrant has to confront the transgression of another traditional hierarchy as the strict gender role of Chinese culture becomes destabilized in the American urban space. While most of the Chinese immigrant men and women are still confined in their roles of the “superior sex” and the “obedient woman” inside their private household, the outside world of American city disrupts such strict hierarchy. As they enter the Western urban space, the Chinese immigrant men can no longer sustain their “superior” position over women. Although they come to the United States in order to avoid becoming a “woman man,” the jobs that these male immigrants find — such as cooks or laundry washers—are the ones that are conventionally regarded as female occupations. Furthermore, the blurring of gender hierarchy and distinction becomes even more complicated when it coalesces with the issue of race. “Her Chinese Husband”—a story of a Chinese man who marries a white woman—provides an example of such concern. Even though the white American wife insists that her Chinese husband position himself as her “superior” in their domestic spheres, they both acknowledge that the “continual uncertainty about his [own] life here in America” as a minority would hinder him from posing as a strong head of the household. Moreover, the fact that the wife still belongs to “the dominant race” unsettles her wishes to put her husband in the superior position (81).
As opposed to the immigrant men, the American urban space empowers the Chinese women as independent individuals. Although most of them still uphold their positions as the “obedient wi[ves]” in their domestic spaces—by “taking [their] meals after [their husbands] or at a separate table” and “keeping a quiet tongue in the presence of [their men]”— the Chinese immigrant women become aware of the outside world where woman can make an individual progress in the society (46). For instance, “Inferior Woman” presents the female immigrant’s encounter with a lower class American woman who, despite her “inferior” social status, “has made herself” into the world (38).
Still, such instances do not imply that Far celebrates the imposing of white middle-class feminism on Chinese immigrant women. The example of an immigrant woman in “The Americanizing of Pau Tsu,” who suffers from a nervous breakdown after being constantly pushed to act like an independent American woman, suggests that much more complex problems concerning the intersection of gender, race and culture remain in the destabilizing of the hierarchies.
Various forms of fictional and non-fictional accounts examining the Chinatown as a space that would epitomize the nature of its inhabitants evolved at the turn of the century. The majority of these urban narratives written by the white Americans conceived of Chinatown as the preeminent site of urban sickness, vice, crime, poverty, and depravity and, thus, presented it as the antithetical space of their decent cityscape. Confuting such spatial dichotomy, Sui Sin Far presents an alternative portrayal of the Chinatown as a site where the destabilization of bisectional social relations and identities take place along the axes of race, class, gender and even sexuality.20
Far’s San Francisco Chinatown is a space that attempts to undo the binarization and identificatory practices of the dominant discourse of spatiality. It is at once the deviant space ghettoized by the dominant configurations of social space and the resistant locality that signifies the internalization of “others” within the national space. Thus, the urban space of San Francisco in Far’s narratives is no longer a divided space of the “beautiful above” and the “unbeautiful below” as Mark Carson—the white American journalist in “Its Wavering Images”—proclaimed. While Carson insists on the mixed-blood girl, Pan, to choose one space over the other, by demanding, “You have got to decide what you will be—Chinese or white? You cannot be both” (63), Far—as another mixed race writer— contests to such demand through her presentation of Chinatown as a space of various transgressions that moves beyond any binary mappings.
19In Imperial Eyes, Mary Louise Pratt proposes the term, “contact zone,” as a social space “where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination” (4). 20Martha J. Cutter, in “Smuggling Across the Borders of Race, Gender, and Sexuality,” argues that Far’s “cross-dressing and cross-gendering stories such as ‘The Smuggling of Tie Co,’ ‘The Story of Tin-A,’ and ‘The Chinese Lily’” attempt to undermine the “identificatory norms of heterosexuality” (137).