ABSTRACT

This description of San Francisco’s Chinatown from the 2003 edition of the popular travel guide Let’s Go succinctly captures two popular, interrelated conceptions of Chinatown. First, it is a space of absolute otherness. The word “China-Town” itself distinctly delineates the space as geographically, nationally, culturally, and ethnically dissimilar in comparison to the wider, normative spaces of unmarked “American-Town.” The enclave is placed in an ambiguous position of being within the national boundaries of the United States, yet at the same time a figment of imagination and “if anything” a representation of China “forty years ago.” The abstractness of this spatial configuration becomes a tangible reality as tourists venturing past the infamous arches and gates of Chinatowns across the country, armed with their cameras, expectantly believe that they are entering another world marked by the “sights and smells of Chinese-American culture.” Besides Chinatown’s supposed alterity, the excerpt above also articulates another concept of its almost-magical quality-temporal permanence. Chinatowns are often imagined to be spaces where time is suspended, conserving cultural authenticity, traditions, and all cultural artifacts. The space is made to function as an ethnographic museum which systematically and coherently codes, classifies, and constitutes

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