'American Chinatown' author in Honolulu for Thursday appearance
By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor
Book, talk and reading by author Bonnie Tsui
5 p.m. Thursday, Hawaii Heritage Center
Seating limited; call to determine availability: 521-2749
When Bonnie Tsui was a girl growing up in Flushing, New York, her family made frequent trips to Manhattan’s Chinatown, then the cultural center for Chinese in the Big Apple.
Like most young people, she sometimes chafed at having to spend her weekends or evenings at family banquets or at her grandparents’ home.
But later, as a young adult living in the East Village and working as a freelance writer, she began returning to Chinatown of her own volition. “I began to question why I still went there when I wasn’t being dragged there,” she said.
“There’s still something about Chinatown. It’s an anchor, it gives you . . . an identity. And that’s actually a pretty important thing to have, not just for Chinese.”
The fact that others in her generation found themselves doing the same thing, led eventually to her first book, “American Chinatown” (Free Press), which she calls a “contemporary cultural history.”
She profiles five Chinatowns through the eyes of multigenerational people who live and work there, grew up there or go there often. Among these is Oçahu’s Chinatown, where she talks story with an art gallery owner (Fong Chan), a restaurateur (Glenn Chu), a student and resident (Grace Tan) and others.
Here, said Tsui, now a San Francisco resident, she found perhaps the most progressive and multicultural Chinatown of all five. It’s progressive in that Chinatown has chosen to accept and interact with a community of artists, filmmakers, performers, non-Chinese restaurateurs — and, of course, newer immigrants from the Philippines, Vietnam and the South Pacific.
“I think Honolulu’s Chinatown has been the most successful at reinventing itself; there’s a lot of new and exciting stuff going on,” she said.
In particular, “there are ways to get younger people engaged.”
But, she said, most striking to her was the way that Chinatown reflects all of Hawaiçi: a place where people and cultures and customs mix, largely in spirit of tolerance and even celebration.
She calls the first Oçahu segment, “Kapakahi Chinatown,” in the sense of “mixed up.” (This is in itself a mixed-up definition of the word, which means crooked or one-sided; the pidgin kalakoa — which refers to fabric of mixed colors — might have been a better choice.)
While everyone with an immigrant family history — which includes the bulk of people in the U.S. — may get a certain frisson from going back to their parents’ or grandparents’ old neighborhood, or visiting Ellis Island, she said, few of these communities remain as vibrant as Chinatowns.
“These communities, where people often live above their shops, or in courtyards behind them, still serve as points of entry for new citizens, not just as tourist destinations in the manner of, say, New York’s Little Italy, where few Italians now live, she said.
Tsui continues to collect stories via her Web site, http://www.americanchinatown.com.
Many Chinese Americans, and even some non-Chinese, have responded with their own family histories. (One was a Caucasian who grew up in a Chinatown, speaking perfect Cantonese and not having one non-Chinese friend in childhood.)
Tsui doesn’t ignore the complex issues that face many Chinatowns — crime, rising costs, problems of new immigrants, land values. Grace Tam, who lives in Oçahu’s Chinatown, speaks passionately in the book about the need for modernization; the community shouldn’t be a cultural theme park, frozen in time.
Her primary goal, however, was to gather the stories that will lead to conversations like one she had with a young Chinese American student. The girl said that, in the histories and textbooks, Chinese people arrive and “sort of disappear.” After the girl took a part-time job in a Chinese cultural organization, however, she learned that “we’ve been here a long time and we have contributed a lot.”