American Chinatown

A People's History of Five Neighborhoods

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About The Book

CHINATOWN, U.S.A.: a state of mind, a world within a world, a neighborhood that exists in more cities than you might imagine. Every day, Americans find "something different" in Chinatown's narrow lanes and overflowing markets, tasting exotic delicacies from a world apart or bartering for a trinket on the street -- all without ever leaving the country. It's a place that's foreign yet familiar, by now quite well known on the Western cultural radar, but splitting the difference still gives many visitors to Chinatown the sense, above all, that things are not what they seem -- something everyone in popular culture, from Charlie Chan to Jack Nicholson, has been telling us for decades. And it's true that few visitors realize just how much goes on beneath the surface of this vibrant microcosm, a place with its own deeply felt history and stories of national cultural significance.

But Chinatown is not a place that needs solving; it's a place that needs a more specific telling. In American Chinatown, acclaimed travel writer Bonnie Tsui takes an affectionate and attentive look at the neighborhood that has bewitched her since childhood, when she eagerly awaited her grandfather's return from the fortune-cookie factory. Tsui visits the country's four most famous Chinatowns -- San Francisco (the oldest), New York (the biggest), Los Angeles (the film icon), Honolulu (the crossroads) -- and makes her final, fascinating stop in Las Vegas (the newest; this Chinatown began as a mall); in her explorations, she focuses on the remarkable experiences of ordinary people, everyone from first-to fifth-generation Chinese Americans. American Chinatown breaks down the enigma of Chinatown by offering narrative glimpses: intriguing characters who reveal the realities and the unexpected details of Chinatown life that American audiences haven't heard. There are beauty queens, celebrity chefs, immigrant garment workers; there are high school kids who are changing inner-city life in San Francisco, Chinese extras who played key roles in 1940s Hollywood, new arrivals who go straight to dealer school in Las Vegas hoping to find their fortunes in their own vision of "gold mountain." Tsui's investigations run everywhere, from mom-and-pop fortune-cookie factories to the mall, leaving no stone unturned.

By interweaving her personal impressions with the experiences of those living in these unique communities, Tsui beautifully captures their vivid stories, giving readers a deeper look into what "Chinatown" means to its inhabitants, what each community takes on from its American home, and what their experience means to America at large. For anyone who has ever wandered through Chinatown and wondered what it was all about, and for Americans wanting to understand the changing face of their own country, American Chinatown is an all-access pass.

About The Author

Photograph by Bonnie Tsui

Bonnie Tsui is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. A former editor at Travel + Leisure, she has written for National Geographic Adventure, Salon, and Condé Nast Traveller. She is the editor of A Leaky Tent Is a Piece of Paradise, a collection of essays on the outdoors, and is a recipient of the Radcliffe Traveling Fellowship, the Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Journalism, and the Jane Rainie Opel Award. She lives in San Francisco, and can be reached at www.bonnietsui.com.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (August 11, 2009)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416558361

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Raves and Reviews

"A wonderfully revealing and compassionate trip into the real lives of men and women who straddle the world's two great powers. The graceful travelogue is from a hidden world in our own backyards. Tsui plunges into Chinatowns that are, like China itself, reinventing themselves before our eyes, showing not only what it means to be Chinese in the world, but also the spirit of self-invention that made America great." -- Evan Osnos, Beijing Correspondent, The New Yorker

"A fascinating and thoughtful look at a thoroughly American phenomenon." -- Gish Jen, Author of The Love Wife

"In this masterful work, Bonnie Tsui charts the fascinating history of America's Chinatowns. From geography to economics to linguistics, she presents a vibrant, intimate portrait of communities that have played a crucial role in shaping the American landscape. There are dozens of evocative, exhilarating, and touching stories here, from those of a beauty queen to a Vegas poker dealer in training. Candid, witty, and always engaging, Tsui is a wonderful guide for these many journeys." -- Sara Houghteling, Author of Pictures At An Exhibition

"Bonnie Tsui has written affectionately and astutely about a subject very close to my heart: Chinatown. In speaking with old-timers, the first generation to grow up in Chinatown, and the newest immigrants, she has captured the ways that five Chinatowns connect their inhabitants to culture, history, language, food, and to China itself -- even if they've never been there. She has looked beyond the colorful tourist facades to find unique neighborhoods that serve as home for some, refuges for others, and places of memory for all." -- Lisa See, Author of Shanghai Girls and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

"An intimate glimpse into Chinatown...Tsui details fascinating facts about the history of each Chinatown, while also delving into how each has influenced their cities at large. But the book works so well because Tsui captures the essence of each Chinatown by telling the stories of its people." -- Ann Tatko-Peterson, Contra Costa Times

"An updated real-life insider look at the Chinatowns in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Honolulu and Las Vegas [with] depth, perception and insight." -- William Wong, The San Francisco Chronicle

Awards and Honors

  • APALA Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature

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