Today, I’m wondering about how the prejudices that contemporary China exports overlap with historical prejudices in the West, especially when we talk about “Chinatowns” or “traditional” and “rural” China. In other words, what to make of the fact that Westerners continue to like Chinatowns (and urban villages), while China’s rising elite does not?
Yesterday, I ate lunch with Shenzhen friends at Hakkasan, a hip international Chinese-inspired chain (with amazing desserts) and then walked Chinatown, San Francisco. Before we separated, my northern Mainland friends (who had enjoyed the food) warned me that Chinatown was “just like Chaozhou in the 1960s”. The implication was not only that Chinatown was backward, but also that there wasn’t anything there to see or enjoy. Instead, they were interested in buying a home in Mission Bay, which was new and modern and, in many ways, just like Shenzhen albeit, “not as convenient”.
The historic link between Chinatown, San Francisco and other Guangdong settlements is explicit. The Kaiping watchtowers, for example, were not only built with monetary remittances from Overseas Chinese in San Francisco, but also with materials, techniques, and blueprints that were sent back home. In fact, there is a Kaiping Hometown Association on Washingtown St (开平侨网). I enjoyed my walk. But then again, I also like Shenzhen urban villages. I also appreciate informal forms of urbanization across Guangzhou, which nourishes dense settlements and lively commerce.
The fact that my friends drew attention to the “backwardness” of Chinatown, SF echoed similar warnings about urban villages, Shenzhen. In fact, explicit contrast either to neidi or locally to the urban villages predicates the celebration of modern Shenzhen. The difference hinges on the glorification of the wealthy and their tasteful lifestyles in contradistinction to the working poor and their traditional lifestyles. Of course, in practice, “tradition” glosses low-tech practices that enable the working poor to “make do” with less than their share of the goods their labor produced.
These past few years, Shenzhen has also become increasingly well known in the foreign media. It is no longer just a symbol of the government’s decision to reform and open the Maoist system, but also an example of the success of that decision. Today, Chinese no longer disparage Shenzhen as being backward, nor do they exhort me to go elsewhere to see the real China. Instead, new immigrants say how wonderful Shenzhen is and second generation residents are proud to say they come from Shenzhen. Indeed, they now claim it is the “best city” in China, and note that it is more livable than Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou.
On the one hand, my friends’ determination to distinguish themselves from the residents of Chinatown, San Francisco as well as the fact that they did so via Chaozhou should give pause. After all, within Guangdong, Chaozhou is considered one of the largest homelands for Overseas Chinese as well as one of the most “traditional”. On the other hand, Western racism enabled colonialism abroad and ghettoization at home. Guangdong immigrants appropriated elements of these twinned processes to create neighborhoods in their hometowns, new and old. Similarly, migrant workers to Shenzhen take advantage of reform and opening policies to create lives in adverse conditions.
Inspirations from Chinatown, San Francisco and culinary delights, below: