Chinatown - an exclusive residence

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 August, 2003, 12:00am

Why are there so many Chinatowns around the world and what does this say about the Chinese people? Are they simply symptomatic of a racial tendency towards close-knit living? Are they closer to castles or prisons? Do they reflect insularity, fear or arrogance?

All of the above and more, research suggests. The thinking and behaviour of overseas Chinese can, indeed, be partially attributed to a range of quintessentially Chinese characteristics. The phenomena of Chinatowns is, to some extent, due to the conditions of the immigrants' Chinese society of origin and their position in it. But it can also be accounted for by personal qualities associated with people willing to emigrate in the first place, regardless of race, as well as by the particular reception the Chinese have received historically by host countries.

Comparing Chinese and Irish immigration patterns in the US, for example, suggests that the homogeneity of Chinatowns evolved from the interaction between racial or ethnic discrimination on the part of native-born Americans on the one hand, and ethno-cultural defensiveness, protectionism and snobbery on the part of the Chinese themselves, on the other.

The relative size of immigrant groups has certainly had an effect in this phenomenon. The infamous potato famine of the early 19th century resulted in the death of one million Irish. A further one million fled to the United States as immigrants. Millions more have settled there since. Today, one quarter of the American population can trace at least part of its ancestry back to Ireland.

In comparison, about 300,000 Chinese immigrants landed in the freshly settled west coast of America in the second half of the same century. Their stoic willingness to take on the lowliest jobs drew the ire of native-born Americans and led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Another immigration act, in 1924, set quotas based on current populations, thus perpetuating the racial balance of American immigrants - mostly Europeans - through to the 1940s.

Irish integration, then, was helped by overwhelming numbers and social policy. But, had the Irish population been four times smaller and subjected to similar discrimination, would that not have resulted in a rash of Little Irelands? Probably not. After all, the numerous Italians were poor and hungry, too, and did not suffer from the same degree of systematic prejudice that the Chinese did, thus giving them more in common with the Irish. Yet, they spontaneously formed enclaves in a way that the Irish did not - as the very existence of the term 'Little Italy' demonstrates. In this case, perhaps, the salient distinction might be between the melancholy, feuding nature of the Irish from the north and the inalienable family orientation of the Mediterraneans.

Imported or perpetuated values, then, embedded in language and traditions, continue to have a deep effect on patterns of psychological interaction and living arrangements among immigrant communities over many generations. The confrontation of Chinese and foreign traditions and their reaction to each other, it seems, generally throws up a tendency to encouraged self-segregation - at least in English-speaking countries where the bulk of research on such matters has taken place.

A relatively high respect for achievement is a fairly stable attitude in the value system of Chinese living in China. There is also evidence that a greater emphasis on academic achievement and occupational success is higher among immigrant parents in general, when compared with families native to the host country. So, it is probably the combination of a traditional culture-specific value placed on academic success, along with this predilection among immigrants in general, that results in the cliche - based on fact - that Chinese immigrants are disproportionately represented among the high-fliers wherever they settle.

This, of course, is one reason there was no Irish exclusion act. A people willing and able to do the dirtiest jobs yet who, within a generation, are able to challenge the country's elite is likely to be met with a very different reception than a less overtly ambitious and more overtly undisciplined race of immigrants, such as the Irish.

Of course, today, not every Chinese immigrant family is escaping dire poverty. The many Hong Kong people who made the strategic decision to secure a foothold in another country as an insurance against the unknowns of the post-1997 period are far from what could be described as 'huddled masses'.

Chinatowns today are more dynamic and flexible than in the past, not least because they encompass a broader socio-economic spectrum and a wider span of world views. Their borders are fuzzier. For a Chinese, the decision to live there represents both a coping strategy and an affirmative choice: still the result of a subtly communicated social distance imposed from outside, but also a powerful, supportive - and exclusive - affiliation.

They are still exclusive. But, as ever, no one party is doing the excluding. Jean Nicol is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and writer