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New York before Chinatown

, 416 pages

43 line drawings

August 2001



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New York before Chinatown

Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776-1882

Honorable mention for the John Hope Franklin Prize from the American Studies Association

Honorable mention for the Brendan Gill Award from the New York City Municipal Arts Society

Winner of the History/Social Science Book Award from the Association of Asian American Studies

From George Washington's desire (in the heat of the Revolutionary War) for a proper set of Chinese porcelains for afternoon tea, to the lives of Chinese-Irish couples in the 1830s, to the commercial success of Chang and Eng (the "Siamese Twins"), to rising fears of "heathen Chinee," New York before Chinatown offers a provocative look at the role Chinese people, things, and ideas played in the fashioning of American culture and politics.

Piecing together various historical fragments and anecdotes from the years before Chinatown emerged in the late 1870s, historian John Kuo Wei Tchen redraws Manhattan's historical landscape and broadens our understanding of the role of port cultures in the making of American identities. Tchen tells his story in three parts. In the first, he explores America's fascination with Asia as a source of luxury items, cultural taste, and lucrative trade. In the second, he explains how Chinese, European-Americans in Yellowface, and various caricatures became objects of curiosity in the expansive commercial marketplace. In the third part, Tchen focuses on how Americans' attitude toward the Chinese changed from fascination to demonization, leading to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Acts beginning in 1882.

John Kuo Wei Tchen is director of Asian/Pacific/American Studies and an associate professor of history at New York University. Tchen received an American Book Award for Genthe's Photographs of San Francisco's Old Chinatown, 1895-1906 and he edited Paul C. P. Siu's The Chinese Laundryman. In 1980, Tchen cofounded the Museum of Chinese in the Americas.

"This study sets a new standard for Asian American scholarship... Exhaustively researched, deftly argued, beautifully written, and sumptuously illustrated, New York before Chinatown is one of the best books on Asian immigration and its impact on American culture ever written."

"An outstanding book. It simply leaves you wanting more!"

"This fascinating book by Professor Tchen is required reading for anyone interested in the history of New York City."

" New York before Chinatown is a large, ambitious, and impressive work—one of the very best and certainly one of the most original studies of its kind."