Among historians, I must not be alone in this feeling: I am struck sometimes - like right now - by how irrelevant, how seemingly meaningless even, my own research feels to me. For a moment I step back from the incessant reading, writing, critiquing, musing, trying to be original and creative, trying to push boundaries, trying to add to my CV, and I am struck by the thought that "this is all meaningless." Last time this struck me I wrote a blog post called "Am I White?," trying to see how an application of the critical deconstruction of race that we so commonly do as historians might feel like if I were to actually apply it to myself. (It actually felt quite good I must say; I did not mind being deconstructed; it was sort of cathartic and refreshing, although it wasn't really fair because at the end of the day I still had almost no control over my racial identity; whether or not I constructed myself as "white" or as anything else, when I stepped out onto the street after blogging everyone still saw me the way they wanted to: white man, gay man, gringo, Jew, general "dirtbag"; believe me, depending on what street I am on, at what time of day, wearing what clothes, and surrounded by what people, I have been constructed as all these things and more! I do not believe we have very much control over how we enter history; it is quite often through others' eyes that we live out our lives.)
But anyway, here I am again with that feeling of "so what?" about the whole big thing called "history."
I have been spending a lot of time in Chinatown recently. There is nothing romantic about the place. Yes, it looks, sounds, smells, and tastes different than any other part of Manhattan; I guess that is what attracts so many tourists, even though this is such an un-touristized place. Contrast Chinatown with Little Italy (which now exists in a bubble within Chinatown along a few blocks of Mulberry Street) and the difference between the history of the past and the history of now becomes apparent. In Little Italy there are strategically placed men who "perform" Italian-ness to those who walk by. They are employed by the Italian restaurants to entice customers to come inside. They "look" and "talk" Italian-American, with the thickest Nu Yawk accents, hair slicked back, suave, handsome: everything a non-New Yorker, non-Italian-American expects to find in a New York Italian. Nearby are shops selling shirts and fake license plates commodifying cultural stereotypes about Italian-American-ness, ranging from references to the Godfather, to the Sopranos, to Jersey Shore.
One block to the east runs the parallel corridor of Mott Street. Along Mott the Chinese shop-owners keep ridiculously long and steady hours, selling all kinds of dried fruits, fresh vegetables, and odorous fish that to the non-Chinese sometimes look or smell like something from out of this world. No one is dressed up in stereotypically Chinese costume here; there is no masquerade. Here are simply a sea of men, women, and children of all ages, many of the adults holding red plastic bags full of market purchases. The items are by and large unappealing to the non-Chinese passerby; to them each organism on display is a signifier of an exoticized Chinese history and culture, but to the residents here they are food, they are fresh, and they are yummy. To be fair, some are also signifiers of the homeland across the ocean; others are signifiers of the new world yet to be understood here. Depending on where one stands in his or her own life history, these street scenes appear as remarkably different productions. The language heard here on Mott Street is Cantonese, or Fujianese, or sometimes Mandarin. People live here. People work here. These people have histories; they have stories to tell. There is a great diversity to the Chinese-American experience in Chinatown. Its richness overflows the bounds of whatever we think "Chinatown" spatially or conceptually is. And whether or not "Chinatown" even exists beyond the way we discursively construct it - and who is the "we" here constructing it anyway? - is definitely open to question.
Chinatown, NYC, 2010.
There is not even a single person depicted in my photograph. Yet we think we know what should be happening at street level because of the "foreignness" of the signs hanging from the buildings. The signs then, even when we can't read them, speak to us via our cultural assumptions and stereotypes about what "Chinatown" is or should be. But as much as we strive to "construct" Chinatown, what happens on the street is not ours to fully know. The historian here can have his "Pacific Dreams," but he can hardly be a true witness to the Chinese immigrant's New York life.
The History of Now
What do I mean then by "the history of now." I guess this phrase helps me differentiate between the history I usually concern myself with at school - the history of the past - and that which is taking place right now, right here, that is of the utmost presentist relevance and significance to real people. Now, usually historians shy away from "presentist" concerns, for our relationships with the present here-and-now supposedly threaten to obstruct the supposed "objectivity" we are supposed to bring, and sometimes falsely believe we can bring, to the past. (Note how many times I used the word "supposed" in that sentence.) Some say "the past is a foreign country," but it is equally a creation of the present. And it is sometimes unmistakably familiar to us in the here-and-now in a way that would be completely foreign to past persons if they could see the way we now see them. That is because we make history in the present as we interpret that so-called past, but the history always exists now as we think about it, not back then when it supposedly happened. If you agree with me on this score, then we might agree that the "history of now" is just as fair game for historians as the "history of then." I am not sure yet of what methodologically a historian would have to do differently to make sense of the now versus the past, but we surely have a good tool kit already for dealing with both eras in my opinion.
"Take Out" is a 2004 independent film directed by Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou. It was filmed in 2003 in New York City using both professional and non-professional actors. (For example, the woman who plays the counter lady at the Chinese restaurant featured in the film is actually a real worker at a Chinese restaurant! But she is also an amazing actor!!). The film is shot in an Upper West Side Chinese restaurant, and we see into the lives of the restaurant's many employees, each of whom had migrated to New York City from China during their own lives. The protagonist, Ming, is a young man who was smuggled illegally from China to Canada, and then into the United States. He took this risky journey because he wants to raise funds for his wife and child back home in China; whether he wants to bring them here to New York, or just return home to China someday (somehow) with cash on hand, is not totally clear. His situation speaks to Chinatown's true "history of now": immigration from mainland China is near an all-time high. Most immigrants coming to Chinatown in the most recent decades have come from the Fuzhou region of Fujian Province. Here in NY they have overwhelmed the previous Cantonese community (from Guangzhou, Guangdong Province) that had once held this Chinatown together since as early as the 1880s. The Cantonese fabric of Chinatown now unravels under the weight of the recent Fujianese immigration; the Cantonese community's long and uniquely American history, dating back as far as the Chinese '49ers who pioneered California ("Gold Mountain"), is rapidly becoming the "history of then," subsumed by a new Chinese-American "history of now."
In 1993, the Golden Venture, a ship carrying nearly 300 illegal Chinese immigrants from Fujian, grounded in the Rockaways in the borough of Queens. The men were apprehended; some were deported; some detained in U.S. prisons for years; some apparently brokered off to other foreign nations as laborers. This event in 1993 helped to raise American public awareness of illegal immigration from China, but today there seems to be little mainstream recognition of this ongoing "history of now." Our mainstream media is so overly concerned about the U.S.-Mexico border, and it is true that Mexican immigration to the U.S. today surpasses all other nations of origin. But Chinese are number two. The borders of New York City - its harbor, its train and bus depots, it streets - are an oft-forgotten frontline of illegal immigration that rivals our border with Mexico. (I am certainly not trying to raise some kind of anti-immigrationist alarm here, because what I see wrong with this situation is not government immigration policy nor the policing of our borders, but rather larger issues of global capitalism and the exploitation of New York's hidden underclass of undocumented workers by law-breaking employers.) Fujianese immigration to New York City has made Manhattan's Chinatown the largest overseas Chinese neighborhood in the world. Queens' Flushing is now a close second. Both neighborhoods have about 300,000 Chinese residents. The number of undocumented residents is not known.
"Take Out" follows a day in the life of Ming, a delivery man for an Upper West Side Chinese restaurant. He owes debt to a "loan shark" who forwarded money to Ming to help him pay off the incredible debt that he owes thanks to his having been smuggled here. Apparently smuggling from China to North America can cost a man tens of thousands of dollars. This isn't too off from the history of the past, too, when Chinese "coolies" signed contracts in Hong Kong in the decades following the Opium War (1839-1842) for work abroad, in California, in Australia, in Peru, in Cuba. They soon discovered that paying off the debts of their voyages, or freeing themselves from their contracts by purchasing their own freedom, was almost a total impossibility. "Coolie" employers stacked the cards against the Chinese workers, trapping them in virtual enslavement. European and American abolitionists fighting African slavery at the time rightly labelled the Chinese "coolie" trade as slavery by another name. This history survives in New York today in the many "Chino-Latino" restaurants serving hybridized cuisine descended from the kitchens of Chinese immigrants to Central and South America, their grandparents and great-grandparents having migrated as "coolies" long ago to take the place of African slaves on Caribbean sugar plantations, for example.
"Take Out" is told completely from the immigrant workers' points of view. The language of the film is entirely in Mandarin. We only hear English from the restaurant's customers, who in typical American fashion mock and insult the Chinese workers for their poor English, "sloppy" dress, or otherwise "foreign" behavior. We see ever-so smartly through the film what the interface between Chinese-America and non-Chinese-America looks like: it exists in the tiny interstices of space and time where a door is partly opened to receive a delivery of fried rice and a meager tip is handed back the other way to the quiet Chinese laborer; it appears at the counter of the restaurant where customers talk in awkward grammar because they think (ridiculously) that talking in bad English will help the Chinese workers understand them better. The subtitling of the film helps us see what we usually can't hear, which is the frustration of the workers as they are insulted, and yet how they mock the customers in return, dishing insults right back at them in a language that the customers cannot understand.
"Take Out" seems so familiar to me, although I won't press that point too far because the gulf between my life and that of Ming's is incredibly wide - what, indeed, could be wider? But I will point out that I love riding my bike around Manhattan, including through Chinatown. When I see Ming riding his bike through Chinatown (as depicted in the film at times, even though the story is supposed to take place in the Upper West Side), I recall having seen guys like Ming riding behind, in front of, and beside me in the bike lanes everyday. Actually, in our neighborhood of the city, most of the bike-riding delivery men speak Spanish. Yet we, too, just like everyone else in this city, receive an ample share of Chinese restaurant menus stuck into the crevice of our apartment door, or slipped underneath it. This film shows us how a worker like Ming tries to fit in slipping menus underneath doors while also transporting food all over the city at the same time. But I never actually see these people. And since we never order delivery, I never get the see the real face of the real Mings living in my community.
All this reminds me that history is taking place right now. Not in my head, nor in my books, nor in this blog I am presently typing - although these are all examples of a type of "history" - but on the streets, on the bikes, plastic bags with smily-faces flailing in the wind hanging from the handlebars, rain pouring down, heavy chain bike locks worn over the shoulder like Mr. T, debts owed, families separated by oceans, neighbors separated by language, each block of this city separated by almost unbelievable disparities of race and class. This is the history of now. And who will say that this story deserves less attention from historians than those only found in library books?
The fact is, for me, that I want to see many histories - then and now, here and there - all alive now. Men and women are acting out roles that have happened many times before, and yet their individual experiences are absolutely unique. "Chinatown" is a construction, no doubt about it. It is constantly made and remade, not so much by theorists or historians, but by each new wave of immigrants or each new generation of Chinese-Americans that live in this space. It is a space that was once Irish and African-American, later Jewish and Italian, and only now is colonized by so many men and women from Fujian. But all these histories continue to be and continue to act upon the now. The buildings on each block represent the architecture of scattered eras; the people on the block represent the consequences of varied trajectories: while the Taiwanese flags flap in the wind outside the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association on Mott Street, delivery men quietly hold nationalistic pride in the People's Republic they left behind. Born in the era of Deng Xiaoping and the economic modernizations of the 1980s, delivery men like Ming see a different history of China than those who lived through Mao's rise to power in 1949 or through his failed Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Teenage kids who know nothing but life in New York play in Sara Roosevelt Park with white, black, and brown kids of other national and ethnic origins. What does "history" matter to them? And whose history matters? Is theirs a story of America, or of China, or of both? How many people walking these streets think of themselves as "transnational actors," as we would say in our silly academic jargon? Do they really inhabit a "hybrid" space, or a "middle-ground," or are these simply the fictions of us historians? Does the idea of "transnationality" or of "transculturation" have any meaning for them? And if these terms do not have meaning, what then should we be actually writing about? I can read all I want into the historical landscape of Chinatown, but I can't read Ming's mind, nor anyone else's here. The history of now is one thing to me, but what I think about Chinese-American history probably matters little to the way Ming sees his own history. Can we say one perspective is any better than the other? Certainly not.
Columbus Park, Chinatown, 2010.
An eerie scene of emptiness. Where are the majiang-playing men and those who crowd around and watch and cheer? Where are the taiji-devoted men and women synchronizing the movements of their bodies? Where is the lone man playing his erhu? Will Chinatown always "perform" its Chinese-ness as I expect it? No. The truth is that I approach this space seeking a history of the past performed in the present, but the people here are actually living the history of now, and I don't know the first damn thing about that.