9/23/2008

While photocopying 19th century directories from the City of Detroit at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, a museum curator and fellow friend notified me of a noteworthy article. Published in the September/October 2008 issue of Michigan History Magazine, “A Wok Down Memory Lane with La Choy” by Le Roy Barnett detailed the entrepreneurial endeavors of two U of M graduates, Wallace Smith and Ilhan New, a Korean migrant to Detroit. In 1937, Smith and New started to grow bean sprouts in bathtubs before preserving and canning them to sell in Smith’s downtown grocer. The new brand of Chinese-esque American-style goods, labeled La Choy, soon became mainstream merchandise following World War II. Below is a reflection on the article.

Although one of the founders was an Asian migrant (not immigrant--he did not stay in America permanently), many more aspects of this story pique my interest. Mostly, the idea that the emergence of the brand stimulated interest among middle American housewives in cooking more "flavorful" or "exotic" foods. When the brand was produced, both Smith and New were confidant that their products were marketable, yet understood the possible barriers in promoting canned vegetables that were familiar to the palettes of Chinese consumers, but new to the American public. The slogan "Make Chinese food swing American," though perhaps boldly nationalistic in the sense that the slogan directly aims to integrate Chinese products into the American mainstream, was produced at a time when the people's optimism for a more tolerant disposition toward racialized groups and the policy reform directed at uplifting women and minority groups' rights began to merge. As if planned, La Choy brand published and circulated company recipe booklets that both described the product one could purchase and suggested a way in which it could be cooked. This greatly aided families who may have craved not only "uniquely" flavored meals, but also bargains in the shopping aisle. Between 1923 and 1942, ten million copies of these recipe books were distributed.

Moreover, at this time in Detroit, Chinese laundries already have a stake in the market for hand-washing Detroiters' formal wear and Chinese restaurants like the famous bi-level Chinese Teagarden on Woodward Avenue near Campus Martius are quickly growing in popularity among the cultural and social trendsetters. After the roaring twenties (a decade when the population of Chinese residents living in Detroit mushroomed to almost 1,000 or more), Chinese living in Detroit were frequently featured in the newspapers either as a people with which to sympathize due to the continuing violent struggles and political changes that were taking place in China or a people who could be relied upon for support and resource in America's military and economic strategies. In addition, the Chinese "ethnic enclave" was frequently featured in public newspapers, starting with the fascination of Chinese New Year in the 1920s to the adoration of Chinese welfare fundraisers and war bond rallies in the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, in the 1950s, both the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press ran articles hailing Chinese family values as the American ideal, disciplined, filial, educated, and resistant to delinquency. If only more white and black American families could be like them! And these images and understanding of Chinese populations in Detroit are not just fixed to one locality, which is why I find it fascinating that the emergence of La Choy as a first locally popular, but then nationally popular food product may have had a hand in the development of racial attitudes toward Chinese people in America.

(Not to mention the fact that La Choy was a FOOD product. It is not unusual for Americans to find curiosity and pleasure in food and art stuffs from around the globe. Food, among other cultural lifeways, can become both an agent of a populations' acceptance of multicultural practices and interests as well as a perpetual indicator that "they" are certainly different from "us," because they eat [that] and we eat [this]. Fortunately for La Choy, I think it was a champion of the former more so than the latter.)
8/16/2008

This is all I know.

In 1922, Henry Ford wanted to bring a quantified amount of Chinese laborers to Detroit to work for him. He brewed over where he would hire them from, but after consideration of the political unrest that was taking place in China, Ford decided that Honolulu, Hawaii would suffice. Sending out supervisors of his to Hawaii, he instructed them to hand pick the laborers, and create stats.

Postcards exist that document the dialogue between Ford and his supervisors regarding the chosen laborers. The official documents of receipt in Detroit also exist. I not only want to scan these documents and perhaps get them loaned for the exhibit, I want to also want to explore what implications this may have had for the Chinese community as far as their economic stability, social mobility, and cultural flexibility was concerned. Also, on Ford's end, why did he very specifically want Chinese laborers and what was their perceived/actual role in the industry?

I am aware that the numbers of Chinese immigrants to the Detroit area mushroomed in the early 20s, but I had just assumed this was due to migration from the West. I hadn't yet considered Chinese residents role in the Ford "project." Local Chinese laborers working for Ford is never mentioned in the papers. Rather, the Church is claimed as the strongest influence for Americanization and the laundries and the restaurants (with the exception of newspaper boys) are only ever noted as the source of income for many Chinese families for much of the 20th century. With Ford in the picture, these facts are fractional truths.
7/29/2008

I have finished the data recovery process, but I am hesitant to make a CD of my scans until I finish printing all the microfilm articles. I did figure out how to seam photos together, so I will finally have the full articles of every article I marked, not segmented. Some of these, particularly the ones about Chinatown's decline or Chinatown's history are especially useful and accurate. I even tagged every scan with a cited reference in Spotlight in order to indicate which notation in the index the image is associated with.

As for microfilm, finding the articles on the rolls is a lengthy process, because not every index card cited the page and column. I am determined to get all of them though, because I feel they are an important part of my research. I am using these articles particularly to investigate the role(s) that the Caucasians imposed upon early Chinese residents and how the role(s) evolved as Detroit developed. Of course, I am not looking for factual accounts of Chinese immigrants lives or customs; I am looking for ways in which both the factual and fictitious entities combined to feed the imagination of curious onlookers. As history progressed, the journalistic accounts change course and more Asian Americans are able to represent themselves in written documents and interviews. However, while some 19th century perceptions, as evident in reporters' rhetoric, may have changed, there remain some recurring ideas about what it is to be Chinese or connected in some way to China.

An example: Older newspaper articles constantly regard Chinese colonies and the Chinese themselves as disgustingly dirty and soiled, irrespective of the slum conditions, limited upward mobility, and poverty many minorities endured to survive. Today, although I do hear every so often comments about the way Asian Indian immigrants "smell" like curry, less is said about the hygienic routines of Asian Americans. On the other hand, in the 19th century and still today, despite the criticism that the Chinese are godless "heathens," the lack of institutionalized religion and practice of spiritual and elemental rites has been regarded as mystical, magical, exotic and fantastic. Indeed, I just saw an episode of America's Top Model, filmed in Shanghai. Each model wore a silken robe, learned five Kung Fu poises, and attempted to execute them dangling 50 feet in the air above an ancient Taoist temple. The soundtrack consisted of a standard Chinese tune; a gong sound effect signaled either a "whacky" mistake or segue into another event. Also, the idea that the Chinese are hardworking appears to have stood the test of time. (Though I am under the impression that every sort of people has been stereotyped as hardworking, with the exception of black Americans, at some point in American history.)

Attached is my best find today. An incredibly detailed "investigative" report into the lives of the few Chinese residents of Detroit in 1878. The reason I like it so much is because it is really one of the only sources from which you can "view" Chinese locals. Though riddled with flaws and biases, articles like this do serve as some of the first ethnographic data on ethnic communities, much like the travelogues of Western sailors, merchants, and venturers were the earliest accounts of indigenous peoples from Africa, the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean, the Arctic, or Latin America. These documents are the pre-cursors to anthropology, a discipline that has been repeatedly scorned for the sins of its forefathers (and mothers, think Mead).

What prompted the reporter (who I think talks in the third person) to do such a lengthly expose on Chinese in Detroit? What makes the reporter appear to take a liking to certain individuals, but not to others? How much of the report is fabricated, extracted, or forced? Did the individuals know that they were going to be written about in a published document? How does this piece on a few Chinese men compare to other pieces written about Polish Americans, Irish Americans, or black communities? (I've only found one other snippet about a "wild man" from Borneo [Indonesia] who ate a young woman's Yorkshire terrier). The reporter seems to have an opinion about much of what he writes about except the section that discusses the abuse and discrimination that the residents have endured. Why does the reporter seem to be neutral about this?
7/14/2008

You would not believe what happened at the museum on Sunday. My employee called me at my desk and told me someone was there to see me. I trudged downstairs thinking it was my mom, but it was actually Mr. Marlin Chin, standing in the lobby with a Taschen book on Tiki culture. I had sent him a letter months ago, a shot in the dark as I found the address on Google. Well, he showed up in person to respond to my letter and said that he had three garages full of stuff. We talked about Chinatown a bit and I asked him if I could interview him about Chinatown as well as about his father (Mr. Marvin Chin, architect, owner of Chin Tiki's, and WWII veteran). He seemed enthusiastic. He has everything-working lights, tiki statues, couches, stir sticks, menus, and matchbooks. I am going to meet him tomorrow after I meet Grace Lee Boggs to pick out stuff.

Lastly, on the radio today (95.5 Mojoin the Morning), there was a 45-minute conversation about dog-eating. People called the station and talked about their friends who ate dog overseas in China, Korea, or Thailand. To each "horror story" the DJs responded with shrieks and exclamations. They poked at the Chinese for calling dog meat, "local beef" (whether or not they do I don't know, because I haven't quite come across this in my travels) and then imitated a Chinese restaurant owner forcing an American to eat the food. Mojo said this was a tactic to "get the whiteys to eat it." I was actually surprised this was a topic for discussion on the radio. But lo and behold, this morning there was a rousing conversation on Asian dog-eating. Fascinating...

Here is the entire WKQI Morning Show segment.


Right-click here to save the audio to your harddrive.

Then just hours later, I overheard a lady declaring her resentment for Walmart, because all their products are from China and she thinks we (Americans?) ought to close off all the borders so they (the Chinese?) can't gain power. Following this statement was a seriously thorough investigation into the differences between Costco and Sam's Club, stores where she owns memberships. Sam's Club, ironically, won her favor, because they have the cheapest prices.

O, world...
7/10/2008

Here is a list of articles that I found in the D/Populations--Chinese reference section. These articles were not in the box that contained the materials of my previous indexes. Instead, these articles were listed on reference cards. As my .doc indicates, only some of the reference cards had the full article or notation on the card. All of them, however, are available in microfilm. Using these cards as a starting point, I went the microfilm room in the DPL and tested out the machines and archives by trying to find one of the enlisted articles from the box. I found several of them in more or less a half hour.

Many of these articles (particularly those from 1873-1910) are in the "Sayings and Doings" section on front-page news. They are small blurbs of "gossip" about people around town. The blurbs about the Chinese are wedged in between remarks about Italian vendors, eyewitness accounts of violent struggles between a man and his wife, funny jokes, and observations of passerby. Most of this material is extremely weird to me. Its like a reporter was either walking down the street and recorded a bunch of random thoughts about the people he saw or a bunch of journalists sat in a room, turned on a tape recorder, and blabbed about their neighbors or what they saw on the way to do their errands. And all under the auspices of journalism, fact, and community value. I don't know when the news became widely printed and circulated, but it is interesting to reflect on the ways in which bits of information circulated, why those bits of information were deemed relevant or important, and how those bits of information fit in with bigger pieces of information then or now.

It is too easy to point a finger and squeal, "they're all racists!" when reading the bits of information about the "Chinee," "the Orientals," the "Celestials," or the "children of the sun," as the Chinese were routinely named, in the Detroit News and Free Press. Instead I am fascinated at how a vague pattern of schizophrenia seems to move reporters' perceptions of Chinese people. Articles scattered throughout the period of a year, or even within a single article, seem to alternate between inquisitive affirmations and shallow assumptions about Chinese customs, culture, behavior, or even the individuals themselves. The inquisitive affirmations, surely arisen from acute curiosity of a people who undoubtedly looked and acted quite different from white and minority groups alike, though perhaps wrought with good intent, often appear to have ulterior meaning lurking inside. For example:

“The number of Chinamen in Detroit is on the increase, but the pigtails seem to be welcome.”

- The Free Press, 1874

This statement on the surface is a statement of the facts, that is, that Detroit's Chinese population is steadily increasing. It is also an affirmation that the community appears to accept the presence of Chinamen, whose identity is replaced by a type of hairstyle instead of the third person pronoun "they" in the second clause of the sentence. The nonchalant reference to a stylistic attribute of a Chinese man’s hair at the time may indicate ease of such rhetoric in common language about ethnic immigrants, but it also signifies people's opinion about the peculiarities of non-white standards of appearance and behavior. While the pigtails, or queues, often worn by Chinese men at that time may have been of fascination to the public, there is no question that the hairstyle was also regarded as exotic, foreign, or even deviant, as the Queue Ordinance of 1873 made wearing pigtails an offense in San Francisco. Similar to the "her face is pretty" quip that people who are earnest to be polite amidst their wrenching hang-ups on body fat make when asked to evaluate a larger-than-normal (whatever "normal" means anyway) woman, this statement jests at something about a person or group of people deemed abnormal, while simultaneously trying to sound accommodating or even salutary.

Likewise, other blatantly racial statements based from shallow assumptions about the Chinese are vessels for loaded commentary about assimilation into the "great American way." Consider this posting in the "sayings and doings" section of the Detroit Free Press in 1875.

“One of Detroit’s heathen Chinese has sacrificed his queue and taken to plug hats.”

Again, this statement is disguised as a fact. A Chinese man, reportedly, has cut his hair (or tied it in a bun, as the article does not indicate the details) and now wears the hat more common in the American mainstream. Two other words in this statement, however, prompt more investigation into the cultural perceptions of the writers and ultimately, the English-speaking readers of the newspaper. The first, and perhaps the most easily targeted, shallow assumption about the Chinese is that their values, ideals, and customs are "heathen," that is, immoral, irresponsible, and uncivilized. Though attempts made by Reverend Logan H. Root to dispel the myth in 1942 may have enlightened Americans' perceptions of our irreligious neighbors from the East, the Chinese were commonly identified with negative stereotypes derived from xenophobic and uneducated understandings of the immigrant labor pool of the mid-nineteenth century. Second, this statement hinges on the verb, "sacrificed," referring to the action of the Chinese man relinquishing his beloved hairstyle, which were an affiliation with the Han people in China and national policies of the Manchu during the Qing Dynasty, to don a a real American derby. The word "sacrifice" is charged with the implication that not only was this particular Chinese man, and potentially others, trading traditional and non-conformist cultural customs for American ones, but that American customs and habits were better. This statement, like the one above, is at odds with itself. The reporter who wrote this upholds the decision of the Chinese man as beneficial and preferential, but criticizes the Chinese as a whole. To the most zealous whistleblowers, this statement could serve as the racist implication that Chinese people are so "heathen," it is a wonder that one was capable of recognizing what was good for him.

I am intrigued to find, however, that despite the condescending or chastising remarks about the Chinese people in the U.S., newspaper reporters never failed to hail the "Great Empire" from which they came. Frequently, reporters described distinct national traditions of the Eastern regime, such as New Years' Festival, funerary rites, and love of one's country, as well as the Emperor and the Empress, using grandiose language about the color, music, art, folklore, or simply the tradition, imbedded in the act(s). Tradition, especially, was revered by the American people as many Americans practiced traditions of their own, whether religious, social, or familial. The Chinese, though, through hundreds of years of dynastic changes and expansion, were thought of as having the longest and perhaps most uniform way of life, a history of living that stretched over 2,000 years. Caught between the rotating arms of the majority in America--their fantasies about cultural continuity and strength in a place, ideas supported by the perpetuation of traditions, their inquisition of the exotic abroad, and their fear of "the rest" nesting in the "West"-- communities of "yellow" people continued to grow in the United States, at times ushered "in" and at others, skirted "out."

Super excited about looking at microfilm.
7/3/2008

Kind of interesting dynamic I found. Last year, when I did my research project on Chinese students in China and in America, I studied the CSSA (WSU Chapter) at length, interviewing their members and attending their cultural events. Many of them did not know that a Chinatown had ever existed or did "exist" downtown. Some had heard in passing of the ACA, Detroit Chapter, but had never really associated with it nor used its services. However, even as late as 1979, the ACA and the CSSA held joint cultural celebrations, sponsoring many events together (according to programs and newspaper archives.) In 2008, I know that the Confucius Institute and CLAS are highly responsible for assisting the CSSA and connecting them with the Chinese church on Hancock and Second. Sometimes, students do drive up to Madison Heights, but mostly just to go to the Chinese grocer to buy imported products. Those who I interviewed expressed great interest in the idea of a Chinatown and Chinese community center, but admit that they tend to remain tight-knit, sticking together on campus, therefore hindering their ability to meet other Chinese Americans or multi-ethnic Americans outside of WSU.

While the ACA offers some great services, such as health screening and public safety seminars in addition to cultural affairs, visiting students associated with the CSSA tend not to participate in events that are not sponsored by school or the church. On one hand this understandable, since these institutions are within walking distance, making them easily accessible and affordable. But on the other hand, a lack of social interaction outside of these arenas, I fear, may make visiting students vulnerable. An example of vulnerability comes from my experience with a Taiwanese ESL student whose husband is a WSU Ph.D. candidate. She expressed to me deep fear of exploring Detroit, because homeless people and people "who act funny" (the mentally-ill or addicts or both) make her too uncomfortable. She also told me of several instances when she felt sexually aggressed. I asked her how she reacted to these situations on the street. She told me that she responded by looking at the ground and holding her shoulders and hands inward, while trying to walk away. I suggested that next time she sees someone on the street--a student, homeless person, stranger, etc.--that she look them in the eye and greet them in passing, before they are able to say something to her. Although she said this is impolite in China, she would try it.

Just last week, my friend met with me to tell me how confidant she now feels walking in the city. She said that she hadn't experienced any sexual advances and she fears people less. She told me that looking people in the eye lets them know she is present, conscious, and observant of her surroundings.

My final point is that I think when New Chinatown continued to shrink and more Chinese moved into various suburbs like Troy, Ann Arbor, Madison Heights, and Warren, the visiting Chinese had less and less opportunity to benefit from interaction with Chinese who had naturalized and American born Chinese. Its not that WSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Science (CLAS), the Confucius Institute (CI), or the church are in any way a negative influence, it is just that their institutions' activities are limited to a square mile radius or less and involve very few ethnically, professionally, or age diverse participants. Because of this, I feel, there are fewer methods in which visiting students in the CSSA can learn about the history of Detroit, the complexity of social problems that plague the area, or why one must look at people in the eye as they walk past.