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Asia, Faraway or Next Door?

Reflections on AAS 2010 and Downtown Philadelphia

By Samuel Y. Liang

On my way from England to AAS 2010, I stopped in New York for two nights and visited the Chinatown in Manhattan. This prosperous area sprawls beyond the boundary shown in the tourist map towards the shoreline of the East River; it also encroaches on neighboring Little Italy, which is increasingly like an island in a sea of Chinese shops and restaurants. The density of the shops and their gaudy commercialism, it seems to me, exceed those in Chinese cities and are quite similar to those in Won Kok, Hong Kong.

Liang photo 1

Figure 1 This little square in the dense urban fabric of Chinatown, Manhattan provides a precious resting space for tourists (and pigeons). On the right is a pailou (Chinese arch) style memorial dedicated to Chinese American solders who have died in war; on the left is a statue of Lin Zexu — in China he is a national hero who fought Western imperialists in the First Opium War, but here he declares Chinatown’s “war” against drug dealers. (2010 © Samuel Y. Liang)

In a buffet-style restaurant, I got to know two Chinese immigrants sitting next to me. Both were in their late forties and had left their wives and children in China. One, from Jiangsu Province, graduated from a prestigious university in Shanghai in the early 1980s. He told me the hardship of working in America. He was a respected intellectual at home, but here he is a lower-class worker for restaurants and other merchants. He showed me his pale, thin forearm dotted with many oil-burn scars from working in restaurants. He changed jobs many times and moved between the major cities of the East Coast during the last few years. But such changes, he lamented, would never improve his situation or get him into the “mainstream American society,” as he is always within the enclosed community of Chinese immigrants.

He was visiting Manhattan from Flushing, Queens on that day. There are express minibuses run by the Chinese that connect this Chinatown with the thriving Chinatowns in Queens and Brooklyn. Main Street in Flushing, Queens is now dominated by a dense array of Chinese shops and eateries that even surpass those in Manhattan.

Liang photo 2

Figure 2 Chinese shops on Main Street, Flushing, Queens. This inexpensive neighborhood attracts more and more new Chinese immigrants. (2010 © Samuel Y. Liang)

As a Chinese native trained in the US academy and now living in the UK, I felt at home yet also isolated walking the streets of American Chinatowns, thinking that I could have been one of the hard-working new immigrants I saw. But unlike most of them, I take an ambivalent stand toward my native culture: on the one hand, it is in part my distance from China that allows me to critically investigate Chinese culture and society; on the other hand, my scholarly investigation is greatly informed by my intimacy with that culture.

When I told my new friends from Flushing that I was on my way to visit Philadelphia, they advised me to take the inexpensive Chinese bus service that runs between the Chinatowns of New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. I took their advice, as I knew that the AAS 2010 venue was very close to Chinatown, Philadelphia. In fact, the conference hotel was only one block away from the bus terminal or, rather, stop on Eleventh Street.

Liang photo 3 Figure 3 The arch of Chinatown, Philadelphia . The Chinese term Huabu on the arch was used by the earliest generations of immigrants. Newer arches, such as that in Washington DC, use the term Zhongguocheng, which is preferred by new immigrants from PRC. Both terms are translated as “Chinatown.”  (2008 © Samuel Y. Liang)

I was mainly in the hotel during the conference, except for three quick visits to Chinatown for meals. I had also visited the area two years earlier. It is a relatively quiet neighborhood. According to Jeff Gammage, a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, it is a local neighborhood of 140 years history, rather than merely a tourist destination. In contrast to the thriving Chinese enclaves in New York, this one is shrinking. In a book about his experience of transnational parenthood, Gammage writes:

The Center City housing boom is sweeping east, into places never before considered as sites for luxury housing. Chinatown activists fear the new development will raise housing prices, rents, and taxes so high that the neighborhood’s traditional working-class families will no longer be able to afford to live there. Chinatown, they worry, will be reduced from a living, breathing neighborhood to a touristy collection of restaurants (228).

Chinatown in Washington, DC (which I visited after the conference) is also shrinking, as some “white people,” a restaurant manager told me, have just bought a neighboring block and opened shops to sell Chinese products. I noticed that a Spanish restaurant and a Subway next to Chinatown posted signs in English and Chinese, probably to attract an increasing number of visitors and tourists from China. A Chinese informant told me that more and more Chinese immigrants are moving from DC and Philadelphia to New York because of the ethnic tension with the African-American communities in the two cities.

Liang photo 4

Figure 4 This corner of Chinatown, Washington, DC survives precariously in the midst of upscale real estate developments. (2010 © Samuel Y. Liang)

These changing urban communities share one common feature: through the long history of Chinese immigration in America, they have served as gateways for new immigrants. Gammage reflects on the Chinese neighborhood in Philadelphia:

Yet there is little in the way of recorded Chinatown histories to explain the way people lived here or how he felt about it. The residents were too busy trying to survive to worry about documenting their activities of their day-to-day routines. So the job of describing and defining Chinatown fell largely to local journalists, who saw the neighborhood as a foreign place, full of foreign people, worth noting only for some bit of entertaining exotica, or a Tong war, or perhaps at Chinese New Year, when the noise and smoke of firecrackers filled the street. Or when the city fathers needed part of Chinatown’s land (226).

This conscientious reflection provokes me to ask whether we scholars of Asia and China have paid adequate or any attention to the communities who are far away from Asia but are not yet Asian American. Chinatowns are not normally examined in Asian studies, and I am not familiar with research about them by scholars in Asian American studies. Such work, I think, would certainly call into question the dividing line between the two disciplines.

During AAS 2010, the conference hotel — the lobby, exhibition hall, corridors, and meeting rooms — accommodated a lively community of Asian specialists, who deliberated on issues in their well-defined fields. But it seemed to me that they were too busy to pay much scholarly attention to the Chinatown nearby (though many of them visited it for food). The dynamism of this scholarly community is of course very different from that of the Chinatown. But both are distinct spaces contained in well-defined boundaries: they show that Asia is being drawn closer to America while remaining separate from it.

Western-based Asianists sometimes think they have one advantage over their Asia-based colleagues: the vast distance that separates Asia from the West allows them to examine Asian topics critically and impartially. But this real-turning-imaginary distance also entails a persistent danger that we tend to treat Asia as the Other, as socially and culturally distinct from the West. I don’t mean to say that we Asianists are still somewhat like the Orientalists (as Edward Said had suggested) or that we should relinquish the critical distance. Rather, I think we should direct our critical gaze not only at faraway Asia but also at some related or comparable areas that are close by or within the West.

The discussion of Session 184 on “Chairman Mao’s Invisible Hand” convincingly showed the enduring (as well as changing) authoritarian practices in contemporary China. The implication of this long-lasting image of authoritarian China is that the Chinese polity remains distinct from Western democracy. Coupled with the rise of China as an economic giant, this image evokes fear and worry among observers within as well as beyond academia. (For example, the incident of a Beijing scholar being prevented by the Chinese authority from attending the AAS meeting spawned broad concerns among the scholars, as seen in an earlier posting by Timothy Cheek at The China Beat.)

How different is this image of China under the long shadow of Maoism from that of Western democracy? This question was raised by Professor Mark Selden, one of the session’s discussants. Selden reminded us that in speaking of the Chinese undemocratic polity, we imply an idealized Western democratic polity. We rarely keep in mind that there are also some undemocratic or dictatorial practices of governance in the United States and other developed countries.

Selden reflected on the Continuity of Government (COG) program that the Bush administration established, creating martial law powers for the federal government. That program remains in effect under the Obama administration, while the requirement that Congress review the program every six months has been ignored. He also pointed to the US state of permanent warfare and seemed to suggest that we reflect on the analogy to the Cultural Revolution image of permanent revolution.

Unfortunately, Selden’s provocative comment got sidetracked by a host of stimulating questions and comments from the enthusiastic audience about issues in Chinese politics and history, rather than lead to a border-crossing discussion on the comparability between Chinese and American politics — a relatively unknown territory to many Asianists but highly relevant to their everyday lives.

Indeed, the political landscapes of the East and the West become more interrelated and comparable, as the explicit and hidden connections between transnational corporate and bureaucratic powers increasingly dominate the global economy. Such connections between the East and the West would not be fully visible to scholars for a long time, while the Chinatowns are still viewed as separate from both Asia and the West.

Some of Mao’s “children” have certainly made their way into the thriving communities of Chinatowns in New York and other world cities and left their imprints on the postmodern cityscapes of the West. Others, like many of the conference participants, have made their way into Western academia. As Asia is being drawn closer to the West, the challenge for Asianists is how to see with discerning eyes not only the familiar territory of the far away but also the unknown territory of the close by.

Samuel Y. Liang teaches Chinese Cultural Studies at the University of Manchester, and has previously written for The China Beat about “The Past and Present of the CCP First Congress Memorial, Shanghai.” His book, Mapping Modernity in Shanghai: Space, Gender and Visual Culture in the Sojourners’ City, 1853-98, will be published by Routledge in June.


Though China Beat contributors come from around the globe, the blog’s editorial team is based at UC Irvine. For that reason, we take special pride in announcing that at last month’s Association for Asian Studies annual meeting, UCI Professor of Anthropology Susan Greenhalgh won the Joseph Levenson Prize for Best Book on China Post-1900. Professor Greenhalgh’s book, Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng’s China, was published by the University of California Press in 2008, and attempts to answer several questions that have permeated her work as a population specialist during the era of the one-child policy:

Why? Why did China’s leaders adopt a population policy that was certain to fail in reaching its demographic goals while producing so much harm in the attempt? Where did the one-child policy come from? (xii)

In Just One Child, Greenhalgh links the origins of the one-child policy to the work of Chinese missile scientists in the early Deng years, and also demonstrates how reforms during that era were influenced by the allure of scientism, or “the view of science as a panacea for all the nation’s ills” (24). From the AAS citation for Just One Child:

What makes Greenhalgh’s book outstanding is that she insightfully utilizes her case study to address questions of a broader scope. She shows how policy gets made at the top of the Chinese party-state and how Deng reformers thought about policy-making in general. She examines the role in modern policy-making of “scientism”. . . and shows how this had a particular attraction in the immediate post-Mao period. She sheds new light on the circumstances in which intellectuals began to enter the policy-making arena, and also shows the ways Western models (in this case, the Club of Rome’s population/resource projections) influenced Chinese policy. Throughout, she insightfully links her discussions to international discourses in the social sciences. To an unusual degree, Just One Child combines entirely original scholarship, a sophisticated conceptual framework, and rigorous analysis.

Just One Child cover

We’re also pleased to note that UCI now has two Levenson Prize winners on its faculty, as Dorothy Solinger, Professor of Political Science, won the award in 2001 for her book, Contesting Citizenship in Urban China: Peasant Migrants, the State, and the Logic of the Market (UC Press, 1999).


Missing Footage at the AAS

Chinese scholar prevented from attending

By Timothy Cheek

The Roundtable session at this year’s annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) in Philadelphia was titled “Against Amnesia: History, Memory and the Role of Public Intellectuals in 21st Century China.” A mix of scholars from China and North America were scheduled to report and discuss, but at the last minute our featured speaker, Ms. Cui Weiping (崔卫平) of the Beijing Film Academy, could not attend. She was prevented from leaving China for the roundtable even though she had been specially invited by the AAS and had her passport, US visa, and air tickets in hand. She was given the news verbally by Chinese “authorities” just a few days before the meeting. (A New York Times story on the subject can be found here.)

The irony is obvious. While we gathered to speak about amnesia in the past (I was a late addition to the panel), here was a new kind of amnesia in the making. Cui Weiping is a talented documentary film-maker dedicated to giving voice to sectors of China’s society that have been forgotten in the cheerful story of reform and development. Her contribution to the roundtable was central to our topic of historical forgetting, and we were looking forward to Professor Cui’s presentation of clips from her various documentary films and comments on her work as a public intellectual. But those film clips and her presence became the most important missing footage of the AAS meetings this year.

In the strange world of government control in the 21st century, while the Chinese authorities successfully prevented Professor Cui from coming to Philadelphia, we were able to show a few PowerPoint images that she could e-mail to us! Indeed, you can also follow her Twitter exchanges on these developments. Still, at least for older scholars amongst us, the limited benefits of the Internet are overshadowed by this denial of the freedom to travel without reason. It is a sad and sorry return to earlier days when China was closed off from the world. It left us wondering: what is the message the Chinese government wants to send?

Students of China know that it is unwise to speak of “China this” and “China that,” as often happens in the popular media. China, even with a one-party state at the helm, is not a uniform place: there are important differences among different leaders, different levels of government, and various regions within China, not to mention a vibrant range of social groups. Is this case a matter of a local authority—in this instance the city of Beijing or particular local leaders—getting heavy-handed, or is this the current policy of the PRC? Arbitrary restriction on the free travel of scholars, when they have made the legally required arrangements for international travel, is just not acceptable in civilized circles. We can only hope that the government of China will rectify this unfortunate case, but we can assure all that we will not let this, too, slip into the realm of amnesia.

Timothy Cheek is Professor and Louis Cha Chair of Chinese Research at the Institute of Asian Research, University of British Columbia. He is author of Living With Reform: China Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2006).


Blogging AAS 2010 (5)

By Miri Kim

Session 47: Empire and Space

In this panel, organized by Siyen Fei (University of Pennsylvania), Mark Edward Lewis (Stanford University), Hilde De Weerdt (University of Oxford), and Fei presented papers that creatively engaged the work of G. William Skinner on how to conceptualize empire in time and space. Lewis proposed that the northern capital historically functioned as a peripheral center that connected the agricultural and economic centers found further south with the steppe, and this positioning, a prime concern of the dynasties founded by nomads, helped maintain China as a coherent empire. De Weerdt used social network analysis to mine Song dynasty biji for data that could model the level of connectivity of the elites that produced them. Fei explained her interest in emphasizing dynastic differences in the study of urbanization in China, arguing that the way rulers seek to order political/economic/social space has a strong impact on the types of urban development that take place. Discussant Kären Wigen’s comments pushed the conversation to include maritime frontiers, the merits of visual versus textual representations of data, and the intellectual dynamism within Skinner’s body of work.

Like many in the audience, I was struck by the visual complexity and clarity of De Weerdt’s diagrams of biji social networks. One network diagram, resembling the cross-section of a dandelion clock, showed the high number of social connections possible for a biji author (located at the center of the circle). Information (people, places, etc.) mentioned only once in the biji extended out from the author to occupy the outermost circumference of the diagram, while those mentioned the most filled up the diagram’s core. It made me marvel at how efficiently a single well-chosen image can deliver information, and wonder about the kinds of things such an image might not convey (can circular representations be hierarchical? are all datapoints equivalent?). This session brought to the table a lot of food for thought; just the sort of panel you want to find yourself attending at 8:30 in the morning.

Session 186: Borders Crossed: The Liaodong Frontier in Qing-Chosŏn Relations

For this session on the borderland Liaodong, part of the region commonly known as Manchuria, Seonmin Kim (Keimyung University) first talked about how ginseng was transported in Liaodong via various types of trade/exchange. Her paper investigated the tensions between Chosŏn rulers and the Qing founders when it came to this highly esteemed mountain root. Drawing on biographical materials, Adam Bohnet (University of British Columbia) considered some of the ways alternate personal histories of Ming loyalist refugees in Liaodong attempted to carve out out a favorable political and social space. Seung B. Kye (Korea University), going last, discussed joint Manchu-Korean military expeditions to the Amur area in the mid-seventeenth century, which, in spite of less than stellar results, could be made to contribute to positive assessments of national strength.

Evelyn S. Rawski (University of Pittsburgh) and Pamela Crossley (Dartmouth College) provided insightful comments, highlighting the value of using Korean-language sources for scholars of late imperial China. An audience member added that there are also documents in Russian for events like the expeditions. A commentator raised the question of whether we should conceptualize Manchuria as a frontier zone or not, and what the stakes are in framing it as a frontier, and panelists and attendees debated ways in which to extend cross-border analyses to include Japan, which enters the continental fray at key points during medieval as well as modern times.

Session 227: Reading Between the Fine Lines: Non-Visual Meaning in Song and Ming Paintings (A Panel in Honor of Professor Emerita Ellen Johnston Laing)

Honoring an important scholar in Chinese art history, Session 227 brought together four art historians and one historian for a sumputous presentation on Song and Ming genre paintings. Chair Susan N. Erickson (University of Michigan) began the panel with preliminary remarks and a brief introduction about the panel, and then Maggie Bickford (Brown University) explored the fascinating world of bird and flower paintings, where meanings with intricate histories lurk behind every beak and petal. Next, Alfreda Murck (Palace Museum, Beijing) presented her take on the mystery behind “Magpies and Hare” by Cui Bo, a prominent Song court painter (she noted however that this particular piece was made before his tenure at the capital), interpreted as a complex story of misplaced expectations and domestic scandal at the apex of Song society. Ann Wetherell (University of Oregon) argued that the crows in the works of the Ming painter Shen Zhou represent the painter himself, cast as a filial son, and Ina Asim (University of Oregon) explored in detail the cityscape found in a scroll depicting Nanjing during the Ming period.

Among the points raised by discussant Julia K. Murray (University of Wisconsin, Madison) was the problem posed by extrapolating when textual materials are scarce and the extant examples that we have contain features that can support diverse interpretations. Unfortunately there was not enough time for questions, which most certainly would have been interesting, but as Susan Erickson commented at the close, one of the nicest things about AAS is the opportunity to pick up discussions begun in formal sessions in dinners with friends and colleagues.

Miri Kim is a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine.

Session 174: A Marginality Debate: Regional Formation and Transhistorical Perspectives on South China and the Pearl River Delta

By Charles Wheeler

This panel brought together scholars from history and geography, using the Pearl River Delta as the means to explore questions of regionality.

John Carroll of Hong Kong University began the proceedings with a discussion of the Canton System in the eighteenth century. The system has long suffered the stereotype as the model of everything dysfunctional about late Qing state and society, in particular of China’s refusal to come to grips with the realities of the changing world, and of the incompatibility between China’s “world order” and the new order of the so-called West. Placing the system in a regional setting, Carroll pointed out, reminds us that the system evolved in a setting very different from conventional depictions of the Canton system, which focus narrowly on its relationships with Westerners. In fact, the system evolved from a long history of commercial interaction with people of the Nanyang, of which Westerners were only a part, and most of that time a very small one. The main driver of this interest was not conflict, but mutual commitment to financial gain. Cultural mixing was only one of its consequences, and it was manifold. Every instance of conflict can be offset by examples of negotiation and accommodation. In fact, such practices were necessary, for it is evident that the much-maligned regulations of the system were actually rarely ever followed. Such a thing is not surprising, when one views the Canton system in the regional perspective of China’s longtime trade relationship with the Nanyang, rather than the narrow view of Sino-Western relations.

Carolyn Cartier, the panel’s organizer, brought us out of the eighteenth century to the present, to look at the PRC’s plans for transforming the Pearl River Delta into a mega-metropolis it calls “Shengang,” spanning Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Cartier showed us an excellent example of governmentality in action. Here, the Chinese state has initiated a long-term campaign to mobilize a set of practices and ideologies in order to produce a “regime of truth,” that is, to introduce the idea of the Shengang metropolis and instill within it the aura of inevitability among the people of the Pearl River Delta. This campaign is more than discursive: Ongoing efforts to manipulate the public to acquiesce to unpopular integrative rail links between the two cities have their discursive side, but the rail will lay a structural basis for the state’s hoped-for integration. In the end, this will change prevailing ideas of territoriality in the Pearl River Delta, and spatial politics of the region within it. It will certainly transform the place of special administrative zones like Shenzhen and particularly Hong Kong within China.

Angelina Chin carried this discussion further, by addressing the PRC’s campaigns to build the Shengang mega-city, to integrate Hong Kong more fully into Guangdong province, and to inculcate a deeper sense of collective identity as patriotic citizens of China. Chin analyzed the difficulties the government faces in achieving this goal. This can be seen in the ongoing struggles between Hong Kong locals and their government and real estate developers over the demolition of historic buildings, communities and districts. In their discursive battles, activists have sought to instill a collective memory that encourages the imagination of a particular kind of Hong Kong that draws from a pre-1997 past. At the same time, they overlook recent history of both Hong Kong and China as irrelevant, or as lacking the quintessential Hong Kong character of the past. This pits activists and their supporters against officials in the local government working to move Hong Kong toward integration within greater Guangdong, and with China at large.

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It’s become a tradition for China Beat contributors and friends of the blog to assemble at the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting (as well as at the American Historical Association’s meeting) for a “bloggers’ breakfast” that provides China Beatniks the chance to get together and meet face-to-face — often for the first time, since so much of our business is conducted via e-mail. Last Saturday morning, we gathered at a Starbucks near the AAS conference site and talked about China, writing, and many other topics over coffee and pastries. A couple of photos from the AAS 2010 bloggers’ breakfast:


Pictured (clockwise beginning at lower center): Susan McEachern (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers), Jeff Wasserstrom (UC Irvine), Samuel Liang (University of Manchester), Jeff Gammage (The Philadelphia Inquirer), Daniel Little (University of Michigan, Dearborn), Stephen MacKinnon (Arizona State University), and Rebecca MacKinnon (RConversation)

P3270033Pictured (L-R): Rebecca MacKinnon, Susan McEachern, Jeff Wasserstrom, Stephen MacKinnon, Samuel Liang, Daniel Little


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