Amy Tan’s seminal 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club was the first glimpse many Americans had into the Chinese American experience, but history professor Mae Ngai says the challenge of translating that experience goes far beyond the book.
Scholars must “think about how Chinese Americans have been represented in American literary and popular culture over the years and think about what that has meant and how it is changing,” Ngai said in her opening remarks during a panel about the creation of Chinese America at the Downtown Independent Theater.
Telling Chinese Stories
“If you had gone to the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, until very recently you would not have know there were Chinese Americans,” said Franklin Odo, former director of the Asian Pacific American Program at the Smithsonian, who wore a tie emblazoned with the word “peace” in several different languages.
Now, there are entire museums dedicated to the Chinese American experience, and Tan’s book is one of the best selling novels ever. But panelists cautioned there is still work to be done. Suellen Cheng, museum director of El Pueblo Historical Monument in Los Angeles, said many people stumble on the notion of Chinese Americans having a distinct identity.
“The Chinese American Museum is still often mistaken for a Chinese cultural museum, as opposed to Chinese American, ” Cheng said.
In fact, the panelists said, Chinese-American traditions are worthy of being expressed independently.
The Problem of Stereotyping
Unfavorable stereotypes have been a part of the Chinese American experience since the beginning, Ngai said. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which outlawed immigration from China, was based in part on the perception that Chinese men were essentially slaves and Chinese women were prostitutes.
The panelists talked at some length about the importance of the Charlie Chan detective novels of the 1920s. The white author, Earl Derr Biggers, dreamed up the amiable Chan character as an attempt to combat such stereotypes, but many Asian Americans find him a negative caricature as well.
“I grew up with people teasing me with ‘Ching Chong Chinaman’ on the playground,” said Ngai, who was raised in New Jersey, explaining why she is troubled by characters like Chan.
Yunte Huang, an English professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara who wrote a book about the Chan novels, defended the character.
“It’s interesting to know how a character can be so funny and simultaneously so hated,” Huang said, reading a few comedic lines included in his book. “Murder, like potato chip,” he quoted Chan. “Cannot stop at just one.”
The “Model Minority”
Stereotypes can cut both ways, and even seemingly positive caricatures can be extremely hurtful, panelists said. Ngai made a passing reference to the controversy over Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua’s memoir about her strict parenting techniques, and was asked to expand on her thoughts during the question-and-answer part of the program.
Responding to the so-called “model minority” stereotype about Asian Americans, Ngai said there are negative effects from the belief that Asians naturally have high IQs and are excellent at math. The Tiger Mother, she said, “reminded me of upper-middle-class white families who have coaches for their children in nursery school and … organize every moment of their children’s time.”
“All my friends, Latino, African American, they all value education as much as we do,” she said.
The Need for Diverse Perspectives
Ngai said that the Chinatowns in most American cities, which many non-Chinese Americans think of as representative of Chinese culture, are a strongly Americanized creation.
“There’s a certain style to them: there’s the gateway, the motifs on the buildings, the use of certain icons, dragons, different colors that are used. If you go to China you don’t really see architecture like this,” she said.
The challenge for museum directors, Cheng said, is to “put out as many exhibits as we can that tell the truth and share Chinese-American experiences.”
The Joy Luck Club, which she acknowledged is good literature, does not represent a even a small fraction of Chinese Americans, she said, so people need to seek out other sources to understand their neighbors.
Odo, who has spent much of his career working at museums, said they can be instructive but also deceptive.
“I have mixed feeling about [the trust people put in museums], because I know how they are created and who creates them, and it’s regular people,” he said. “People suspend belief when they enter these temples, and they really delude themselves.”
*Photos by Aaron Salcido.