The Chinese Restaurant on Main Street, USA: On Zai Liang’s “From Chinatown to Every Town”
By Weiling DengSeptember 23, 2023
From Chinatown to Every Town: How Chinese Immigrants Have Expanded the Restaurant Business in the United States by Zai Liang
As opposed to restaurants, long-distance bus service has not been the typical site of Chinese immigrant-owned business until recent decades. How and why did it emerge in the 1990s? Who did these buses carry and where to? What new connections and costs did it bring to the traditionally Cantonese-dominated Chinatowns? These questions underpinned the research behind From Chinatown to Every Town: How Chinese Immigrants Have Expanded the Restaurant Business in the United States. In this new book, Zai Liang, professor of sociology at SUNY Albany, explored the reasons that drove Chinese restaurant entrepreneurs from major Chinese settlements in states like New York and California to far-flung destinations in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia. Noticeable in this internal migration trend was the rising number of emigrants from the coastal province Fujian, the neighbor of Guangdong (Canton). More likely than the Cantonese to rest their feet in Taiwan, Southeast Asia, and the United States’ Pacific islands before arriving on the US continent, Fujianese entrepreneurs have introduced to the old Chinatown a new market-based job-search paradigm different from the hometown network that earlier Cantonese immigrants had relied on. They opened employment agencies to coordinate between Chinese restaurant owners in nontraditional destinations and new arrivants who were driven out of Chinatown by rapid gentrification and market saturation.
This job-based paradigm led to more travel that slowly transformed the geography of Chinese restaurant business in the United States. While it was the increased demand for Chinese-speaking interstate transportation that gave rise to the Chinatown buses, the small moving space of the vehicle allowed for what Nayan Shah has called “stranger intimacy.” Drawn to the buses’ signature cheap service were not only Chinese immigrants. There was also a variety of budget travelers from Harvard and Tufts students to undocumented Latino/a workers. The transient physical closeness, experienced through unexpected engine failure, the occasionally flooding toilets, the wet seats from pouring rain, and the sweltering heat and freezing cold, was the continued history of how capitalism had brought contract and seasonal laborers from different continents to the Americas since the 19th century. From “strangerhood” in the liminal space of plantation, factory, and ethnic enclaves like Chinatown arose a “counterpublic” of the racialized subalterns, a communal space of encountering, coexistence, and collaborative (re)production that destabilizes heteronormative family, sexual, and institutional ties. On Fung Wah, legal elaboration of citizenship was overwritten by the experience, however fleeting, of being each other’s witnesses on the perilous paths into the American dream. This tacit acknowledgment of the broadly common dream, and the shared fate to walk the thin line between legal and illegal orders, renewed the unruly communalism that Chinatown has historically fostered.
The author’s study of the Chinatown buses showcases far-flung destinations of Chinese immigration as of 2019 that radiated from New York City to the Midwest and the South. And yet, this factual account of the multiracial passenger demographics was not followed by research that brought back memories of the non-Chinese riders. Instead, it exposed a few questionable assumptions about the relationship between race and space in the United States that resurface throughout the rest of the book. Comparing the Chinese bus riders to migratory African American laborers, Liang asserts that the former’s geographical dispersions “[were] much greater, involving not just a long-distance commute, but relocating altogether, often to different states.” Indicating that working-class African Americans have traveled less intensively for work than the new Chinese immigrants, Liang overlooks the entire racist economic history of the United States from slavery to the Great Migration to mass incarceration. This omission prevents Liang from reading Chinatown’s extension to “every town” in its entanglement with the spatialization of race.
Most of Liang’s subjects are first-generation Chinese immigrants who, upon arrival, had little connection with the racial traumas that ran through different Asian American communities from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act to the 1992 L.A. uprising. Nor was their prospect closely tied to the Chinatown spectacle that had dominated the Orientalist representation of Chinese immigrants for over a century. Estranged (sometimes by choice) but networked, they set out to navigate the predominantly white cultural and business landscape that had only scant connections with Asian diasporas. In this sense, Liang’s research poses important questions to the lacuna of Chinese and Asian entrepreneurship beyond the limits of “Asian American studies.” What is the racial composition in a Chinese-owned restaurant in places where Chinese workers are hard to find? Which employees stay and which ones leave? How is race spatialized in the property? Through addressing these questions, Liang sheds light on a paradigm shift in Chinese immigrant entrepreneurship coded in his term “every town” that demands ethnographic urban studies and theoretical framework of ethno-racial minorities to remap the circuits of Chinese capital in the United States.
Liang found that the absolute subordination of the early Cantonese workers was not common among the largely middle-class Fujianese restaurant owners. Instead, they oversaw a hierarchy of Chinese chefs, followed by Asian, Black, and white waiters and cashiers, and lastly, Mexican contract workers doing heavier labor in the kitchen. Liang’s findings implicate Chinese American businesses in the patterns of North American settler colonialism. To be sure, ethnic enclaves, as a liminal space of US racism, have never been fully ethnically homogeneous. Their borders have always been porous, drawing together racial Others and perpetual foreigners to buttress the hegemony of capitalism.
As a Chinese immigrant myself who moved to Burlington, Vermont, in 2020 after spending eight years as a graduate student in Los Angeles, I was immediately drawn to the theme of the book. Living a life nourished by my friendship with the few Fujianese restaurant owners and Cantonese grocery store owners in town, I was eager to know more about the intricate atlas of small Chinese-owned businesses beyond the gateway cities. Much of the work experience these business owners shared with me was reflected in Liang’s book. Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown remains a key source of customized cooking equipment and ingredients supplies that no manufacturer and grocery retailer in the majority-white places can offer. It is also a place to find cheap and good massages, or hair and nail stylists who understand Chinese aesthetics. Remembering the ubiquity of the internet, Liang spotlights WeChat, the largest Chinese messaging platform, launched by China’s tech giant Tencent in 2011, as a dominant tool of communication between the new destinations and NYC. However, it is worth noting that WeChat is a comprehensive digital hub that integrates textual, vocal, and visual messaging with multimodal socializing, payment, advertisement, and self-publication. More importantly, it is linked to, and supplementing, diverse portfolio-building social media platforms. In fact, focusing only on WeChat as a messaging tool between Chinese speakers risks overlooking the restaurant entrepreneurs’ strategic integration of their Chinese network and the local food and catering industry. The focus on social media raises important questions for further exploration: How do Chinese immigrant restaurant owners cross-manage WeChat and other visual-centered apps with GIS tracking such as Instagram and TikTok to boost their visibility? And how do they navigate the combined urban and virtual environments to negotiate with local, state, and national politics of multiculturalism?
Against the larger background of the United States’ racist capitalism, Liang shares a heartwarming story of a second-generation Chinese American teenager in northern Philadelphia brokering trust between his Black friends and his restaurant-owner parents. This anecdote suggests an intimacy between African and Asian American communities that have historically been divided in the colonial production of race and placed in the capitalist economy of the Americas to undermine each other’s existence. Reading the case as a friendship story between an American subaltern and Asian arrivants, Liang alludes to the Chinese tradition of food-mediated socializing as a historically successful means to establishing cross-racial appreciation embedded in the contingencies of race- and class-based alienation.
Liang’s work points to the need to further investigate local urban renewal’s impact on new Chinese restaurants in smaller, predominantly white states where national and global capital is significantly reshaping the cities’ demographics, financing, infrastructure, and housing policies. As the largest city of the very white and politically progressive state of Vermont, Burlington offers an excellent example. An ever more racially diverse population of middle-class students, faculty, artists, businesspeople, and aggressive homebuyers spurs the current redevelopment plan to prepare for, and retain, international capital. Pressured by the new urban dynamics, the city’s self-referential liberal cultural politics struggles to accommodate more sophisticated minority representation and financial circuits. The anxieties about letting go of the imagination of an idyllic white America that Vermont represents send socialist elected representatives, local gentry, and global elites into a tug-of-war over the future vision of New England’s Queen City. As much as the existing Chinese and other ethnic restaurants are challenged to cope with rising anti-Asian hate, soaring rents and property taxes, disparate food demands and dining traditions, increased petty crime and surveillance, and enhanced connections with major metropoles, they are part of the whirlwinds of redevelopment and uncertainties. Adding a new layer to the palimpsest of the business and property history of the “every town,” their presence is a reminder of the compatibility, rather than contradiction, between neoliberal multiculturalism and xenophobia.
As this review is being written, ongoing protests against the 40-story “mega jail” project in Manhattan’s historically stigmatized Chinatown are challenging scholars to be sensitive to, and communicate with, the shifting manifestations of race and space. Adding more strains to the already overloaded urban inequalities, the remodeled Manhattan Detention Complex rearticulates Orientalist representations of “Yellow Peril” with the mass incarceration that has disproportionately affected Black communities. It is crucial to think of “Chinatown to every town” as a place-based method to adapt Asian–Black intimacies to the rampant growth of the penal economy as a key player in racial capitalism.
Weiling Deng earned her PhD in comparative education from UCLA. She is currently based in Vermont, teaching and doing research in digital humanities, gender and women’s history, and Asian diaspora studies.
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