Sunday, May 17, 2009

After the Chinese Taste: Orientalist Scenarios Then, as Now

Chinoiserie Corner Cupboard by Chippendale, 1768.

In his excellent book New York Before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776-1882, John Kuo Wei Tchen explores the dramatic shift in representations of Chinese people in the United States throughout the 19th century which, he argues, are essential to the development of modern "white" identity. Tchen expands the theoretical framework first articulated by the late Arab/American critic Edward Said in his Orientalism, which famously illuminated the fear, loathing and desire of the West for the East, to include cultural phenomena intrinsic to US American life. In so doing he argues that Orientalism has been instrumental in forming US American cultural identity. Writing in 1999, Tchen modestly offers his study as an attempt to tease out “subtle patterns” in U.S. history. But the academic discretion he employs in framing his argument belies its power and, in a post 9/11 world seems almost quaint: There is no question that Orientalist scenarios are shaping our contemporary historical moment.

Beginning in the colonial period, Tchen describes the struggle to establish a distinct American identity in Orientalist terms. He writes, “The beginnings of U.S. modernity in (the) decades after the revolution… were characterized by the rise of self-made men and radical changes in everyday economic, political and social life.” The flux of this period was mediated through Chinese consumable goods as US American identities, caught between the modes of patrician Europe and the needs of the new nation, cohered. Tchen emphasizes the passion for collecting Chinese porcelain, which became known as “china” and the merchants who sold it “Chinamen and women.” In this way oriental objects came to represent Asian people, a conflation that persists. Tchen writes,

When they couldn’t get the authentic goods, Europeans and some Americans made copies ‘after the Chinese taste.’ …These were the creations of craftsmen who had no firsthand experience of a distant and highly romanticized ‘Cathay.’ Gold-embroidered tapestries of small people living in a willow-patterned world, elaborate gardens with ‘gossamer pavilions,’ architecture with pagoda-style roofs, faux porcelains, fantastic latticework, fanciful stage sets, lacquered furniture, and various other decorative notions formed the material expression of this European orientalism.

So, uncomplicated by the presence of actual Chinese people, colonial Americans made aesthetic choices based on a lack of knowledge of Chinese culture. This paradox, an ancient Orientalist strategy remade for the new world, is an exercise of the privilege that is a foundational feature of ‘white’ identity. An excellent example of the ways in which ethnic cultural representations function as a nationalist project, the presence of Chinese things, and their substitution for Chinese people, is an absence that performs, making visible the desire for an exotic "Other" to shore up an essentialized, normative self.

But while the “tasteful display” of oriental objects signified wealth and class in Europe and colonial America such “luxury and profuseness” was viewed by some as cause for alarm. For example, British novelist Tobias Smollet warned that oriental luxuries were harbingers of “Indigence and Effeminacy: which prepared the Minds of the People for Corruption (and) Subjugation.” Instead of status appeal, Smollet and his contemporaries read a threat into the absence of actual Chinese people that such luxury items represented. His use of feminine terms as a frame for moral degeneracy that prefigures a “fall” is sexist language that is not exclusive to orientalist scenarios but nonetheless often finds its expression there--especially to whip up fears of "subjugation". Western representations of the Eastern Other often vacillate between degenerate effeminacy and a robust, sexually threatening vitality: an iteration that Tchen describes as the “Chinese devil man.” In our contemporary moment, Western cultural representations of Asian men have stabilized at the other extreme, with Asian men most often portrayed as sexless nerds, with the sexual threat they originally represented distributed to other Eastern "Others", like Arabs for example. But it is important to note that this representation was originally attached to Chinese men (and by extension other Asians) in the United States. So representing Asian men as neutered is another way of controlling their potential threat.

Tchen notes that despite warnings like Smollet's the fashion for oriental objects ran unabated in colonial America. He writes, “Average Americans chafed at any sumptuary limits on consumables deemed foreign and therefore taboo.” This early American exercise in white privilege is a scenario that plays itself out in our current moment not over Chinese tea, but Middle Eastern oil. Even as racialized representations of Arabs—which echo the effeminate/hyper-masculine representations of the 19th century Chinese—abound in our culture, the hunger for Middle Eastern oil only grows. As in the “American century” our “desire for ‘oriental’ goods (is) stronger than the threat of ‘oriental despotism.’”

When actual Chinese people arrived in New York the imaginary oriental constructs engendered by these scenarios awaited them. To illustrate the impact New York's burgeoning commercial culture had on promoting representations of China and the Chinese, Tchen describes the sensation made by the appearance of a Chinese junk called The Keying in New York Harbor in July of 1847. The newspaper accounts of the event capture the excitement the presence of actual Chinese people engendered among “respectable” New Yorkers who’d dreamed of an imaginary China, evoked by their objects. New Yorkers and tourists, charged twenty-five cents apiece for the privilege of viewing the Chinese sailors contained therein, happily thronged to the Battery for the spectacle. A paternal attitude prevails in these accounts as Tchen quotes, from the New York Herald “ No, our friends with the unpronounceable names and astonishment proof countenances, must not be allowed to go, at least until we have all seen and appreciated them.” We see here that the infamous stereotype of Chinese inscrutability echoes Thomas Jefferson’s ruminations on the properties of black skin in his Notes on Virginia. Just as Jefferson longed to find a blush in black skin, betraying his longing to locate shame and desire in the African other, so does the writer of the Herald article long to see his own astonishment reflected back at him in the faces of the Chinese sailors.

That a labor conflict which developed between the Chinese crew and their white captain was settled equitably in a New York court does not belie, but rather makes even stranger the fantastic newspaper reports that swirled around the Chinese as they continued to assert their presence in the city. Tchen writes,

The Herald’s proclivity for entertainment was counterbalanced by the American Magazine’s all-consuming focus on demonstrations of Christian benevolence, and neither discourse paid much attention to the Chinese sailors’ actual experiences. In both cases, the coverage served mainly to promote in a popular format a particular set of moral values and a particular point of view. Whether sensational or moralistic, the journalistic coverage of the ship and the exhibition within was a characteristic expression of the commercially driven form of orientalism.

So we can see that the presence of actual Chinese people in New York did little to alter the orientalist scenarios already in place. The Chinese arrived in New York and stepped into parts that were written for them in their absence, and without their consent. And the twin discourses engendered by the fad for oriental objects, paternal delight and moral indignation—so often two sides of the same coin—remained in play, essentially negating the living presence of actual Chinese people. The disappearance of The Keying’s Chinese sailors into the oriental imagination of 19th century New York makes visible the uses of fear and desire of Eastern Others in the construction of white identities.

Tchen argues that the tragic case of Quimbo Appo, a Chinese-American man jailed after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act marked the drift of the nation's attitude from patronizing affection to loathing mistrust of the Chinese. I'd add that it also shows the orientalist scenarios indicated by Tchen in New York Before Chinatown still have currency. According to Tchen, Appo’s “fall from grace” (he’d been a successful businessman and comparatively assimilated New Yorker) embodies the “profound shift in the attitude of New Yorkers toward the Chinese and the imagined 'Indies.'" In and out of prison for various violent crimes against whites, Appo was ultimately transferred to the Mattewan facility for the criminally insane.

Appo’s paranoia ran rampant and he constantly accused invisible foes, blaming them for his plight. Tchen notes that, despite the escalating violence that characterized his later life, there is no way to tell whether Appo was truly insane when he entered Mattewan although he most surely became unhinged as a result of this incarceration. Frequently drugged and hallucinating, Appo’s wild accusations nevertheless accurately described the racial matrix in which he found himself. His delusions, were, Tchen writes, “Grounded in actual power dynamics occurring in Lower Manhattan.” In other words, the fact that he understood and could articulate the racial hierarchy that pitted him against Irish Fenians, Democrats and politicians who were all players in 19th century lower Manhattan speaks as much for his sanity as his madness.

The newspaper accounts of Appo’s story reveal the final iteration of orientalist scenarios of force and dispossession: demonization. The New York Times characterized Appo as an individual “of little or no education and…an inferior order of development, resembling in many aspects a child. “ Here we see the paternal affection of an earlier era taken to its ugliest extreme. Horace Greeley of The New York Tribune characterized Appo's actions as being “an instance of the uncurbed barbarian temper of the East brought into collision with the colder habits of our Saxon civilization.” We can see this scenario repeated in our contemporary moment in the discourse around the war in Iraq. The Iraqi people—and by extension all Arabs/Iranians/South Asians—are alternately portrayed as grateful children and ruthless barbarians.

In New York Before Chinatown John Kuo Wei Tchen traces the shift from the colonial fad for Chinese luxury goods, to a market-mediated antebellum period of “relatively open, complex and countervailing representations,” to the post-Reconstruction period of “criminalization, ghettoization, and political exclusion.” This pattern of orientalist imagining Eastern "Others" from paternalistic delight, to sexual fear (characterized by moral outrage) to demonization (characterized by physical and or mental abjection) plays itself out in the past via Tchen’s study... and in the present through the ethno-racist tropes in U.S. foreign policy. Astonishingly similar rhetoric to the historical examples Tchen describes was used by the Bush administration to justify everything from the Iraq War and the legalization of torture, which overhwlemingly targeted Arabs and Muslims, to the abrogation of civil rights for all Americans. In other words, the arguments John Kuo Wei Tchen makes in New York Before Chinatown have, through the events of the past several years, become overt expressions of the material culture of the United States.

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