Chapter 3 The Postwar Years
The post-war years brought an entirely new set of paradigms for Chinese in America – not only because of tremendous changes in mainland China, but also due to transformations in the United States.
The post-war years brought an entirely new set of paradigms for Chinese in America – not only because of tremendous changes in mainland China, but also due to transformations in the United States. The final act of the Chinese Communist Revolution (or War of Independence, as the regime called it) took place between 1948-50. Victorious across mainland China, Mao Zedong proclaimed the nation to be the People's Republic of China, while anxious business leaders and over two million anti-communists retreated to Taiwan to join the Republic of China. At that time, Hong Kong was still under British rule, but many residents feared Mao's next move and thousands left Hong Kong to relocate across the Pacific to Los Angeles or San Francisco.
Within fifteen years, the 1965 Immigration Act would end the unfair allocation to European countries of the majority of slots in yearly migratory quotas, thus opening more opportunities for Asian immigrants to come to the U.S. This legal change solidified the next wave of Chinese immigration roots in Hong Kong, and this new wave of Hong Kong immigrants was radically different than the first wave of Cantonese. They did not come from agrarian or rural ancestry. Instead, they had a more international, urban background and a different outlook professionally, as they were mostly middle class and educated. Unlike the Cantonese, Hong Kongners did not have as strong a need for family networks and regional alliances that the first wave of settlers had created in Los Angeles. New immigrants (and the subsequent generation of ABC's) were both willing and able to embrace America under a new set of quintessentially American (and ‘60's era) ideas. The Civil Rights movement was transforming the social and racial realities of the country, affording some Chinese Americans the opportunity to begin to define and represent their own experiences.
The lyrics of this famous song from the Asian-American Civil Rights-era describe the tenor of the Chinese community at the time:I looked in the mirror, And I saw me. And I didn't want to be any other way. Then I looked around, And I saw you. And it was the first time I knew who we really are.
Written and performed by Chris Lijima, Nobuko Miyamoto and Charlie Chin from their highly acclaimed album, A Grain Of Sand, "Something About Me", the song describes the realization that Asian Americans share a common yet singular experience in America. The message reflects an awareness of the past and celebrates the simultaneous struggle of America's minorities – Chinese Americans alongside African Americans, for instance – for equal opportunity. This pivotal moment in the history of ethnic America transformed the perception of Chinatown and Chinese Americans once again. While the First Wave cemented the foundations of an immigrant experience, this Second Wave claimed the right to be Chinese in America.
The Third Wave of immigration to Los Angeles' Chinatown links us not just to China or Taiwan but also to Vietnam. Migration always creates webs of international dependencies as, for example, the ties prevalent today between cities in Central America, Mexico and the United States; similarly, Chinatown's social and cultural narrative connects Guangdong Province in China's Southeast to the migration between China and Vietnam. China's ties to Vietnam – especially in Guangdong – stretch back generations. For many centuries, the Qing, or Manchu Dynasty, subjected the rural populations in China's south to routine repression in an effort to centralize its government, economy and beliefs, forcing many to escape into Laos and Vietnam. Later, the same economic and social instability that prompted many residents from Fujian and Canton to sail across the Pacific during the Chinese Revolution, pressured another wave of Southeastern Chinese to cross the border into Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar where they found thriving communities of Cantonese who had laid down roots centuries earlier.
Almost fifty years later, Vietnam as well as Laos and Cambodia would become nations torn apart by war. Like many Laotians, Vietnamese and Cambodians, the Cantonese who had migrated to those areas packed up their belongings and families and headed off to America. In Chinatowns across the United States – but especially in Los Angeles and San Francisco – populations like the Chinese Vietnamese known as the Hoa looped back to their original Cantonese roots after years of hybridization and cultural synchronization, only this time in America. Mapping these loops and turns within the webs of geography, history, food, and economics (to name a few) against present day Chinatown gives us a clear picture of the effects the history of migration has had on both our Cantonese neighbors here in L.A. and on the family members that stayed behind. The Third Wave of migration gives Departures: Chinatown the unique opportunity to reimagine China's migratory trends. The process that is so often visualized as a line (or even a wave) turns out to be cyclical and interdependent, often finding itself where it began.