Finding Chinatown

In her undergraduate seminar “Chinatown: Migration, Identity & Space,” Linling Gao-Miles explores the questions of immigration, identity, and representation at stake when communities label spaces with racial monikers.

Linling Gao-Miles

Does Olive Boulevard constitute a Chinatown?

When students first enter Linling Gao-Miles’ first year-seminar “Chinatown: Migration, Identity & Space,” they usually identify the neighborhood along Olive Boulevard and Interstate 170, in University City, as the local equivalent of larger, more famous Chinatowns in San Francisco or New York. By the end of the class, however, they’re usually not convinced.

Gao-Miles, lecturer in international and area studies, uses “Chinatown” as a site for studying broader issues of immigration, identity, and representation asking students to interrogate the assumptions that often accompany the labeling of spaces with racial monikers. “It’s problematic when we arbitrarily assign labels not only to people but also to spaces,” Gao-Miles said. “What makes a space a Chinatown? Not just Chinatowns; these days, we even hear new phrases such as ‘satellite Chinatowns’ and ‘suburban Chinatowns.’ What is the statistical evidence for people calling a space a Chinatown?  For example, with Olive Boulevard, probably most people don’t have this information about the Olive community; they even have no idea what its demographics are. Once my students examine the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood and its residential and commercial landscape, they’re usually surprised, demographically speaking, how little ‘Asians’ are represented.”

Earlier this semester before the university's alternate operations went into place, Gao-Miles’s students conducted field research about Chinese restaurants and grocery stores on Olive Boulevard or elsewhere in St Louis to gain a better understanding of the dynamics underlying ethnic communities in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. Diasporic food culture is one of the major topics of Gao-Miles’s class, which draws attention to the American origin of such famous dishes as General Tso’s chicken and the St. Paul sandwich, a Missouri creation.  

Her students employed an ethnographic approach, observing local Chinese businesses as case studies for concepts learned in the classroom. “After reading a history about Chinese American food and ethnographic studies that inform the students about theories of authenticity and local adaptations and transformations,” she said, “then take these theories, these frameworks, and then walked into a Chinese grocery store or returned to a Chinese restaurant that they have frequented. They observed the decor and the ethnic make-up of customers and of people who work there. We took pictures of the products, talked to customers, and made observations about what’s sold on the shelves of grocery stores or on the menu.”

“We even learned to pay attention to details such as which customers get chopsticks and who are given forks.”

Many students ultimately choose to observe restaurants for their projects in order to understand the connection between patterns of Chinese immigration and the spread of Chinese food in the U.S. “They learned a lot about Chinese American food, its origins, and its local adaptations. And they started to observe their chosen restaurants, thinking of the concept of authenticity and what it means to be ‘authentic,’” Gao-Miles explained. “They observed ethnic representation through interior and exterior decoration. They examined the menu and the language used for the items offered. Some of them used two restaurants and compared the immigration histories of the owners. Then they asked, are they targeting Chinese, Chinese Americans, or a multiethnic clientele? We even learned to pay attention to details such as which customers get chopsticks and who are given forks.”

Gao-Miles stresses the importance of interpreting and contextualizing the data gathered from such studies. Take again the question of whether or not Olive Boulevard is a Chinatown. In past years, students investigated Olive Boulevard and debated the validity of its either being a Chinatown or not being a Chinatown. After reviewing the area’s demographics, many students pivoted away from seeing the neighborhood in such clearly defined terms. In response to the university's alternative operations plan, this year students debate that question with themselves. “They imagine two opposite voices debating either side of the issue,” Gao-Miles said, “a project that requires creativity and imagination to construct arguments that support both sides when you are hundreds of miles away from the place in question. While the students are not able to conduct further ethnographic research as a group, one positive of this alternative approach is that they have already conducted individual ethnographies about an ethnic Chinese business, and they started to explore ethnic commercial establishments in different neighborhoods in St. Louis."

The students assigned to make a case for designating the Olive neighborhood as a Chinatown are sometimes worried that they face a bigger challenge than the group that argues that it is not a Chinatown. “They think, oh no, we’re doomed to fail,” Gao-Miles said. “How can I argue against the idea that I support? But I want them to have the critical skills to think about how they can generate such an argument. By the end of the semester, they should have learned that the definition of Chinatown is contingent and often contested. They’ve learned by this point the skills to think of ‘Chinatown’ as a concept encompassing various dimensions, whether it’s spatial-physical, or based on demographics or commercial or residential factors.”

For Gao-Miles, this ability to think beyond the parameters of the class is its biggest takeaway. “I use Chinatown as an example, but my students aren’t just learning about the history of Chinese American settlements or Chinese American food,” she said. “I want them to use this as a conceptual framework, to use the methods and concepts that they learn in this course to examine other ethnic settlements and spatial formations and to understand how people move, why people move, and how they settle and integrate. In their final papers, many students in the past have explored spaces such as ‘Little Italy,’ ‘a Jewish town,’ or ‘Little Saigon.’”

After trekking through the Olive community and observing its businesses, students in Gao-Miles’ seminar learned that the St. Louis neighborhood is paradigmatic of newer migration trends. “We’re already rethinking the concept of the Chinatown. The new waves of Chinese immigrants are clustered in inner-city centers, but they actually came and settled in the suburbs, and formed new suburban ethno-centers that the geographer Wei Li calls ‘ethnoburbs,’” she explains. “So, our examination is not just New York’s Chinatown or San Francisco’s Chinatown. Following traditional Chinatowns, we expanded our inquiries to the new formations of ethnic suburban places or suburbanization among Asian immigrants and, in this case, Chinese immigrants.”