Cover of Performing Chinatown by William Gow
Performing Chinatown
Hollywood, Tourism, and the Making of a Chinese American Community
William Gow


May 2024
274 pages.
from $28.00

Hardcover ISBN: 9781503638099
Paperback ISBN: 9781503639089
Ebook ISBN: 9781503639096

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In 1938, China City opened near downtown Los Angeles. Featuring a recreation of the House of Wang set from MGM's The Good Earth, this new Chinatown employed many of the same Chinese Americans who performed as background extras in the 1937 film. Chinatown and Hollywood represented the two primary sites where Chinese Americans performed racial difference for popular audiences during the Chinese exclusion era. In Performing Chinatown, historian William Gow argues that Chinese Americans in Los Angeles used these performances in Hollywood films and in Chinatown for tourists to shape widely held understandings of race and national belonging during this pivotal chapter in U.S. history.

Performing Chinatown conceives of these racial representations as intimately connected to the restrictive immigration laws that limited Chinese entry into the U.S. beginning with the 1875 Page Act and continuing until the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. At the heart of this argument are the voices of everyday people including Chinese American movie extras, street performers, and merchants. Drawing on more than 40 oral history interviews as well as research in more than a dozen archival and family collections, this book retells the long-overlooked history of the ways that Los Angeles Chinatown shaped Hollywood and how Hollywood, in turn, shaped perceptions of Asian American identity.

About the author

William Gow is an Assistant Professor at California State University, Sacramento, and a community historian with the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, a non-profit in Los Angeles Chinatown.

"In Performing Chinatown, William Gow illuminates the history of the Chinese in the American imagination from Chinatown tours to portrayals of Chinese in motion pictures, and the ways in which the Los Angeles Chinatown community benefited from its proximity to and participation in Hollywood."

—Lisa See, author of Lady Tan's Circle of Women

"Performing Chinatown superbly weaves together social history and the history of cinema, grounded in Los Angeles in both space and time. Combining these two disparate historical approaches, this book is timely, thoughtful, and engaged historical scholarship."

—William Deverell, University of Southern California

"A must-read for anyone interested in race, representation, and Asian American history. Taking to heart the voices and experiences of Chinese Americans, while refusing to shy away from difficult issues, William Gow's engaging writing expands our understanding of the seemingly ordinary people who create extraordinary communities on the ground and on-screen."

—Catherine Ceniza Choy, author of Asian American Histories of the United States