Elmer's English 304 Magazine


Imagine Chinatown

by Elmer G. Wiens

Skin colouring, language, and customs contribute to identifying Chinese-Americans as an interconnected, cohesive group. Chinatowns give Chinese people a physical presence, much like a nation's citizens obtain a physical presence from the country's area enclosed by borders. San Francisco's Chinatown, occupying a distinctive region for one and a half centuries and with a population today of one and a half million Chinese people, provides Chinese residents with a sense of continuity, permanence, and community. In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argues "nationness is the most universal legitimate value in the political life of our time" (3), and defines the nation as an "imagined community." I will apply his definition of nationness to America's Chinatowns, and San Francisco's Chinatown in particular. In this paper I use the postmodern concept of the rhizome to explicate the status of Chinatown as a Creole nation in Chinatown discourses.

Following Anderson, I define Chinatown as an imagined political community, a Creole nation, inherently both limited and sovereign (6-7). Members imagine themselves as part of a deep, horizontal comradeship sharing similar experiences that solidify the bonds of the group. This commonality of the Creole nation is imagined because members only know a small number of other members. The nation is limited because other nations, particularly the United States proper, lie beyond its boundaries. Chinese-Americans endured decades of discrimination in the U.S.A. However their freedom and economic opportunities are greater in the U.S.A. than in China. In America they owe no allegiance to China, giving Chinatown people a sense of sovereignty, albeit as part of America, with deeply shared cultural roots.

In A Thousand Plateaus, Gillis Deleuze and Felix Guattari define the postmodern theoretical structure of the rhizome as an image of thought which views the world as a network, much like the internet, without a start, end, or center, and compare it to a mushroom, the maze of a burrow, and animals in packs. The rhizomatic process, like crabgrass in lawns, territorializes, deterritorializes, and reterritorializes both space and time (5-7). The American and British military territorialized southern and central Iraq; Saddam Hussein's death deterritorialized Iraq's government; and, reconstruction will reterritorialize Iraq in the hands of a democratic Iraqis government. Hundreds of Iraqis looting government buildings compose a rhizome. The collapse of the Soviet Union deterritorialized Marxism as a potent system of thought and Marxist writing, giving Russian writers the opportunity to reterritorialize Russian history.

Chinatown is embedded in serial time. As time passes, the connections among Chinatown people weaken as the proportion of Chinese-Americans born in the U.S.A. increases. Immigrant Chinese share such experiences as detention on Angel Island, waiting for immigration officials to process their applications, working in sweatshops, and performing other menial labour. American born Chinese, aware of forgetting their Chinatown roots as they assimilate into American society, feel the need for narratives of identity that deal with Chinatown and its people. In short, they engage in Chinatown discourses explaining who they are to themselves and others. These national narratives can take the form of novels, such as Bone by Fae Myenne Ng, that reverse the process of forgetting, taking readers into the inner world of Chinatown, building Chinatown as an imagined community, a Creole nation.

Chinatown makes up a rhizome: a maze of streets and alleys with multiple exits, entrances, and public and private gathering places. Its mushroom like shape shifts, shrinks, and expands with the ebb and flow of new immigrants who territorialize neighbourhoods contiguous to Chinatown. Meanwhile, white urban gentry deterritorialize upscale Chinese neigbourhoods. Family relations are among the links connecting San Francisco's Chinatown rhizome to Chinatown rhizomes in other cities.

The Dictionary of Human Geography adds to the definition of the rhizomatic process, explaining it is "about lines of flow and flight," and "networks of partial and constantly changing connections." A rhizome is "based on ruptures, breaks and discontinuities." When connections among elements of the rhizome are broken, new and perhaps unexpected connections can occur. As a model of knowledge, a rhizome searches for obvious, surface truths revealed in connections and interrelations, instead of hidden truths under a visible, opaque surface.

I will now combine the narrative of a nation as an imagined community and the theoretical construct of the rhizome to analyze Bone. I will demonstrate that the rhizome as a shape, and the dynamics inherent in a rhizome's networks and flows provide a fruitful basis for a postmodern analysis of Ng's novel.

In Bone, Ng conducts the reader through the Chinatown of the troubled Leong family, whose older generation lives entrenched in traditional Chinatown ways, and whose younger generation probes Chinatown's spatial, cultural, and sovereign boundaries. Ng's novel, and her implicit representation of the Creole nation of Chinatown, can be analyzed using the concept of the rhizome. Ng employs a nonlinear time sequence, with her protagonist, Leila Fu, describing a network of places, times, people, and events in a first person narrative that avoids explanations based on cause and effect.

According to Deleuze and Guattari, rhizomatic novels do not have a beginning, middle, and end with an identifiable denouement. Ng starts the novel's text with Leila searching Chinatown for her stepfather, Leon Leong, to break the news of her marriage to her long-time lover, Mason Louie (3). Ng ends Bone at a time some years before, when Leila leaves her family's Chinatown home in Salmon Alley to move in with Mason in the Mission district (193). The happy times at the beginning and end of Bone are disrupted by events that render the close-knit Leong family dysfunctional. Leila's sister Ona's suicide (24), her other sister Nina's abortion (25), and her mother's affair with Tommie Hom (159) disturb the space-time continuum of the Leongs. In her story, Leila struggles to reterritorialize these divisions of space and time, however impossible to mend.

In Chapter One of Bone, Leila relates the rift between her parents, Mah and Leon, "after Ona jumped off the Nam" (3), while she guides readers through the labyrinths of Chinatown. Although still married, Leon moves to the San Fran Hotel, renting and reterritorializing the same room and life he had forty years ago as a bachelor. Ng reveals Leon's personality by describing the items he obsessively collects, much like a packrat, such as metal hangers, cups, and rubber bands (4-5). He maintains his link to China, avoiding assimilation into American society, reading stories from his stacks of Chinese newspapers (5) and hanging out with his Chinese friends. Leon inhabits his imagined community, with all its heterogeneity.

When Leila fails to find Leon at the San Fran Hotel, she looks for him at the places he frequents. Ng writes about the old men who subsist in the hotels, the crowds of "grandmothers and young children" in the squares, the men playing cards and chess on park tables, and the alleys of shops, cafes, and Chinese Associations (8-9). Chinatown consists of interconnected networks of family relations — Uncles Café, an aunt's grocery store, and cousins working in butcher shops. In Leila's walk-around, Ng impresses one with how real the "imagined community" appears.

Whereas the traumatic events in the Leong family have weakened the connections among Leon, Mah, and Nina, Leila's connections to them have strengthened. After her abortion Leon says to Nina, "Don't call us" (25). To Leila he says, "Five sons don't make one good daughter" (3). Once the other daughter, Leila replaces Leon's real daughters, Nina and Ona, becoming his number one daughter. Leila chooses to marry Mason in New York, witnessed by her Nina and strengthening their bond. After Ona's death, Leila returns to the family apartment in Salmon Alley, only visiting Mason on the weekends (92), reterritorializing the space and time as Mah's only daughter.

Along with its relentlessly changing connections, Bone is also "about lines of flow and flight." Chinese immigrants flow into Chinatown, as represented by Mah and Leon, while the next generation flows out of Chinatown to the Mission district, the countryside, and New York. Leila's father, Lyman Fu, abandons Leila and Mah, running away to Australia (187). Nina flees to New York to work as a flight attendant, when Mah and Leon gang up and abuse her after her abortion (25). Leon ships out as a seaman whenever the domestic situation becomes unbearable. Mason says, "Disappearing is Leon's way of dealing. He needs time away" (62). After Leon discovers Mah's affair with Tommie Hom, Leon escapes to the San Fran Hotel for a few months (158), finally moving there permanently after Ona's death.

Ona commits suicide, the ultimate flight, after breaking up with Osvaldo Ong, blaming Leon whom she adored while growing up. After Leon makes a mess of the Ong & Leon business, he forbids Ona to see Osvaldo. Leon tells her, "You will no longer be my daughter" if she continues to see him (172). Ona hates Leon and ultimately hates herself. However, Leila never blames anyone for Ona's death, although the other characters do. Even Freud could not explain "the interplay of forces" that carries thoughts of suicide to their conclusion.

In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari define love as "complexes of deterritorialization and reterritorialization." In Chapter One, after Leila tells Leon she is on her way to tell Mah of her marriage to Mason, Leon says, "Tell her it's good luck for us. We have a son now" (20). Through Leila, the faithful daughter, Leon and Mah territorialize their destiny. The topology of Ng's novel, its surface story, bends and folds with the Leong family's problems. Eventually, Leila reterritorializes her life by marrying Mason. She starts again, at the beginning of the novel, picking up her life where Bone's text ends, at the time when Leon's visit to Lyman in Australia gave Leila the closure she needed to leave Chinatown and Mah, and to move in with Mason in the Mission district (193). Any point in a rhizome can be a beginning. With her novel, Ng invites one into the lives of a Chinatown family, permitting one to identify with its members, and become part of their imagined community.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. Revised edition. London: Verso, 1991.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P., 1983

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P., 1987.

Dictionary of Human Geography. Fourth Edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

Ng, Fae Myenne. Bone. New York: Harper, 1993.


Copyright © Elmer G. Wiens:   EgwaldTM Web Services  

  All Rights Reserved. Direct comments to