CHINATOWN by Gwen Kinkead


A Portrait of a Closed Society
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 Kinkead, a frequent New Yorker contributor, boldly knocks at the bamboo curtain shielding New York's Chinatown, until it lifts a bit--revealing a community so exotic as to be ``virtually a nation unto itself.'' To nearly all the Chinese whom Kinkead meets in Chinatown, she is a low faan (``barbarian'')--``an object of fear, distrust, indifference.'' Yet, with the help of a Hong Kong-born translator, she slowly gains the confidence of waiters, shopkeepers, restaurateurs, healers, and so on, drawing on their stories, as well as on scholarly research, to piece together this personable look at ``the largest Chinese community in the Western hemisphere.'' No mean feat, that: typical is the author's exploration of a dark alley leading to a decrepit tenement where she meets a withered ancient who says that Kinkead is the first white person he's spoken to in 60 years in Chinatown. What keeps 150,000 Chinese in this isolated, crowded, crumbling ``slum''? Ironically, Kinkead finds, it's basically the urge to get out- -fulfilled through the single-minded accumulation of wealth. While Kinkead talks to men who work 80-hour weeks at menial jobs, live in dire poverty, and save a small fortune each year, her report makes it clear that the engine that drives Chinatown's economy is crime, festering in sweatshops and gambling halls, thriving on extortion and drug-dealing. Kinkead's too much of an outsider to penetrate the tongs and gangs that control Chinatown crime, but she offers comprehensive briefs on them, vivified by a tour of the mean streets with a veteran cop. But there's a gentler side, too, to Chinatown, and Kinkead covers that as well--family ties, festivals, Chinese medicine and cuisine, the tradition of concubinage, and the burgeoning urges to assimilate and to bring democracy to the Chinese mainland. Told in strong, clean prose: an exotic and fascinating journey by a modern-day, urban Marco Polo. (Eight pages of b&w photographs- -not seen.)

Pub Date: June 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0-06-016776-9
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1992