Chinatown Blues

Chinatown Blues


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



I came to realize that racial discrimination in America has always been the issue



Chinatown Blues

By Kam Hei Tsuei

Throughout U.S. history, Chinese immigration has been perceived by the Chinese as a vehicle for upward social mobility, in which they can flee like refugees from an oppressive dictatorship into the safe arms of Anglo-American capitalist society. U.S. capitalism is seen as normal, and, by direct association, American whiteness, which is felt by the Chinese to be a better, easier, liberated lifestyle. During assimilation, Chinese boys are taught to worship white women in the figure of an American Barbie doll while Chinese girls are taught to be ultra conservative in every respect, except when it comes to any male who is white.

In Hong Kong where I was born and raised, I was brainwashed with capitalism. The main difference between Hong Kong and mainland China is the former’s openly capitalist system. Being governed by England until 1997, the capitalist system provided people in Hong Kong with more freedom to be capitalist workers and thus greater access to information and education about how to become a loyal capitalist worker.

In school, I studied the history of China and the rise and fall of the ancient kingdoms, but when I studied the history of the U.S., I was blinded by whiteness. There was George Washington with his famous story of the cherry tree; Benjamin Franklin with his lighting-rod experiment; and Thomas Edison with his invention of light bulb. I was taught to appreciate and worship white maleness, and to believe that my life had been improved thanks to the intelligence and generosity of white men, sharing their ideas, and the honesty of white men admitting to their mistakes. Especially when Hong Kong was being governed by Europeans, apart from China, were those illusions taught without question. The idea I was always taught is that, if it were not for the white men of England and the United States, my life would have been much worse. No matter how hard the historians worked to erase the ugly facts of white colonialist massacres, they were not able to hide African American slavery. Even then, being exposed to the horrors of slavery, it was the whites who were said to have abolished slavery and then attempted social reconstruction to rectify its wrongs.

There was always something that bothered me about the American society. Assimilation and then conformity to a democratic ideal are good but I never believed in assimilating into any mainstream, because it makes me uneasy to behave the way everyone else does, like robots being programmed what to do, or to merely observe others and then copy. But I slowly came to understand what it is that really bothers me about U.S. society.

Reflecting on what I have been told throughout my life, of the brilliance of white men, of the tales my family have told me, to assimilate and to become like the whites, the necessity to succeed in school with a degree, not for the sake of a humanistic education but for the ticket to upward social mobility, I came to realize that racial discrimination in America has always been the issue. After I immigrated to America at the end of sixth grade, I started to study madly the English language so I could do well in school. At the same time, I found myself having a hard time making friends with the Chinese-American kids, because there was always something that kept me away from them.

You might ask, why was it so difficult to make friends with the Chinese, my own people? There are several reasons. When the Chinese speak of racism, the term refers to how they are being prevented from assimilating into whiteness. In general, to the Chinese racism is not a term used to describe the oppression faced by African Americans. The word racism, always on the lips and in the hearts of the Chinese, has been badly misused to describe their own experience regardless of what blacks have suffered and are still suffering. Yet I never believed that the Chinese should assimilate into the mainstream and adopt whiteness in order to be accepted in this society. I never believed in whiteness and this drove me apart from my Chinese community.

As much as I love reading, I had never encountered books that teach the real horror and ugliness of U.S. history. All the books I had read and studied had been written either by Chinese authors or white Americans. That changed when I entered college. There I read Jubilee by Margaret Walker, The Marrow of Tradition by Charles W. Chesnutt, and I, Tituba, by Maryse Condé. I came to the understanding of how important it is to fight white male supremacy. All the books mentioned above are based on true events, on specific massacres, bloody experiences that were ripped from the pages of U.S. history books and then whitewashed by white-blinded historians.

These books are reality compared to the illusions we live under. Illusions are complicated because they intend to lure those who seek assimilation away from the hard truth. The illusion taught to me was to admire whiteness and assimilate into their race, if you wish for an easy life; it was shattered by the realities portrayed in African American literature. The literature itself has awakened in me a sense of urgency to tell others that, without the liberation struggles of the African American people, without fighting the racial oppression they still endure, without their existence, no minority group in the U.S. would have any rights whatever, including the Chinese.

I have been awakened with the need to stop conforming to a race that reduces everyone whose skin is not white to one undifferentiated sameness, beneath that of every white. I have been awakened to resist the racial oppression of blacks, which maintains them at the lowest social status so that capitalism and white supremacy can continue to rot and ultimately destroy humanity. I do not pretend to be culturally black, but I think I have become black in my political consciousness. This means that other Chinese-Americans can do the same.

On top of what my family has always told me throughout my life about black people, many Chinese people in the communities I have lived have stigmatized blacks with crime and supported the white ideology that says blacks belong on the bottom of the social ladder due to their “inferiority,” and that we must avoid them at all costs. My many daily experiences with Chinese-Americans and “race” could be made into a movie or included in a sociology textbook, since the complexities and absurdities are everywhere. In short, I have experienced Chinese white racial harassment of their own people, including me, in behalf of gaining favor with white Americans and their system of racial oppression. These are few recent incidents.

The most recent incident took place at a laundromat in a Mexican neighborhood in Brooklyn close to where I live. While I was doing laundry, washing away my sins in a public machine, all I expected at the end was freshly laundered clothes. Instead, I was racially harassed by the Chinese owner of the laundromat. The incident revolved around a Mexican woman who mistakenly put her quarters into my dryer instead of hers. We agreed that when my time was up, I would take out my clothes and she could have the machine, no problem. However, eight minutes before my time was up, the owner of the store marched in front of my machine with the clothes carriage and took out all my damp clothes. She had no right to touch my clothes because, unlike her, I know my sins and had just finished washing them away.

Assuming she is a logical person, I asked her in English what she was doing. But she insisted on talking to me in Fujanese, one of the seven most commonly spoken languages in China. Like most Cantonese-speaking people, I do not know the language of Fujanese. In English, I explained to her with simple mathematics that I had put in six quarters for forty-eight minutes of drying. In spite of my explanation, the owner insisted that the Mexican woman had put in four quarters for thirty-two minutes and therefore my time for the machine was up and I must go away. I told her that how much time the Mexican woman had on the machine is not the issue; the point is that I had put in my money yet my time was not up. The next thing I knew, she turned to the Mexican woman and continued to take out my clothes, telling her to go ahead and use the machine, totally ignoring my objection.

Another incident happened at one of the ubiquitous “99 Cent” stores in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. The store where this incident occurred was badly managed like the other ones, where they have neither carts nor baskets for customers who purchase many items, and where the workers in the store have bad attitudes due to over-working. As I was carrying the several items I had, waiting in line for the cashier, I, along with the other Chinese customers in line, expressed a bit of sudden anger and disgust. As I was waiting in line with the others, one of the customers, who had white skin and silver-gray hair, had seized a strategic advantage by skipping through the line and paying for her items. If the lady had been elderly, then we might have understood. Not only was this customer treated with extra care and reverence, as if she was the Pope of Brooklyn, but the Chinese cashier did not mind that she lacked two pennies to meet the full sales price. However, when it came turn to pay for my items, the cashier approached me with the familiar look of greed and waited for me to count every penny needed for the purchase.

The next two incidents happened at my work place where they offer classes to foreign students to study English and to English-speaking students who need help on their subject areas in order to achieve good grades in their classes and especially on their Citywide and Statewide examinations. One particular day last month, my boss, who is Chinese, said the most interesting thing to the parents surging into our center seeking help on their kids’ academics. In my experience, what he said reflects perfectly the thinking of many Chinese-Americans toward blacks.

When one of the parents came in with his son, asking us if we would be able to help him achieve high scores so he can be admitted into a “good” school, my boss realized that the parent would do anything to get his son into one of the elite schools that are filled with white kids. Due to the particular concern that, by any means necessary, the Chinese parents must have their children admitted to the white elite schools, my boss told the parent of the child that it is important to obtain good scores on your examination since it is the only way you can get into the “good” schools. Otherwise, he said, “they will put you into the bad schools, schools that have all the blacks.” The child and the parent paused for a second and immediately agreed with that statement and then the parent opened his wallet and registered for our classes—classes they believe will make them white and keep them away from all the blacks.

As this next incident was occurring, I could not help but see the word “whiteness” flash across my face, tempting me to put the person in question out of her misery. From the last incident, we have established that many Chinese parents will do anything necessary to push their kids into schools filled with whites and away from the schools that include blacks. However, on this particular day, when the sun was shining high above in the sky, indicating hope and happiness, a mother of one of the currently enrolled students clouded the brilliant sky with a nasty fog of whiteness as she proceeded to ask a question regarding the “race” of her son’s teacher.

She first asked me whether her son was doing well in the class and I answered yes, because if there were any problems, the teacher would have already notified the school and asked to contact the parents. Acknowledging that her son was doing fine in the class, her next question was if her son’s teacher was black. I was startled by the question but not surprised because her son’s teacher is from the Philippines. I fought against my instinct to interrogate her racial politics and instead answered the mother that her son’s teacher was not black. I asked her if there was anything wrong with his academics. She answered no, but continued to ask me if the teacher was black, despite what I had just told her. I answered no, no again, and then no yet a fourth time. The discussion ended when she asked me for the fifth time. I asked her does it matter what the teacher’s nationality is if her son is performing well in the classroom? The mother finally gave up and walked out, realizing perhaps that I am not one of the new Chinese-American white racists.

All of these recent incidents indicate how willing the Chinese are to oppress African Americans, as well as members of their own culture, just to please the whites, so they can be accepted by the whites and thus to be like the whites. However, it is wrong to say that they please the whites to assimilate, to be American. Assimilation is another word misused by the new Chinese-Americans, like the term discrimination. The Chinese are not assimilating; what they are doing is committing genocide against their own culture, by embracing everyone who is white and oppressing anyone who is black.

In the laundromat, the Chinese owner was showing favor to the Mexican woman at my expense because she was much more willing to lose a Chinese customer than a Mexican customer. The thinking here is that it pleases the whites that the Chinese are more willing to accept the Mexicans into their lives than the blacks. The Chinese are learning the white race system. You see around you, everywhere in Brooklyn, that the Chinese are willing to be friends with all ethnic groups except African Americans. You see the Chinese being neighbors with Latinos, and all varieties of ethnicities, except blacks. How often do you see a Chinese person in Harlem besides small business owners? I never have.

Just like the whites, who rank everyone based on their complexion, the Chinese are grabbing hold of the white idea and learning fast to worship whiteness. At the 99 Cent store, the customer with a white complexion immediately gained white-skin privilege by being treated with special care, like an exquisite glass vase that might break if handled with any pressure or force. On the other hand, every not-white, including the Chinese themselves, was seen in the eyes of the white Chinese business owner as people with less humanity, as animals that do not deserve respect.

Chinese-Americans teenagers often call themselves “ghetto” and use many terms of black culture. They dress in baggy pants, oversized shirts, with oversized caps, and learn all the gangster sign language, thinking they are being cool. Of course being black is not an appearance; it is a culture and a social heritage. Conversely, what the new Chinese-Americans are failing to see is that being “white” is not really looking white; it’s acting white, and this means keeping blacks down and out.

I believe who we are stems from our internal soul. Most immigrants, including the Chinese, think they are “free” because they have the opportunity to do the things they cannot do in their own countries. There is no curfew in America, and there is freedom of speech where you are allowed to say anything you please (just watch what you say). You can make fun of Mr. George W. Bush with the way he walks, for example, as if he is not being pleasured enough by his wife. And that Mrs. Laura Bush’s mouth when she smiles looks like it has been stuffed with a coat hanger.

But we, the new Chinese-Americans, need to know that our illusory external freedom is what limits our real internal freedom. The delusion that we think we are free, just because we’re becoming white, prevents us from seeing the ugliness of whiteness. Rage Against the Machine had a song called “Know Your Enemy.” One of the lines goes:

What? The land of the free?

Whoever told you that is your enemy.     

Chinese parents are frightened by their children who dress “ghetto,” and so they brainwash them with lies about blacks. Any time the media reports so-called “black crime,” the parents say, “Those damned blacks! Why are they such horrible people?” This is what the Chinese parents say. This is what my mother says, and it is one of the reasons I flee from her Chinese white racial harassment. Freedom comes when you are able act against your oppressors, when you stop opening your legs to white men because they’re white.

Those Chinese teenagers who call themselves ghetto have never thought of the reason why they run away from blacks while they’re working so hard to create a self-image based on black culture. When their grades start to drop, they conclude that they must stop acting black and be whites. They freak out at the fact that their low scores would have them admitted to schools with black kids, rather than being ashamed that their low scores indicate their lack of intelligence and misuse of their brains. They are horrified because they do not want to be around blacks, but they are not horrified that their lack of knowledge and education means the monkeys trapped in the zoo are smarter than they.

According to the statistics provided by the College Board and individual school districts, the Chinese are rapidly becoming the majority at the elite New York City public high schools. In 2001, Asian kids accounted for just 13 percent of all New York City high school students yet within the top three elite high schools they represent more than 45% of all students. At Columbia University, 12 percent of the students are Asian; at NYU, 18 percent of the students are Asian; at Cornell University, 17 percent of the students are Asian; at Stony Brook State University, 27 percent of the students are Asian.

The Chinese-American population continues to rise and at the same time the Chinese culture is committing cultural self-genocide, thinking they have gained freedom because they are becoming white. The Chinese do not realize they are being cheaply used as a tool by the U.S. capitalists to oppress blacks and all other workers. In my opinion, the Chinese-Americans continue to grow largely because the Chinese are willing and eager to oppress blacks. According to the U.S. Census of 1960, five years prior to the assassination of Malcolm X, New York City reported 140,722 Asian residents. In the 2000 Census, the number of Asians reported was 787,047. Within forty years, there were around 600,000 Asians in New York who became white. Those Asians are the ones you see near Wall Street and Park Avenue, well-dressed and talking to whites, not blacks.

Whiteness is the main problem of our society and needs to be exposed as a dangerous virus that spreads rapidly if undiagnosed. In the war against white supremacy, the freedom fighters should set the goal to awaken those who see whiteness as normality. In my experience, most Americans think whiteness is normal and they inculcate this false idea in the heads of all newly arrived immigrants. This is what I’ve learned most since I arrived in New York several years ago. We must alert the others about the root of our social problems: capitalism and white oppression. To truly obtain a free life, a person has to live and work in an environment of social equality. Of course white America does not want the Chinese to fight against the oppression of African Americans; that is why they lie and try with all their efforts to keep us from reading Malcolm X’s speeches and Langston Hughes’s poems. For example, every time I read Malcolm X while riding the subway I am made to feel like a criminal, usually by white people but even some black people give me the evil eye. There is something very wrong about this society.

In my opinion, one of the greatest poems by Langston Hughes is called “White Man,” yet it can hardly be found on the Internet let alone is it taught in schools. Anyone with a little awareness wakes up immediately from their delusions and enters reality after reading it.

Sure, I know you!

You’re a White Man.

I’m a Negro.

You take all the best jobs,

And leave us the garbage cans to empty and

The halls to clean.

You have a good time in a big house at

Palm Beach

And rent us the back alleys

And the dirty slums.

You enjoy Rome—

And take Ethiopia.

White Man! White Man!

Let Louis Armstrong play it—

And you can copyright it

And make the money.

You’re the smart guy, White Man!

You got everything!

But now,

I hear your name ain’t really White Man.

I hear it’s something Marx wrote down

Fifty years ago-

That rich people don’t like to read.

Is that true, White Man?

Is your name in a book

Called the Communist Manifesto?


Are you always a White Man?


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Kam Hei Tsuei was born in Hong Kong and has been living in NYC since 1996. She is currently an undergraduate student at the City University of New York majoring in writing and literature. She is studying the history, art and literature of African Americans to better understand the United States and how to make it better. She can be reached at

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Capitalism and the Ideal State: Marcus Garvey  / Negroes and the Crisis of Capitalism (Du Bois)  / Economic Emancipation of Africa

Liberty and Empire  /  Money is Speech   /  On Capitalism: Noam Chomsky

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

By Pauline Maier

A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her book’s footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a convention’s decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maier’s accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents’ objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly). Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state convention’s verdict affected another’s. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.—Booklist

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Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America

By Eugene Robinson

In this clear-eyed and compassionate study, Robinson (Coal to Cream), Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist for the Washington Post, marshals persuasive evidence that the African-American population has splintered into four distinct and increasingly disconnected entities: a small elite with enormous influence, a mainstream middle-class majority, a newly emergent group of recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, and an abandoned minority “with less hope of escaping poverty than at any time since Reconstruction’s end.” Drawing on census records, polling data, sociological studies, and his own experiences growing up in a segregated South Carolina college town during the 1950s, Robinson explores 140 years of black history in America, focusing on how the civil rights movement, desegregation, and affirmative action contributed to the fragmentation. Of particular interest is the discussion of how immigrants from Africa, the “best-educated group coming to live in the United States,” are changing what being black means.

Robinson notes that despite the enormous strides African-Americans have made in the past 40 years, the problems of poor blacks remain more intractable than ever, though his solution–“a domestic Marshall Plan aimed at black America”–seems implausible in this era of cash-strapped state and local governments.—Publishers Weekly

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 27 September 2005 




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