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Picturing Chinatown: Art and Orientalism in San Francisco

Picturing Chinatown: Art and Orientalism in San Francisco by Anthony W. Lee
Publisher: University of California Press (October 1, 2001) | ISBN-10: 0520225929 | PDF | 12 Mb | 340 pages

The public perception of San Francisco's Chinatown, home to thousands of ethnic Chinese since the earliest years of the city, has been largely based on the writing and imagery of non-Chinese observers with varied agendas. Portrayed by some as an exotic and dangerous site of tong wars and opium dealing, it was also seen as a crowded living space occupied by sensible, hard-working immigrants. Lee (art, Mount Holyoke Coll.) has attempted to show how outsiders pictured Chinatown by closely analyzing almost 150 photos and paintings from the 1850s to the 1950s. Included are the well-known works of Arnold Genthe and Dorothea Lange, as well as images from the San Francisco Police book of mug shots. Missing from the roster of mostly formal and artistic works are the scores of casual snapshots that must exist in private hands. In addition, Lee does not attempt to use images found in the commercial advertising or popular media of the day. The result is well written, well researched, and beautifully produced, but ultimately this is an academic study that carefully notes crisp facts and then shelves them for other academics to pore over in quiet libraries far from the streets of Chinatown. The real question that Lee approaches but never really descends from the ivory tower to wrestle with is how it feels to have your place in America always defined by other people.

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