Mention “Chinatown” and many Americans will think of San Francisco, the center of the early Chinese American community. With the wave of immigration that began in the 1960’s, however, New York became the first choice for Chinese immigrants to the United States. In the 1970 census, for the first time, the Chinese population of New York City surpassed that of San Francisco. Today the population of New York City’s Chinatown is about 150,000, with an equal number in the outer boroughs.
While other accounts—most notably Peter Kwong’s THE NEW CHINATOWN, 1987—have opened the doors of this closed community, there has been no in-depth study. Gwen Kinkead’s CHINATOWN, valuable as it is, falls short of that goal. Kinkead’s book, much of which first appeared in THE NEW YORKER, combines personal profiles and descriptions of everyday life in Chinatown with topical reportage. A good deal of the book concerns the pervasive presence of organized crime. While Kinkead thus provides a valuable corrective to feel-good stories on the New Immigration, her discussion of crime in Chinatown could have been greatly condensed. As it is, the book falls between stools; it is neither a fully satisfying multifaceted portrait of Chinatown (as it sometimes aspires to be) nor a book-length study of crime in Chinatown.
Still, there is much of interest here, particularly in the attention Kinkead gives to immigrants from the People’s Republic of China—in her telling, a much more significant part of New York’s Chinese community than one would guess from other sources. See her chapter on “The Snake,” the intricate and lucrative pipeline by means of which illegal Chinese immigrants are smuggled into the United States; the going rate is $30,000. The text is supplemented by photos (the paucity of which attests Kinkead’s lament on the difficulty of reporting on Chinatown and its populace) and an index—no notes or bibliography.