September 07, 2008

Bitter Melon, Jeff Gillenkirk, James Motlow, intro. by Sucheng Chan

Locke is a rural Chinatown, maybe the only one surviving in the U.S. I don't think it's much architecturally; three blocks of frame houses built for floods, an enormous vegetable garden, and some levees. Bitter Melon is about the history seen in the surviving Chinese residents, and combines some old photographs with current ones and with transcripts of their reminiscences.

The town is unusual because U.S. discrimination against Chinese residents was so vicious for so long, forbidding them basic legal and economic rights and also the right to naturalize at all. Chinese communities were violently driven out of locales all over the West through the late 1800s (and probably later, but that's what I have a map of). For that matter, the Chinese were forbidden to naturalize or to own land as aliens throughout the West until 1952.

But, back to rural Locke; if driven out of most towns, and also the agricultural muscle of early California, where did the Chinese go? Most of them seem to have lived in field houses of large farms, or have been sharecroppers; Locke was unusual because it was a town run by the inhabitants and for regional Chinese workers, but it was on Locke land and the inhabitants didn't own it (until 2004!!). Which makes me think about various utopian and dystopian schemes, I must say; the river street was mostly run by and for the houses of gambling and prostitution, and then there were two blocks of houses, and then the community gardens, which are clearly managed to the inch so must have been surveyed and willed on.

The second most interesting thing, after the political wrongs done to the Chinese, is the view the survivors have of the rest of the country. Now, this is a delicate and nuanced thing; it's not as simple as the legal history, it's the impressions more or less tactfully conveyed by people with wildly different temperaments and histories. It's a good book to read on a hot afternoon when you miss your grandparents and can put up with some meandering in their memory. There's an interestingly contradictory line of comments about American blacks; that they were worse treated than the Chinese were, but some of the Chinese still dislike them, though certainly not all, and that whole civil rights noise was very un-Chinese... but admirable. The line on Mexican-Americans is a lot more straightforward, that despite more protective laws they are now what the Chinese were ninety years ago. And, although Locke was overwhelmingly in support of the Kuomintang, one resident remarks that the Chinese were treated horribly in the States until the U.S. was intimidated by Mao; you get the impression that someone who mightn't naturally approve of Mao had evidence that his ruthlessness was required, in this troubled world.

Third, I wanted more about the gardens; more than half the town by area, after all. These are vegetable gardens run by people who survived sharecropping, on the Delta soils of Yolo County which were rich to start with, and with a gardening tradition that wastes nothing. It's mildly famous that the Delta islands are losing topsoil at a measurable rate every year, as it blows away, decays away, and is stripped for turf. I would very much like to know if the Locke garden is shallower than it ever was. In the one photograph, it looks as convex and fluffy as the best feather bed.

Find in a Library: Bitter Melon

So wrote clew in Cities. , Gardening. , History (20th c.).
And thus wrote others:
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