In Maxine Hong Kingston’s “No Name Woman,” the author explores her childhood in a Chinese American community in Stockton, California. Through these recollections, Kingston reveals Chinese-American culture as one rooted deeply in tradition, but still struggling to find its place in the larger American canvas. Issues and questions of identity were still being found, which is part of the incredibly difficult and arduous history of the Chinese-American culture in America. Understanding the context of this culture helps one to appreciate “No Name Woman” all the more, as noting the struggles Chinese Americans had to go through allows us to know the reasons behind Kingston’s family’s pride and current conditions.
The urban landscape of Californian cities like San Francisco and its neighboring Stockton) was dramatically changed by the large influx of Chinese emigrating to the US, and the public health concerns that followed were dramatic and stifling to racial expression and formation. In essence, Chinatown as a concept was itself an abstract one, its borders delineated through spurious and weak statistical surveys. It was at once the same kind of stereotypical tourist trap that out-of-state visitors would go to in order to enjoy its opium dens and restaurants, and something unique amongst all those towns in its meticulous categorizing and cataloguing. Chinatown shaped itself resident by resident, and white denizens of San Francisco defined it in their own ways - primarily, this was through derision and labeling of Chinese as dirty and disease-ridden. Shah argues that these images created of the Chinese "created nightmares of proximity between the diseased and the healthy" (Shah 88). By stereotyping the Chinese as being literally sick, it created lines of spatial division that made it harder for these portrayals to be debunked.
Instead of adapting to a nuclear-family situation, many Chinese bachelors lived together homosocially, and groups of women and children would also live together. This served as further ammo for groups to rail against the apparent lasciviousness and immorality of Chinese families by other American groups. However, this model started to change come the 1910s and 1920s, as Chinese women started to produce American-born children and form into their own nuclear family structures. After this happened, Americans began to look more sympathetically on Chinese Americans, seeing them as worthy of agency and needing their "help" to fit further into the American social structure.
The Ping Yuen housing project in Chinatown started in 1951, and was one of the biggest initiatives toward Americanizing Chinese immigrants through rewarding traditionally organized families with a feeling of true citizenship; the project "symbolized a recognition of full citizenship, equality, and a pledge of civic inclusion" (Shah 240). Usually, successful applicants for these projects included WWII veterans with proud American families who adhered to American traditions, making Ping Yuen a monument to the "ambivalent process by which ghettos created through racial segregation became valorized as ethnic cultural enclaves. During the middle of the twentieth century, descriptions of Chinatown as a site of danger, deviance, and epidemic disease were eclipsed by visions of sanitized exoticism" (Shah 249). In essence, Ping Yuen was the safe part of Chinatown, where Chinese were seen as accessible by normal Americans, whereas "real" Chinese culture was still seen as alien and dangerous. It also did not bode well for Chinese bachelors living in Chinatown, as without a nuclear family structure they were still seen as undesirable, exposing a feminization of these men while soldiers and/or fathers were masculinized and seen as the ideal.
Furthermore, the many epidemics that were seen in Chinatown throughout the early twentieth century and beyond are covered by Shah's work. The 1900 bubonic plague epidemic, as well as the thirty-year incarceration of Chinese immigrants on Angel Island are particular subjects for Shah's study. In essence, there was a "nightmare of proximity" happening on the part of Chinese workers, as they did not trust the public health organizations that sought to quarantine them from the rest of the population (Shah 131). Many working Chinese had the impression that public health officials were actually spreading disease, thinking that their vaccines were poisonous and often refusing them. At the same time, changing medical practices regarding the detection of bubonic plague led to uncertain changes in immigrant-centered medical procedures regarding plague. At Angel Island, increasingly invasive medical procedures, including microscopy, stool samples and everting eyelids, were commonplace, and were more often performed on lower-class Chinese immigrants who came to America in the steerage sections of various ships.
The effect of this treatment on Chinese American immigrants is clear in “No Name Woman,” as many Chinese were forced to assimilate faster than normal. They would effectively have to change who they were to become American: “The Chinese I know hide their names: sojourners take new names when their lives change and guard their real names with silence” (Kingston 460). With that in mind, Chinese American history provides an interesting context for Kingston’s story, and tells the tale of a people who had to struggle with much to achieve respect and citizenship in America.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. “No Name Woman.” The Writer’s Presence (7th ed.), Ed. McQuade,
Donald and Robert Atwan. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. Print.
Shah, Nayan. Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco's Chinatown. University of California Press, 2001. Print.