Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.81.6: Streets of Gold: Immigrants, the City and the Cinema, Part 4

The Joy Luck Club, Hollywood Pictures, 1993

The Joy Luck Club, Hollywood Pictures, 1993


The relationship between immigrants and American cities has, on balance, been a reciprocally beneficial one. Immigrants have found opportunity in the city, and in turn have enriched its culture with their own contributions, but the relationship has also been complex and dynamic. The rich variety of occupations typical of cities afforded an expanded range of opportunities to people who originated from rural, pastoral, and village circumstances.1 But the transition from traditional to modern cultures has also had its effects upon those traditional cultures. The question of the breakdown of traditional cultures by contact with urbanization has long been a subject of sociological interest and debate.

One point of view, best represented by Oscar Handlin’s 1951 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Uprooted, maintained that the majority of the some 35 million persons who immigrated to America in the century after 1820 had a “traumatic, potentially devastating experience.” Most of them had come from traditional, peasant societies, not cities, and in America’s urban-industrial, more technologically developed society and cities, their adjustment suffered loss of self-esteem and alienation.

This pessimistic view is countered by observers who, while recognizing that the immigration experience was difficult for some, assert that most made successful adjustments to American society.2 It was helpful for some immigrant groups to have had what might be called “prior urban experience.” Many Jews and Chinese, for example, had already come to America from diasporic experiences in which they had adjusted to other host societies. Oftentimes these immigrants had been in urban environments in which the prior experience of having obtained an economic foothold in other (urban) cultures provided a familiarity with different political and economic systems.

Experience has also shown that the melting pot did not fully render immigrants into homogenous, stereotypical, generic Americans, but rather they often retained important and functional attributes of their traditional cultures, such as religion, strong families, and identity with their motherlands. However, retention of traditions has also been a source of conflict between immigrants and their more acculturated fellow Americans, in addition to a source of conflict within and amongst immigrant groups as well as intergenerational conflicts within immigrant families. But conflict is also the essence of drama, and the conflict between the customs and traditions of one’s mother country, and the adjustment to becoming an American is both sociologically and cinematically interesting.

Several films, by and about Asian-Americans, focus upon this dynamic. Hong Kong-born Wayne Wang’s Chan is Missing (1982) is illustrative of the interplay of cultures. Although a simple mystery about the search for the missing Chan, it is also a reference to the American-made Charlie Chan series of films that never was, and still is not, in any way insightful about the Asian-American experience.3 But the influences of American films are evident in its small debt toThe Third Man (1949), and the employment of elements of film noir. The quest for Chan becomes incidental to an immersion into the culture and everyday life of San Francisco’s Chinatown. The excursion, guided by two taxi drivers who are trying to find the missing Chan and the $4000 he has of theirs, is really a journey though a part of immigrant America that has not been so exposed cinematically by one of its own. The audience is taken into restaurant kitchens, offices, bars, flophouses, not finding Chan, who is replaced by an emerging portrait of the complexity and richness of this blended culture.

Wang followed his examination of Chinese-American life in San Francisco with Dim Sum (1984). The lightly plotted comedy of the Tam family illustrates how traditional Chinese values and emotional complexities have been retained and influence intergenerational relationships. However, the extent to which the old world past invades and influences the new world present is well told in Wang’s Joy Luck Club (1993) about a group of Chinese-born women who meet regularly to play mah-jongg in San Francisco. Though they now lead comfortable lives, their pasts in prerevolutionary China, a time of famine, forced migrations, and privations that often required great personal sacrifices, are indelible and intrusive. Though their daughters are Americanized and successful, their filial relationships are greatly influenced by their mothers’ pasts. These pasts include that of one mother who was one of her husband’s multiple wives, another who had children taken from her, and another who was forced to abandon her children.Joy Luck Club demonstrates convincingly that, as the new American immigrant filmmakers take their place alongside their predecessors, American cinema is vastly enriched by these cultures, their pasts, and their adjustments to American urban society.

Adjustment does not come easily for the hero in Pushing Hands (1994), by Taiwan-born, US-educated, writer-director, Ang Lee. Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung), a tai chi master, copes with his new life in well-to-do suburban Westchester by maintaining the rituals of his former Beijing life: exercising with his tai chi chuan, listening to Peking Opera, watching Chinese videos, and preparing his own Chinese meals. Chu’s son, Alex (Bo. Z. Wang), is, in some sense, the new immigrant success story, a well-paid professional, married to an Western woman, Martha (Deb Snyder), who is a writer. They have a young son to carry on the family name. The problem is that Mr. Chu is just a little too exotic for Martha, who is home with him the entire day and cannot abide his cooking and Chinese music.

Pushing Hands brings together multiple dimensions of the immigrant experience: intergenerational differences, the difficulties of those who immigrate when they are older, and the differences between the ethnic enclaves of Chinatowns, which function as retreats and halfway houses for immigrants and the cultural blandness of suburban existence. While it is a comedy, there is a core truth to the predicament of Mr. Chu, who is not only foreign, but in many ways superfluous. In the end, Chu manages a bittersweet compromise with America, immersing himself in the society of urban Chinatown and drawing upon his tai chi to restore some connection and balance in his life.

In a country founded by immigrants, migration remains one of the principal means by which Americans, of the tenth or first generation, have escaped oppression (at home or abroad) and improved their well-being, whether the migration is from Odessa to Oklahoma City or Oklahoma City to Olympia or from the city to the suburbs. For many Americans a key element of the American Dream is that geographic mobility often equals social mobility.

The gravitational pull of America is both powerful and paradoxical. Part of that pull is the American cinema itself, and the fascination Americans have with their own dreams. Foreign protesters might burn the Stars and Stripes and chant angry slogans against American foreign policy one moment and express a wish to come to America in the next. Some come packed into shipping containers; others packed like sardines in the trucks of coyote smugglers, while crossing the southwestern borders; or in flimsy rafts and leaky boats across the ninety-mile stretch of water between Cuba and Florida. Once in America they may complain about discrimination or some American values, but few would consider returning to their lands of lesser opportunity.

The pull of the American Dream is told with truth and power in the journey of Rosa (Zaide Sylvia Gutierrez) and Enrique (Ernest Gomez Cruz), Guatemalan siblings making their way to El Norte(1983). After their father is killed and their mother disappears, they set off for America, are mistreated getting through Mexico, and end up crawling into the United States through a rat-infested tunnel. Enrique discovers he must begin by being what his father was back in Guatemala, a bracero, just a pair of arms to work the fields and orchards.

Braceros are, in addition to being exploited by their employers, barely tolerated by the general public because they are regarded as doing the type of work that other Americans avoid—backbreaking stoop labor, with long hours and low pay, in sunbaked fields. But when immigrants are seen as competitive with other businesses, their reception can be cold and hostile. Such is the situation for a colony of Vietnamese fishermen who settle in a Texas gulf town in Alamo Bay (1985) in which racism surfaces when local fishermen feel their livelihood is threatened by immigrant competition. The film, directed by French director Louis Malle, demonstrates that, in some places, there is not enough room for everybody in the American Dream. Smaller cities can become overwhelmed by immigrants in ways that can upset and transform the prevailing social order, as has the immigrant Hmong population of Wausau, Wisconsin.4

The bittersweetness of the immigrant urban experience is also treated in the comedy Moscow on the Hudson (1984). Vladimir (Robin Williams) is a defector from Russia, which was, at the time the film was made, part of the Soviet Union. At first he delights in even doing menial jobs, and there is a pleasing and humorous scene at a lunch counter in which immigrants from different countries recite the US Constitution. Indeed, being New York, it seems that everyone Vladimir meets is also from somewhere else. But the realities of life in the American city are for Vladimir menial work, living with a black family that endures many of the same disadvantages that, seen in flashbacks, he thought he left back in the USSR.5

In films like El Norte and Moscow on the Hudson, one is left to ponder how much the American Dream delivers on its promise. That of course is more the stuff of sociology and statistics than of cinema, but, intuitively, or perhaps wishfully, it seems that for at least enough immigrants, there is a reasonable chance the streets are at least paved. Avalon (1990) is a film that takes the viewer through a couple of generations of the immigrant experience of a Russian-Jewish family in Baltimore. Compared to most immigrant films, this autobiographical chronicle based on the family of director Barry Levinson and its settlement in the Avalon neighborhood in Baltimore is nearly idyllic. After the arrival of the first Krichinsky brother on the Fourth of July, 1914, framed in glorious fireworks, the others arrive to fill out a large extended family of musicians and businessmen who prosper and propagate over the next four decades. The downside of the immigrant experience of the Krichinsky family is not discrimination, poverty, or restricted social advancement, but a subtle and insidious diminishing of family traditions and the connection to its roots.

[To Be Continued]
© 2013, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 2.27.2013)
1. However, changes in the economic structure of urban areas, particularly central cities, have diminished the number and types of occupations accessible to unskilled and under-educated immigrants. For example, many manufacturing have moved to outlying areas, or diminished in number, being replaced in central cities by service sector occupations that are less accessible to unskilled immigrants; Clapp, James A. (1970) What’s Eating America’s Cities, The Chula Vista Star News, March 27.
2. Krause, Corinne Azen, (1978) Urbanization without Breakdown: Italian, Jewish, and Slavic Immigrant Women in Pittsburgh, 1900 to 1945, Journal Of Urban History, vol. 4, no. 3, May, pp. 291-306; Lewis, Oscar, (1951) Urbanization Without Breakdown, Scientific American, 75, Pp.31-41; Greeley, A., (1976) The Ethnic Miracle, The Public Interest, 45, Fall, Pp. 20-36.
3. The Charlie Chan series of over forty films from 1921 to 1949 never had an Asian actor in the role. Warner Oland played the lead until his death and was replaced by Sidney Toler, followed by Roland Winters after Toler’s death (only Chan sons, Number One Son, Keye Luke, and Number Two Son, Sen Yung, were Asians). Charlie was always brilliant, solving mysteries with a combination of deduction and Chinese aphorisms like “Sometimes insignificant molehill more important than conspicuous mountain,” which he delivered with the missing articles and simple tenses of Chinese fractured English. The popular and often amusing series was copied for another Asian detective, Mr. Moto, a Japanese imitation played by French actor Peter Lorre, which ran for nine movies. Another imitation was the Mr. Wong detective series that resulted in five films at the end of the 1940s, also with a lead played by a Westerner, Boris Karloff. Charlie Chan was resurrected most recently in Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981), with Chan played by British actor, Peter Ustinov. Even when American producers got around to hiring Asian actors, they seemed to regard them as culturally interchangeable. In the Oscar and Hammerstein musical, Flower Drum Song (1961) about a Chinese girl who smuggles herself into San Francisco, the cast includes Nancy Kwan (Chinese-English), James Shigeta and Myoshi Umecki (Japanese), Jack Soo (Chinese), and Juanita Hall (African-American), all playing Chinese roles.
4. Beck, Roy, (1994) The Ordeal of Immigration in Wausau, Atlantic Monthly, April, Pp. 84 – 97.
5. A romantic comedy approach to immigration is treated in Green Card (1990) in which a Frenchman, played by Gerard Depardieu, makes a fictitious marriage with an American woman (Andie MacDowell) in order to obtain a green card. The film is a resurrection of the dramatic lines of some of the screwball comedies of the 1930s, and they inevitably fall in true love after predictable strains in their relationship.