Cultural resolution

September 19, 2013

“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

Those are the last words of the great detective film Chinatown (1974), directed by Roman Polanski and starring Jack Nicholson. I used the film as my primary example in a paper I gave at a conference. The paper was on art and violence, and although Chinatown is not especially gruesome, it is uncommonly eloquent about the meaning of violence in modern life. But it was only mid-sentence that I realised the irony of what I was saying. For I was giving the paper in Beijing, China, at Tsinghua University, at the triennial conference for the International Association of University Professors of English.

Tsinghua University boasts a beautiful wooded campus: it occupies the former royal gardens of the Qing Dynasty. At the opening ceremony for our conference, in addition to the usual platitudes about East-West “cultural understanding”, we were reminded that in the first half of the 20th century, relations between Britain and China on the subject of English studies and literary criticism were very close. Two of the greatest critics of all time, I. A. Richards and William Empson, had worked as professors in Beijing. China was an object of fascination for a number of English-speaking creative writers back then too, including Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and Chinese scholars and writers were themselves fascinated with the work of English-language modernists.

What was not mentioned was the long period of mutual alienation between the glorious then and the fitful now. Nor were the main causes of this alienation mentioned: the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Great Leap Forward, the Vietnam War, the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square. What came between mainstream English literary study and China was a large part of the general terror of the 20th century.

But it is easy, as well as wrong, to feel smug about this from a contemporary perspective. For there I was, an American expatriate, talking in China about Chinatown, a movie where the Chinatown of early 20th-century Los Angeles stands as a symbol of the inefficacy of the West’s power to do good. The film’s Chinatown is a place of mystery, danger and inaccessible wisdom. It makes the good guys of the film feel impotent. Robert Towne, the screenwriter, was once told by a cop that LA’s Chinatown was a place with “so many different tongues and dialects, the police were never sure if they were intervening in a crime down there or helping to perpetrate one”. Chinatown was known for its gambling houses and gang wars as well as its restaurants and burgeoning population, cramped into a small precinct of the sprawling city because of blatantly racist laws against property ownership by “Orientals”.

But never mind. In 1939, a year after the events in Chinatown take place, Chinatown was bulldozed to make way for a train station. Chinese-Americans had to set up a new Chinatown a mile up the road. The name of the facility that took the place of the old Chinatown, today the main hub of public transport in automobile-dependent LA and a rendezvous point for the city’s homeless, is Union Station.

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