Essay by PaperNerd ContributorHigh School, 11th grade November 2001

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Poetry "Chinatown" by Cathy Song is an evocative and often bitter description of the Chinese quarter in a big city; it could be any city, for as Song says "Chinatowns: they all look alike" (1.2842) which sets the tone for the perspective from which the poem is written - that of an outsider, to whom all foreigners `look alike'.

The poem begins by taking the negative aspects of the area: it is a "dead" center (3.4.2842), the streets are lined with "red-light" (6.2845) areas, "sleazy movie houses" (7.2845), "oily joints" (8.2845); an urban ghetto, viewed with some contempt by the observer who is taking the critical viewpoint of one who does not have to live in such a slum. It is night, the air is full of insects and "other shady characters" (12.2843), emphasizing that the people here are nocturnal, untrustworthy, and secretive.

However, the point of view begins to shift slightly at this point.

The references to "Grandmother" and "Father" suggest that the observer is actually part of this community after all - Grandmother, who is the source of blood, i.e. life, for them all, is a traditional Chinese elder, playing Mah-Jongg while Father has taken on the accepted role of Chinese in the West, running a restaurant, " chopping pork and prawns" (38.2843).

Song uses many images relating to food: the rickety tenements are "piled like noodles" are "mushrooming" (23.24.2843) to blot out the sunlight; the walls are as thin as "lemon peels" or "abalone skins" (28.30.2843). Her reference to the rice "hoarded from the neighbors" harks back to a time before the family emigrated, when food was in short supply and kept hidden, implying that perhaps the conditions in Chinatown, although unattractive to an outside observer, are an improvement on what the family has experienced in the past. In her description of the father, Song slips into a much more sympathetic viewpoint; father has "gleaming hair" (36.2843), "compact muscles" (41.2843) and is skillful; she is looking now from the eyes of an insider, a family member, who sees her father as strong and handsome. There is a fire and energy about the next few lines - "dynamite, "igniting", "spark and flare" (49.2843) - which recalls festival fireworks and the life and sparkle of the heart of the community, until she recalls us to the reality of the conditions here: "spitting", "garbage", "rancid .. urine" (52.54.2844). The old men are not longer wise elders, debating energetically, but merely querulous old men, spitting and quarrelling amongst the rubbish strewn on the street.

The mother of the family, pregnant with "sour plums" (57.2844), is the one who is trying to transcend the negativity of the ghetto, sending her children, nourished by the saved rice and sunlight, "up for air" (60.2844).

In the last few lines, the imagery changes, taking us out of the shadows and grease and claustrophobia of Chinatown into fresh air and sunshine. The metaphors are of lightness and delicacy and color; the children are "bobbing up" (65.2844) from the heat and noise of the town, "bright" and "warm" (71.72.2844) in their jackets, compared to things of beauty and fragility such as jade and mother of pearl. The smoke from the incense of traditional culture blows them away, into the world outside the ghetto.

Cathy Song takes a dual viewpoint in the poem, which is skillfully balanced between an outsider's criticism of a culture ghettoized by immigration and seen only in terms of external appearance and preconceived notions, and the understanding of an insider as to the roots of the culture and the way in which its positive aspects still survive and are passed on to the children.

Her perspective switches from that of the Western observer, associating Chinatown with restaurants, brothels and shady night-people to that of the Chinese family member, recalling the history and beauty of tradition and the way in which it can be recreated in the children of the community. In this way. the poem demonstrates the double perspective of the Chinese-American, seeing family and environment through the eyes of a daughter and a stranger simultaneously.