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Laureen's Research

CCED Tenants Rights workshop: Laureen attending a Tenant Right’s Workshop hosted by Chinatown Community for Equitable Development during her fieldwork in 2015. Photo courtesy of Chinatown Community for Equitable Development.

Urban Chinatowns are one of the oldest neighborhoods in most major cities. The original theorizing of these neighborhoods in urban sociology and immigration studies suggested that they were meant to disappear as Chinese Americans “assimilated” into mainstream society, suggesting a natural cycle of decline and revitalization of immigrant enclaves. Instead, urban Chinatowns have persisted due to both the cycles of Chinese immigration to the U.S. over time, most notably the 1965 Immigration Act which opened Asian immigration to the United States, as well as the ongoing political and cultural ties that Chinese Americans across generations continue to have to Chinatown as a space of community and heritage. Today, as working-class immigrant neighborhoods proximate to the downtown core that are being reinvested to attract people and capital “back to the city,” Chinatowns are part of the broader urban tensions of gentrification that disproportionately impact low-income communities of color. Drawing from Los Angeles Chinatown as a critical case study, my dissertation examines the contemporary ethnic politics of urban Chinatowns that seek to control these neighborhood changes and what this means for maintaining and evolving Chinatown as an ethnic space.

I spent over three years conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Los Angeles Chinatown to understand the political culture of the neighborhood. Specific attention was given to how the formation of new organizations, participation in formal spaces for community representation, and framings of neighborhood change and identity served as mechanisms to assert community control over Chinatown. Findings align with contemporary immigration literature that argue that Chinatowns continue to serve as a site of community for Chinese Americans across geography, generation, class, and immigration cohort and they continue to be prominent leaders of the neighborhood. However, my research further expands on these arguments by drawing from political economy and race perspectives to specifically examine what this ethnic political engagement means in shaping the planning and development of Chinatown. These characteristics that define the diversity and complexity of the Chinese American community also inform the politics of community development and land use conflict, specifically whether Chinatown serves business, residential, or cultural interests and how new developments can and will serve those interests. The political engagement specific to neighborhood development has contributed to an image of Chinatown as a conflicted community, but I argue that these tensions are part of a rearticulation of the Chinese American community identity. Chinatown serves as an important political site to express the changing and diversifying community.
I am expanding from my dissertation research as a Postdoctoral Fellow at SUA. This includes publishing a comparative historical analysis of displacement in Los Angeles Chinatown to understand the historical roots of gentrification as it relates to the racialization of Asian Americans. I also plan to further develop an analysis of the community and media narratives of neighborhood spaces to examine how the meaning of Chinatown is shifting and how that relates to the conflicts in identifying gentrification in the neighborhood. I continue to be actively engaged in the Los Angeles Chinatown community and plan to further incorporate these experiences and new knowledge into my research and teaching at SUA.


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