ca. 1910: Chinese Diaspora: Illinois sojourner’s village in Xinhui, Guangdong.

Thursday, 23 June 2011 14:04 Amy Gwilliam

Chinatown in the old days must have looked to outsiders like a small, closed ethnic enclave.  Yet for its residents their world was vast and deeply embedded in a global Chinese networking system.  Many had been born in China and journeyed back there often.  They traveled to other North American cities for business meetings, visited friends and relatives in other Chinatowns, and had families - parents, wives, and children - in their home villages in South China.

Image: The Lum family home in Xinhui,  Guangdong Province.  It is a comfortable middle class house of the kind often built by sojourners returning from America.

Not every emigrant was driven out of his or her home town by poverty.  In South China, men were expected to go abroad to make a living and a name.  Dr. Sun Yat-Sen was an outstanding example of these sojourners. The tradition was so strong that men who stayed behind were frowned upon as lacking ambition.

To the average Chicago laundryman or restaurateur, life in the home village might have seemed primitive and backward.  But the same home beckoned successfully to many returning overseas sons, even though those sons were already accustomed to the convenience of American gas stoves, electricity, and fast transportation. Most aimed at retiring there with enough money to lead a comfortable life.  Many, though not all, succeeded.

Photo courtesy of Raymond Lum

Text by Chuimei Ho, Chinese in Chicago 1870-1945, Chicago: Arcadia Publishers, 2005

Last Updated on Sunday, 26 June 2011 11:30