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Performing Chinatown: Hollywood Cinema, Tourism, and the Making of a Los Angeles Community, 1882-1943


Examining a period of national debate over immigration and U.S. citizenship, this dissertation foregrounds the social, economic, and political contexts through which representations of Chinatown in Los Angeles were produced and consumed. My dissertation asks: how did Chinese Americans in Los Angeles create, negotiate, and critically engage changing representations of Chinatown? To what extent did popular representations and economic opportunities in Hollywood inform life in Los Angeles Chinatown? And in what ways were the rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship and national belonging related to popular representations of Chinatown? To answer these questions, this project examines four different “Chinatowns” in Los Angeles—Old Chinatown, New Chinatown, China City, and MGM’s set for The Good Earth—between the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and the law’s symbolic repeal in 1943 during World War II.

Whereas scholars have long argued that the geopolitical context of the Second World War and in particular the U.S. alliance with China led to both to the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943 and a general increase in opportunities for Chinese Americans, my dissertation presents a different narrative. Building on film studies scholars who trace the birth of cinema to the overlapping forces of modernity and urbanization at the turn of the century, I argue that the same transformations in urban visual culture that led to the development of film also transformed Chinatown into a medium of cultural production. Tracing the co-evolution of Chinatown and cinema as overlapping media forms between the arrival of the film industry in Southern California and the openings of New Chinatown and China City in Los Angeles in 1938, I demonstrate the myriad ways that Chinese American merchants, background extras, and others in Los Angeles repositioned Chinatown as part of, rather than distinct from, the idea of a modern cosmopolitan city. In the process, I analyze the ways that Chinese Americans utilized performance in Hollywood film and Chinatown to lay the groundwork for the incorporation of Chinese Americans into the nation-state under the logic of racial liberalism during World War II. In making this argument, my project places the everyday actions and performances of Chinese Americans at the center of discussions of American Orientalism demonstrating that the increasing inclusion of Chinese Americans into the United States was not the product of geopolitical forces alone.

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