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Play in the Chinatown

Yancy's picture

Coming up from the train station and crossing one crossroad, my partner and I glanced at each other with happiness in our eye, because the gate of Chinatown shining under the sunlight appeared in front of us. With the distance of the gate and us becoming shorter and shorter, more and more people with black eyes and black hairs walked around us, and we heard some familiar Chinese words. At that moment, my heart was full of pleasure and surprise. After several weeks of being away from my hometown, it was my first time to see so many Chinese people and words. My partner read every word she saw, and took as many photos as she could to memorize this afternoon. Some restaurants put their menus on the window, and almost all the food we have tried in China. We stood before the window and seemed that we have come back to the previous life in China.

We walked around the roads again and again, and the excitement started to appease. Finally we sat in a Chinese restaurant where all the waiters and waitresses were people with black eyes and hairs. Then we ordered some food in Chinese spontaneously: the Xiao long bao, vegetable fried rice and Jiuniang yuan xiao. To my first surprise, I found the waiter did not write Chinese words on the paper, and he wrote in English. Then the second came: the thick cover of Xiao long bao and the filling of yuan xiao.

‘What happened in the kitchen? I never find filling in such Jiuniang yuan xiao.’ My partner asked me when her eyebrows furrowed.

‘Neither do I. What about your rice?’ I tried to pick up my Xiao long bao by chopsticks.

She signed. “It’s tasty but…unfamiliar.”

‘Yes, unfamiliar.’ I agreed.

We finished the dinner in silence, and when we came out and visited the bakery and supermarket, we lost our excitement at all. No matter in the bakery or the supermarket, the fitment there was so outmoded that I felt that I came back to my age of three. Also, the goods were strange for me, even they were described in Chinese. We decided to come back to college and walked on the street for the last time the day. Instead of excitement and surprise, disappointment and weariness filled my heart.

What is the Chinatown? Why people built it? Why I feel disappointed there? On my way back, I thought over many questions appearing in my mind.

Last century, because more and more Chinese people moved in America, they lived together and the place they lived was called ‘Chinatown’. It is really common to understand their behavior, because when I study abroad, I looked forward to something familiar, too. I preferred to talk with Chinese girls in school because we can use our special language and can understand each other easily, and we have similar background and talking topics. The first generation that migrated in Philadelphia built the Chinatown to increase the communication and provided continence to find the ‘familiar’ feeling, to make people feel they still stayed in China. The Chinatown, a limited area in Philly, is actually a ‘play space’ that mentioned by Mary Flanagan’s book ‘critical play’. She described the play spaces are ‘…generally fantasy spaces, players often experience real stakes when inside them…’ Those people who built Chinatown must try their best to represent their China by the Chinatown. Also, the behaviors in Chinatown such as communicate in Chinese, use Chinese words or eat Chinese food, are the critical play, because people behave in Chinatown spontaneously for a goal: create China in Philly. The first migrators, or I can call them artists by the definition “The term artist…to refer to those who are creating outside commercial establishments, and often, those who are “making” for “making sake”…”in Mary’s book, are the designers of the play.

However, Mary also wrote in her book that the obvious challenge is to “find ways to make compelling, complex play environments using the intricacies of critical thinking to offer novel possibilities in games, and for a wide range of players.” And the reason of my disappointment is because the Chinatown does not successfully rise to the challenge. I’m not sure how many people in Chinatown today have been to China. Some of them are the children of the first migrators and never come to China. The Chinatown is built in America, and the American cultural enters it by osmosis: under the Chinese words on menus also list the English name of the food and waiters record the food in English. It is hard for new migators or students to be satisfied because the Chinatown today still belongs to the people who lived one century before, not to them. I think the main reason is the distance. Because of the long distance between people in Chinatown and people in China, the people in Chinatown cannot receive the information of real Chinese life today. They cannot hire the best cookers to make delicious Chinese food and even do not know the tiny changes in China today.

Then, the existence of Chinatown for me is to remind me that I am in another city, another country, not in Nanjing, in China. Which Chinese city will build a Chinatown?


Anne Dalke's picture

Playing with Chinatown

What a rich analysis of your experience! You really do use Flanagan's ideas to illuminate what happened to you, and to explain how and why Chinatown "works" the way it does, how "outmoded" it is, both for Chinese immigrants and Chinese visitors.

I'm curious to hear more about your thought that Chinatown is a form of play, or critical play, in Philadelphia. In what sense might it reinforce or interrogate the status quo?

What might be your "next step" in this line of thinking?

How to follow this line of research?

Do you want to learn more about the history of the establishment of Chinatowns in this country?

Or of this one in Philadelphia in particular?

Cathy Zhou's picture

Yancy selected her experience

Yancy selected her experience in Chinatown and used Flanagan's statements of complexity of play environment to prove her points.She started with her own experiences in Chinatown,where she found it a place different from real China.But as Chinatown is a place built in another country,due to the lack of information and influence by the outer world,it became a the old,twisted China.She connected her artical with critical play by defining the act of building a Chinatown "play" and people building it "artists".The whole town is an art piece in which Chinese trying to create a familiar space in an unfamiliar environment.

She added her feelings in the middle of her consistent experience and as the timeline developed, more experiences and thoughts come out of the essay.

Her experience totally revoked my feelings in Chinatown, as I see those Chinese gathered there,with the complex feeling of both the familiar and the unfamiliar pop up, I realized I am not home.

Phoenix's picture


Yancy compared the existence of Chinatown with Flanagan's description of play spaces, also referred to as 'magic circles'. She described the act of creating a small part of China within another country as an act of critical play designed to preserve Chinese culture among immigrants, but one which failed due to the fact that the creators of Chinatown are not in contact with China. She began the paper by describing her hopes for Chinatown as a home away from home, detailed her disappointment with its failings, and ended by revealing Chinatown as a game.

As an American born, I do not know firsthand the pain of leaving your country to live in another, or of finding your culture misrepresented by those you trusted to represent it. I did know that many 'ethnic' foods in the United States are altered from the original recipe so as to be nearly unrecognizable, but never would it have occurred to me to see as a game the way people try to preserve their culture wherever they are.