Friday, May 4, 2012

Tongs in Chinatown

Unlike Shaketown's English-speaking Wo Sam, most Chinese immigrants arriving in the United States knew only various dialects of Cantonese, one of the major branches of Chinese spoken in the Zhujiang delta. In the late nineteenth century, most Chinese immigrants saw no future in the United States; assimilation was impossible. Legally discriminated against and politically disenfranchised, Chinese Americans established their roots in Chinatowns. They developed a high degree of tolerance for hardship and racial discrimination and maintained a lifestyle similar to that formerly enjoyed in China. This included living modestly, observing Chinese customs and festivals through social or political organizations (tongs) and family associations that represented the collective interests of persons with the same family names. These organizations acted to arbitrate disputes, help find jobs and housing, establish schools and temples, and sponsor social and cultural events. Some organizations (such as the fictional Chee Kong tong that Wo Sam and Wo Li join) became powerful and oppressive, growing rich through smuggling, the opium trade, gambling and prostitution; by the early 1880s, the population had adopted the term "Tong War" to describe periods of violence in Chinatown.

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