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Race and the City: Chinese Canadian and Chinese American Political Mobilization

By Shanti Fernando

Review By Jo-Anne Lee

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 162 Summer 2009  | p. 193-4

Race and the City approaches racism, politics, and space through a comparative case study of two umbrella ethno-cultural community organizations, one in Toronto and one in Los Angeles. Drawing from interviews with key individuals employed with member groups in both cities, Fernando paints in broad strokes the ethnic politics of Chinese Canadian/American communities. Interviews with selected spokespersons from ethnic Chinese organizations, media accounts, and secondary literature illuminate racialized political mobilization and civic engagement. Fernando’s thesis is that ethno-specific, community-based organizations are democratic organizations that buffer the effects of systemic racism in both countries.

Race and the City uses a creative methodology for expanding our understanding of political participation by examining cross-city comparisons of ethnic organizations and their struggles against systemic racism. However, to follow the logic of Fernando’s arguments, readers must be prepared to accept her assertions that systemic racism forms a barrier to greater political participation in formal politics on the part of Chinese-Canadian and Chinese-American individuals and groups. She argues that, excluded from conventional politics, Chinese community-based organizations offer a parallel political “universe” where political skills and practices can be honed in the fight against racism and then transposed to formal mainstream politics. But because researchers do not traditionally view participation in anti-racist activism as political engagement in formal democratic processes, Fernando also wants to redefine political participation to include ethnocultural community organizations’ struggles against systemic racism.

Readers should not expect micro-level, rich ethnographic descriptions of internal community politics or archival histories and insider information drawn from private written documents. Nor does Fernando adopt the stance of cultural geographers such as Kay Anderson (1991), S. Hassan and D. Ley (1994), and David Lai (1988), or historian Wing Chung Ng (1999), who problematize the Chineseness of place in the politics of racialization. Fernando largely assumes ethnic Chinese spatiality in the two cities as a container for racial politics. We learn little about how such clusters emerged historically, how neighbourhood boundaries are contested and maintained, or how specific internal and external political struggles, tactics, and strategies transpire, under what conditions, and according to whom. 

I am generally sympathetic to Fernando’s arguments. Yet, having spent much of my formative adult years in Chinatown politics, I found that, at times, Race and the City tends to over-generalize and essentialize Chinese-Canadian-ness and Chinese-American-ness, particularly when calling for pan-Chinese/Asian ethnic mobilization as a necessary next stage in ethnic political participation and mobilization. In my view, the book fails to make this case largely because it idealizes community coalitions. In reality, those of Chinese ancestry may share little beyond an enjoyment of food and family. As members of a vastly dispersed and complex diaspora, Chinese communities in Canada and the United States exhibit a broad range of ideological positions, languages, religions, and regional and national identifications, among other points of difference. Consequently, these communities contain a multiplicity of self-help organizations. 

Fernando’s three-way typology of Chinese ethnic cultural organizations – survival and adjustment groups, civic and political development groups, advocacy and civil rights groups –  is based on a limited pool of organizations that are members of community-based umbrella organizations in the two cities. The typology is narrow and unidimensional. It leaves out Chinese ethnic groups that are not members, that may operate on other political terrain, and whose source of political identity may go beyond their “Chineseness” as defined by otherness in a multicultural framing. Indeed, in terms of political participation in formal politics, it may actually be counter-productive to build coalitions based on a single political agenda of combatting racisms, especially when manifestations of racism are known to be malleable, fluid, and adaptive to changing conditions and co-generated through intersections with other socially produced and contested categories of identity such as gender, class, citizenship, and sexualities.

Fernando offers interesting evidence, and her speculative, normative, and prescriptive assessments are worth pondering; but, ultimately, Race and the City left me hungry for more. Others may want to further explore her comparative methodology for understanding ethno-specific political participation and its implications for advancing urban, ethnic, and community-based anti-racism studies.


Anderson, K.J. 1991. Vancouver’s Chinatown: Racial Discourse in Canada, 1875-1980. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Lai, D.C. 1988. Chinatowns: Towns within Cities in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Hassan S., and D. Ley, eds. 1994. Neighbourhood Organizations and the Welfare State. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 

Ng, W.C. 1999. The Chinese in Vancouver, 1945-80: The Pursuit of Identity and Power. Vancouver: UBC Press.