Discussing North American Chinatowns: A Tour Guide Manual | Ozzie Gong

 [Bonnie Tsui]

All the things he saw in Chinatown, these pagoda roofs, these dragon gates, these flourishes that to us signal China and Chinese-ness, there were things that he actually hadn’t seen in back in China for years and years and years, and they were not used in that architectural vernacular back there. And so he wondered how Chinatown in this really supposedly modern America was… why did it feel older than the oldest parts of Hong Kong where he’d grown up?

[Chelsea Davis]
Because it was designed that way.

In the podcast “It’s Chinatown” by 99% Invisible (2018)the speakers share stories about the history and background of the San Francisco Chinatown, the oldest and largest Chinatown in North America, and the success of tourism and its affect on the planning and building of other Chinatowns is discussed.

The residual of past Chinese (and Japanese) immigrants actions as they made shelter, food and adjusted to a new foreign place—of holding on to or letting go of aspects of the home they left behind—in order to be accepted in their new social/geographical setting is evident throughout North America. Alterations found in the music, food, architecture of the Chinese diaspora demonstrate: attempts of Chinese people to assimilate. Misrepresentations of these, on the part of Westerners (musicians, cooks, architects and builders) demonstrates an attempt to capture, and a misguided interest to interact with the eastern world. Moreover, a paper by Santos, Belhassen, and Caton has pointed out the marketability of a neighborhood that is considered as “Other”, such as the Chinatown, and work that exoticizes this neighborhood while simultaneously reconstructing this “Otherness” in a way that appears friendly to tourists (Santos, Belhassen, & Caton, 2008). It is evident that the exoticismof something like Chinatown in North America makes an ideal fuel for tourism and brings up local economies. These findings, led to my designed outcome for this project.

I gathered photos of architecture and food, that I had taken in Vancouver’s Chinatown, along with images found online, and made a tourist guide, a booklet for an imaginary Chinatown, a hybrid Disney-fied amalgamation—a discursive design act—responding to the Chinatowns of Chicago, San Francisco, New York, and Vancouver. My Disneyland version of Chinatown was intended as concentrated version of all four Chinatowns that I had been to, and exploration of the political reasons for building and maintaining these sites far away from China. On each page, the booklet features “specialties” of an integrated Chinatown, including North American Chinese food, North American-Chinese architecture mentioned above, and clothing such as the qipao (cheongsam), which originated from the feminine dresses of the Manchu people, but was considered as the iconic clothing for Chinese women by North American acknowledgement.

While this Tour Guide Manual started as an intuitive response to my primary research (observations, and walking in local Chinatowns, reflection of my own experience as a member of the Chinese diaspora) and secondary research into histories of these places, the act of making it moved me beyond taking the stance of documenter to one of commentator. There is an efficiency to irony as a means to get a point across. In the case of my tourist guide, irony seemed a more appropriate means of communicating these cultural inconsistencies of the diaspora rather than the affirmative one I usually associated with communication design. I saw this work not as a means of promotion of a place (for Chinatown), but rather as a way to critique of (what’s not “authentic Chinese”): the food, clothes, and architecture. In my trying to sort through these realities, I was aware that languages (different ones spoken and written) play a significant role in how we understand place and culture. I chose to use two languages in my tourist book for my alternate hybrid Chinatown reality. The final page of the booklet says “thank you for visiting”. It also incudes the statement “感謝惠顧,請下次再來”—the Chinese equivalent—which translates as “thank you for spending money, come back to shop again”. The two versions of the statement serving to demonstrate two different cultural-economic perspectives. An ironic nod that could only be understood by an English-Chinese bilingual person.

Designer's Bio

Xi (Ozzie) Gong was born in Chengdu, Sichuan, China. Having grown up with her grandparents and enjoyed reading classical Chinese literature from an early age, her love for Chinese literature, art, culture, and lifestyle grew tremendously. Throughout her life, Ozzie has always been fascinated by topics related to culture and cultural issues.

Coming from a background in Graphic Design, Ozzie’s main practices include publication design, printmaking, illustration, and photography. Currently, she is developing her skills in curation, space/exhibition design, and animation.

Ozzie can be contacted at ozziexgong@gmail.com. Check out more of her work at ozziegong.com !


“It’s Chinatown”. (2018, August 14). Retrieved from 99percentinvisible.org/episode/its-chinatown/

Santos, C. A., Belhassen, Y., & Caton, K. (2008). Reimagining Chinatown: An analysis of tourism discourse. Tourism Management29(5), 1002–1012. doi: 10.1016/j.tourman.2008.01.002