Immigration and Popular Culture

  1. Century of Immigration
  2. Promise & Prejudice
  3. Between Two Worlds: Identity & Acculturation
  4. Help Wanted? Immigration and Work
  5. Family & Community
  6. Immigration and Popular Culture
  7. Becoming American Home

Thursday, November 29th: 6-8pm at Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library Meeting Rooms A-C

Film: The Search for General Tso

The Search for General TsoProduced by Jennifer 8 Lee and Amanda Murray, directed and written by Ian Cheney, 2014
NEH supported Tribeca Film Festival Premiere Presentation,
2014 American Film Festival Official Documentary Selection
Seattle International Film Festival Official Selection
Independent Film Festival Boston Official Selection

Running time for film excerpt: 56.5 minutes

As much an immigration history as a culinary one, this entertaining and informative documentary uses the ubiquitous Americanized Chinese dish, General Tso’s chicken, as a lens onto a larger story of migration, adaptation and innovation in American popular culture.

Early on, the film poses the question, “If Chinese Americans comprise only 1% of the U.S. population, why are there Chinese restaurants in almost every city across America?” The filmmakers seek the answer in a thoughtful journey through the Chinese American experience, from the arrival of boatloads of immigrants to take part in the Gold Rush and the building of the railroads in the 19th century, all the way to the age of Panda Express.

On-air historians, chefs, critics, writers and Chinese restaurant enthusiasts provide engaging accounts of the history of early Chinese migration to America; the discriminatory and racially-motivated Chinese Exclusion Acts from the 1880’s that forced emigrants out of the labor market and into small business ownership; the modification of ‘exotic’ Chinese cuisine for American tastes; and the role of Chinese American community organizations in the dissemination of restaurants to the far corners of the country in order to avoid competition and discrimination on the West Coast.

The film visits Chinese restaurants in tiny towns and big cities across the country to discover how enterprising Chinese chefs adapted local food customs and preferences to create new and sometimes surprising culinary mash-ups – like cashew chicken, invented as a fried comfort food with brown sauce to please Midwestern tastes in Missouri, or Szechuan spicy alligator with lotus to delight the palates of Louisiana diners. The film also explores how America’s changing relationship with China influenced American demand for more authentic Chinese cooking.

As it proceeds, the search in the film’s title becomes a symbol for the more symbolic quest of Chinese Americans to find their place in a country that often feared and persecuted them, and how food created a bridge that eventually surpassed the early immigrants’ fondest dreams of success.

In so doing, the film also answers a question – “How did America’s Chinese food become so… American?” – a question that speaks to the role of popular culture in introducing the American mainstream to other cultures, and in helping immigrant populations become integrated into the greater American mosaic.

Humanities Themes

Generational changes in culture and identity: The dynamic realities of immigration and American popular culture make it impossible to speak simply of the “Jews,” or the “Vietnamese,” or the “Jamaicans.” It is crucial to be precise about historical moment and political and cultural situation. For some time historians, sociologists, and other scholars have been clear that we much be very careful about studying generational succession in immigrant populations and this is especially true in the case of popular culture production, imagery, and reception. Moves from city to suburb, changes in technology, language acquisition and development of new vernaculars all present themselves as important arenas of change for immigrant and ethnic Americans.

How different ethnicities are represented, and how that has changed over time: American popular culture has consistently made time and space for representations of newer migrants to the United States. The images surrounding these groups are unpredictable, unstable, and, at times, contradictory. A major theme to follow in this ongoing cultural conversation has to do with who has control over these representations: with this leverage comes the opportunity to define major questions surrounding belonging, citizenship, cultural fitness, and so on. No simple ranked list can do justice to the ever-shifting and contingent qualities of ethnic representation and cultural value.

Cultural debates over identity: Debates about cultural worth and group identity are carried out in numerous venues: in the world of fashion, in film, in popular music, in the production and presentation of ethnic food, and so on. What is most important here is that identity is neither an essential nor a fixed quality. American debates over ethnicity are characterized above all by positionality (i.e. who gets in the conversation and with what motivation) and power (who has best access to forces of production and circulation of cultural imagery).

Definition from inside vs. definition from outside: The dialectic of immigration and popular culture in the United States is structured by a competition between images, sounds, styles and so on created by the groups being represented as opposed to contributions made from the “outside.” American popular culture is rooted in the theatrical protocols and cultural habits attached to 19th century blackface minstrelsy. Given that blackface minstrelsy lies at the heart of American popular culture, it is hardly surprising that the popular culture industries would continue to rely on images of marginalized groups created by powerful figures from the dominant culture.

Use of familiar icons in new cultural settings: While new immigrant groups have consistently refreshed American popular culture – through their own creations and through the way they are used as material for the creations of others. But this does not mean that the wheel gets reinvented with the appearance of each new migration. Rather, American popular culture has demonstrated again and again how able it is to reuse and recycle: think, for instance, of the figure of the bad guy (whether gangster, outlaw, or gangsta) reimagined regularly in various contexts.

Cross-cultural meeting vs. cultural appropriation: One question in studying immigration and popular culture has to do with the relationship between cross-cultural meeting, on the one hand, and cultural appropriation on the other. The former implies a meeting of people and groups who operate more or less as equals; the latter suggests a hierarchical relationship featuring more powerful actors taking on the sights, sounds, and cultural practices of the weaker. Since the time of stage minstrelsy American audiences have been presented with the challenging dynamics of cultural borrowing: the ethics, economics, and pleasures of these intergroup activities, especially in the context of migration, prove consistently difficult to sort through.