Authentic Inauthenticity

chinatown bencha simple bench made of packing crates reinforces the charming illusion of Chinatown

Part of the allure of San Francisco’s Chinatown is that it was conceived as, and remains a study in authentic inauthenticity. Despite the fact that China has emerged as a global economic power, people from all over the world are drawn to the colorful neighborhood shops, crammed with kitschy souvenirs of a re-imagined, Asian exotica.

In a way, the illusion is the perfect front, reinforcing the Western perception that China is a nonthreatening, pre-industrial giant resigned to making cheap knock-offs for tourists on a budget. A contemporary ‘Chinatown’ in any American city might resemble something more like a high end, design-driven shopping center, with modernist buildings, innovative restaurants and luxury emporiums.

Given that the tables have been turned in regard to our relationship to China, it seems more appropriate to envision an ‘Americatown’ in any of China’s thriving cities, perhaps in the form of a WW2 era New York- a Woolworth’s with a lunch counter, a jazz club, barbershop and movie theater, showing vintage movies and news reels.

When things are designed and made to be sold, ‘authenticity’ is defined as much by the consumer as by the maker.


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