The Method

This translocal reading of the album The Chinese Colony in Peru is grounded in a world history as method approach (Dirlik 2005). This approach challenges us to shift our conceptual focus from nations and transnationalism to places and the translocal processes and human motions that define and connect places.  Such an approach compels us to account for a proliferation of places and spaces, including supranational and subnational spaces, such as diasporic spaces, borderlands, contact zones, domestic spaces, rural and urban spaces, cores and peripheries, the uneven spaces of development and underdevelopment, and perhaps also the spatial imaginaries that help to animate human actions and historical processes. A translocal method also challenges us to deconstruct structural totalities, such as civilizations, nations, regions, empires, capitalism and markets, by paying attention to the human activity and social actors that fill out those spaces and processes. The point of a translocal approach is not simply to deconstruct the conventional spatial containers of history; it is "to view the past differently, to open up an awareness of what was suppressed in a historiography of order, and to take note of the importance of human activity, including intellectual and cultural activity, in creating the world" (Dirlik 2005, 404). If we are to embrace a translocal world-historical approach to the study of Asians in the Americas that moves us beyond the limits of methodological nationalism and transnationalism, which too often deconstruct the nation only to end up reifying it by defaulting back to nations as the central analytic units of history, we need radically new conceptualizations and categories to think through.

 

Borderlands approaches emphasizing translocal and transnational histories played a critical role in fomenting the recent expansion of scholarship on Asians in the Americas. Scholars working on Asians in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands have produced a number of recent works that shed light on borderlands as a site of intersection between global and local systems of migration, the role of anti-Asian violence in the consolidation of state sovereignty, the rich interracial histories that defy racialized border making, and the formation of ethnic commercial and human trafficking circuits that subvert exclusion acts by moving through borderlands (Romero 2011; Delgado 2012; Schiavone Camacho 2012; García 2014; Chew 2015; Castillo-Muñoz 2016; Chang 2017; Gonzalez 2017). Transpacific and hemispheric frameworks have also played an important role in shaping the new scholarship on Asians in the Americas. These works have situated the history of Chinese coolies in the Americas in relation to hemispheric and Atlantic world histories of black slavery; examined Chinese exclusion acts, Orientalism and yellow peril as hemispheric processes; explored empire as another spatial formation shaping migrant lives; analyzed patterns of remigration across the Americas; and detailed the importance of transpacific homeland ties in shaping Asian lives and identities in the Americas (Azuma 2005; Jung 2006; Yun 2008; Lopez 2013; Schiavone Camacho 2012; Seijas 2014; Young 2014; Lee 2015). This recent scholarship reveals the emerging field of study on Asians in the Americas to be a field defined by efforts to conceptualize migrant histories as multispatial and multiscalar histories grappling with the complex local, national, regional, hemispheric, translocal, transnational, transpacific, interregional, interimperial and global contours of migrant histories (Candela 2016, Delgado 2016).

 

Diasporic conceptualizations, such as Paul Gilroy's "Black Atlantic" and Henry Yu's "Cantonese Pacific," offer another useful framework capable of grappling with the multispatial realities of migrant histories, particularly when thinking about the activities of migrants whose lives brought together a complex set of social and cultural worlds (Gilroy 1993; Yu 2011). Diasporic concepts help us foreground these complex, multispatial worlds that migrants inhabited and made, worlds that defy bordered histories and geographies. Building on the emerging scholarship on Asians in the Americas and these diasporic approaches, this exhibit employs the concept of ecumene as a framework for conceptualizing the translocal histories and worlds of Asians migrants in the Americas and beyond.

Ecumene, a term used by geographers to describe "worlds of intense and sustained cultural interaction,” offers a way to conceptualize historical geographies that are all too easily eclipsed, erased and even violently destroyed by processes of nation, region and empire making (Comaroff and Comaroff 2000; Dirlik 2005). Engseng Ho’s conceptualization of a transcultural and transregional Islamic ecumene forged by the expansion of a Muslim trade diaspora into the Indian Ocean and beyond beginning in the 13th century offers a rich conceptualization of a diasporic ecumene (Ho 2006). Epili Hau'ofa's description of the Pacific as "Our Sea of Islands" and contemporary Pacific Islander activists' naming of the Pacific as "Oceania" offer other examples of such ecumene (Hau’ofa 1994; Wilson 2016). These Pacific islander ecumene counter hegemonic conceptualizations like the "Pacific Rim" and the "transpacific" in an effort to reclaim the worlds made by islander peoples that have inhabited and voyaged through the region since long before the arrival of European explorers, the unrelenting development rhythms of global capitalism and the destructive phases of militarization brought by US empire.

The reconceptualization of supranational social and cultural spaces as ecumene facilitates historical analyses that are translocal, enabling us to examine human lives and social and cultural worlds situated in relation to a complex set of interconnected historical places, spaces and processes without defaulting back into containing history within the unit of the nation, or some other hegemonic spatial conceptualization that eclipses more than it reveals. As Arif Dirlik suggests, ecumene may even be a productive analogy for conceptualizing the nation, which is always defined through the complex interaction of supranational and subnational dynamics (Dirlik 2005, 407).

This exhibit offers a reading of the The Chinese Colony in Peru as a snapshot of a Cantonese Peruvian ecumene, a translocal world defined by the lives and activities of Cantonese who migrated to Peru during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and who maintained social, cultural and economic ties to many other places and spaces in the world, but particularly to the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong Province in China and to Cantonese migrant communities across the Pacific. It might be more appropriate to imagine this Cantonese Peruvian ecumene as a subecumene, a particular temporal and geographic inflection of a bigger ecumene such as the Cantonese Pacific or a broader Chinese diasporic ecumene constituted through the expansion and fragmentation of Chinese migrant spaces across the world during different periods of time. The idea of a Cantonese Peruvian ecumene is similar to Madeline Hsu’s notion of a Taishanese “elastic community,” a translocal community that spanned from the Toisan-speaking native places in Xinning County of Guangdong Province to San Francisco, and perhaps many other places in the Americas that Taishanese migrated to beginning in the mid-19th century (Hsu 2000). Only, in this case, it is a snapshot of an ecumene approached from the one side of the Pacific, as presented in the album.

The Method