Friday November 03, 2023
Rubbernecking in Chinatown, 1909
I didn't mention it in my review, but when I was watching “Chinatown Nights,” the 1929 William Welman-helmed gangster flick starring Wallace Beery, I wondered about that opening scene where our leading lady gets away from a handsy date by hopping a tour bus going through Chinatown, with the guide talking up such details as “sacred joss houses” and “ancient secret orders of the great Tong.”
Was this a thing? I wondered. Tour buses of Chinatown?
Send a question out into the universe and I guess eventually you'll get an answer. Reading Yunte Huang's “Daughter of the Dragon: Anna May Wong's Rendezvous with American History,” I came across this:
Chinatown's emergence into America's national consciousness coincided with the early growth of the film industry. In the waning days of the nineteenth century, “slumming” trips to Chinatown became a fad. Aided by magazines that began to feature essays on the ethnic enclave, describing exotic menus in restaurants, offerings in curio shops, and the heathen ways of life there, Chinatown became a destination for burgeoning tourism. As one historian writes, “By 1909, so-called rubberneck automobiles, accompanied by a 'megaphone man,' who provided a commentary on the urban landscape, would take the curious spectator on a tour through Chinatown, which included visits to a joss house [shrine], a theater, and a restaurant.” Indeed, the touring automobile, with its ascending rows of seats, looked a bit like a mobile theater. Costing one to two dollars per person, these trips attracted mostly the more affluent who had money to spare, while the masses would have to satisfy their curiosity and cravings simply by going to the movies.
The history is interesting, the writing so-so.