Tradition as a Tool: Designing Culture and Negotiating Power in Chinatown, Sydney

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Emily Burke


This article uses ideas of Postmodernism to examine how and why tradition has been manipulated in Chinatown, Sydney. It looks firstly at the redevelopment of Chinatown in the late 1970s, and how traditions have been used to evoke a sense of Chinese culture. It interprets this use of tradition through the notion of the simulacra. This leads to a criticism of Chinatown as a tourist attraction, and analysing the effect tourism has on tradition and why. However, the involvement of the local Chinese community draws out the use of tourism as a tool of political and social empowerment. The discussion broadens to analyse the relevance of the commodification of culture for Sydney, specifically looking at the notion of a multicultural identity formed through traditions that construct an imagined nation. Multiculturalism means a collection of differentiated cultures, but its effect is to create hybrid ones, and ultimately one identity of the multicultural. The article then constructs other arguments against Multiculturalism, including that it enables policy based on elitist, romanticised versions of culture, as in the commodification of Chinatown; that it obscures real social inequalities; and that it allows imperialist voyeurism of the exotic in the same way that the West historically studied the Orient.

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