The Chinese Community – A Refuge From Mainstream Society

Chinese communities have long been a refuge from mainstream society. Until the repeal of the Exclusion Act in 1943, they were barred from voting, owning property, and having families join them.

Many settled in urban enclaves, where they could shop for familiar food, worship at traditional temples, and stay informed through newspapers. These associations also adjudicated disputes and spoke for the community to the larger world.

Cultural traditions

In China many ethnic groups, though they merge into Han Chinese identity, have retained distinct linguistic and regional cultural traditions. Each has its own traditional costumes, festivals and customs.

The Chinese value family, obedience and loyalty. Family is important for both emotional and social security. The concept of ‘face’, a measure of status, honour and dignity, is deeply rooted in their culture. People guard their ‘face’, so they try to avoid doing anything that could damage their reputation or cause them embarrassment.

Families celebrate the New Year together, worship ancestors, exorcise evil spirits and pray for good harvest. They clean their houses and decorate them with red couplets and lanterns, shop at temple fairs, visit flower markets and watch colourful street performances. Chinese children are expected to take care of their elderly parents. They prefer boys over girls, so the family structure is quite patriarchal. However, in modern times both boys and girls are valued equally, so the family structure has changed considerably.


Chinese is a complex group of tonal languages with an extensive internal variation. It can be difficult to determine which dialects are part of the same language family because they have varying levels of mutual intelligibility (see the diagram below from Ethnologue).

The various Chinese languages evolved over time due to war, political upheaval, social disruption and famine. As a result, a number of distinct languages developed, including Mandarin, Wu, Yue and Hakka.

The Chinese community in Oregon is diverse based on place of origin, socio-economic status and degree of cultural assimilation. Most can speak English and at least one of the several different Chinese dialects. In addition to traditional lineage and clan associations, affluent Chinese have established wooi-kun, or district associations organized around common surnames; professional guilds; and secret societies such as large fraternal lodges and smaller “fighting tongs.” They are well educated, resourceful and highly networked, and prioritize relationship building and trust over financial gain.


Due to climate differences, each region of China has its own food. People from northern areas have cold and damp weather, so they eat hot foods like chilies to warm up their body. Those from the southern area have warmer and more humid weather, so they prefer to eat mild and cooling foods to balance their yin and yang.

A Chinese meal usually includes 4-6 cold dishes, 8-10 hot dishes and soup. Different foods convey different meanings among Chinese people and indicate the closeness of their relationships. For example, shark fin soup is used to replenish strength and increase appetite, crocodile meat strengthens the bronchia and monkey brains add wisdom.

As Chinese immigrants assimilated into American culture, their dishes were introduced to other Asian cuisines that became popular in America. As a result, New York is home to many Chinese restaurants that serve various types of foods. For example, Empire East Chinese and Pan Asian Cuisine serves both Chinese and other Asian cuisines to its customers.


China has 56 different ethnic groups and their traditions vary widely. It is not unusual for many generations of a Chinese family to live under the same roof and it is very important to honour their ancestors. Traditional Chinese values are based upon Confucianism which stresses duty, sincerity and loyalty. The family framework is formal and strict in terms of hierarchal dominance and the elderly are accorded great respect.

The concept of courtesy (‘limao’) is very different from that in Australia. Because of the lifelong hierarchical relationships reflected in Confucian ideology, ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘excuse me’ are used very sparingly as they create an unnecessary distance from one person to another.

In modern times, the family structure is becoming more democratic as parents and grandparents are less demanding in their expectations but still expect a certain level of obedience from their children/grandchildren. This sense of courtesy and duty extends beyond the family to neighbours, friends and co-workers.

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