Today in the United States over 50 cities have their own Chinatown districts, with some of the most notable being San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, and Honolulu, Hawaii. These Chinatowns serve as a culinary hub and popular tourist destination, offering visitors and locals alike a unique cultural experience in their city.
Before Chinatowns were considered to be tourist attractions, they served a vital role in uniting Asian and Asian-American communities throughout the U.S. who often were mistreated and faced persecution. The goal was to create a safe space where Chinese-Americans and Asian immigrants could practice and preserve their culture without fear, and so they built these communities, often without any help from their local governments. This was accomplished by creating an intricate set of business networks and building acquisitions that would make Chinatown a desirable place to live, displaying the true creativity and resourcefulness of the Chinese immigrant community.
While there are many thriving Chinatowns to choose from all across America, today we will take a look at two of the most famous; San Francisco and New York City!
The oldest, and largest, Chinatown in the U.S. was established in San Francisco, California in 1848. The first Chinese immigrants to arrive in America came through the port of San Francisco at the height of the California gold rush to provide cheap labor for the construction of the Trans-Continental Pacific Railroad. Within just a decade, over 25,000 Chinese immigrants arrived in the U.S., and they are credited with constructing a majority of California’s infrastructure of this time.
Things quickly took a turn for the community, however, as the recession of 1873 was blamed on the Chinese immigrants, resulting in anti-Asian hate and backlash that was even included in government legislation. The perception was that the Chinese were too competitive and willing to do labor for a much cheaper price, so laws fought to exclude them, explains David Lei, Co-Founder of the Chinese Performing Arts Foundation.
Needing safety within their own community, the first Chinatown was established in San Francisco. Its location, both in the city center and in the only flat part of San Francisco, transformed it into a central hub for trade and commerce. After almost losing this strategic location to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the neighborhood entrepreneurs innovated and reinvented the town to be more attractive to visitors with faux-Chinese architecture and designs, which were hired to be built by white contractors so the city would allow for the construction.
Today, San Francisco’s Chinatown is one of the main tourist attractions in the city. Visitors come to taste dim sum, visit tea shops, and sing their hearts out at the many karaoke bars. Some of the most popular attractions include Dragons Gate which first welcomes you into the city, the China Live marketplace, and the Red Blossom Tea Company.
The model for San Francisco’s Chinatown is the blueprint for over 100 Chinatowns that exist all around the world, from London to South Africa, offering residents a vacation experience without ever having to leave their town.
New York City
Today, New York City boasts two vibrant and thriving Chinatowns, one in downtown Manhattan and the other in Flushing, Queens. Manhattan’s Chinatown developed first in the 1870s and was mainly composed of Chinese immigrants fleeing violence and persecution in the Western United States. At the time, downtown Manhattan was known as a hub for many immigrant groups. The Chinese predominantly settled into the streets of Mott, Pell, and Doyers, which over time expanded into the Chinatown we know today.
The Chinese residents of this area formed internal social structures and businesses, creating their own localized and self-sufficient governing body that gave the community housing, jobs, and even medical care. Into the early 1900s, Chinatown was overwhelmingly occupied by men, as was the general western frontier of the prior century as well. With Chinese immigrants being barred from white-collar jobs, they often found themselves doing “women's work” such as washing clothes or cooking food.
Today, Manhattan’s Chinatown continues to expand, with the Western half composed of Cantonese residents who came in the mid-1900s and the eastern portion predominantly Fujianese immigrants who arrived in more recent decades. The heart of Chinatown is Mott Street, which is often referred to as “Main Street”, which offers everything from boutique shops to Michelin Star dining experiences at affordable prices.
New York’s second Chinatown, in Flushing, Queens, began to form in the 1970s with the arrival of Mandarin-speaking Taiwanese immigrants, who wanted to form their own community after facing a language barrier with the Cantonese-speaking residents of Manhattan’s Chinatown. First referred to as “Little Taipei”, Flushing’s Chinese population has quickly overtaken the size of Manhattan’s Chinatown and is where you are more likely to spot China’s latest trends in fashion and cuisine.
Regardless of which Chinatown you decide to visit on your next trip to NYC, you are guaranteed to have an incredible dining, shopping, and cultural experience!
The Pandemics Impact
The Covid-19 pandemic was devastating for Chinatowns all across America, both financially as small and local businesses were forced to shut down, and emotionally, as Asian-Americans faced hate crimes and discrimination at an extreme rate due to racism and bigotry surrounding the virus originating in China. Store owners in Manhattan’s Chinatown experienced a 50% reduction in foot traffic. “Every Chinese community in the mid and far west became targets of violence,” said Gordon H. Chang, History Professor at Stanford University. Not only is this streak of violence terrifying for Asians all across the U.S., but it also has a profound impact on Asian businesses that rely heavily on foot traffic and tourism.
In the face of these challenges, many young residents are working to fill the gaps in their local communities, intervening where the government has been unable or unwilling to. Several organizations are working with local businesses in Chinatowns all over the U.S. to raise funding and help them digitize in order to expand their customer base.
The history of Chinese-American and Asian-American communities in America has displayed immense resilience, and they continue to adapt and innovate in the face of a near-constant threat. Generations continue to fight for this community's survival and show the hardworking and dedicated spirit of Asian immigrants here in the United States.