Skip to Content

The Story of Chinatown Designs in North America

Chinatowns are a vital and rich part of most major cities, yet their history and inception are fraught and painful. Join me in discovering the story of North American Chinatowns, and how they have evolved to present day. 

 

At their height, there were dozens of Chinatowns, in big metro areas like Los Angeles and Chicago and in smaller cities like Cleveland and Oklahoma City. You might think of these neighborhoods as places to eat dim sum and buy knickknacks, but the reasons they initially formed are much more complex — and political. Seeking economic opportunity during the Gold Rush and the building of the transcontinental railroad, the first wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1800s. The first Chinatowns sprang up on the West Coast and were, at the start, much like ethnic settlements founded by European immigrant groups.

Economic opportunity drove the building of further Chinatowns in the United States. The initial Chinatowns were built in the Western United States in states such as California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Arizona. As the transcontinental railroadwas built, more Chinatowns started to appear in railroad towns such as St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Butte, Montana. Chinatowns then subsequently emerged in many East Coast cities, including New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Providence and Baltimore. With the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, many southern states such as Arkansas, Louisiana and Georgia began to hire Chinese for work in place of slave labor.

 

Ghettoization of Chinatowns

Housing and labor discrimination kept Chinese immigrants from being able to live and work outside of Chinatown. During the exclusion era, it was difficult for Chinese immigrants to find a place to live outside of Chinatown. “In the broadest strokes, Chinatowns were products of extreme forms of racial segregation,”Beginning in the late 19th century and really through the 1940s and ’50s, there was what we can call a regime of Asian exclusion: a web of laws and social practices and ideas designed to shut out Asians completely from American life.” says Ellen D. Wu, history professor at Indiana University Bloomington and author of The Color Of Success: Asian Americans And The Origins Of The Model Minority. “That’s really how Chinatowns came into being,” Wu adds, “not how we think about them now, as a fun place to get a meal or buy some tchotchkes, but as a way to contain a very threatening population in American life.”

Several Western states passed laws that prohibited Chinese immigrants from owning property. In Manhattan’s Chinatown, Chen says, some Italian immigrants sold buildings to the Chinese, but it was difficult to find white landlords who would sell to them on other parts of the island.Chinese immigrants also were barred from most industries, aside from the hand-laundry and restaurant businesses. It strengthened Chinatown that whites basically refused to work with the Chinese: Chinese immigrants had to find work through self-employment.

Because of the Exclusion Act, male laborers who came to the U.S. to work on the railroad could not be reunited with their families back in China. As a result, Chinatowns before World War II were disproportionately populated by men. They were viewed by white Americans as “depraved colonies of prostitutes, gamblers and opium addicts bereft of decency,” Wu wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed earlier this year.

 

Hate Crimes and Segregation

These immigrants were paid lower wages than white workers, who then blamed Chinese laborers for driving down pay and taking away jobs. After the railroad was completed and white laborers in other industries began to fear for their jobs,anti-Chinese attacks increased, including beatings, arson and murder. In Rock Springs, Wyoming, 150 armed white miners drove Chinese immigrants out of town in 1885 by setting fire to their homes and businesses and murdering 28 people. No one was charged in the massacre. It was hardly an isolated incident;153 anti-Chinese riots erupted throughout the American West in the 1870s and 1880s, with some of the worst episodes of violence in Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle and Tacoma, Washington.

Many Chinese immigrants moved east to escape the attacks, explains Beatrice Chen, public programs director for the Museum of Chinese in America, located in New York. “That’s really how Chinatowns on the East Coast got their start,” she tells HuffPost. At the same time, Chinese immigrants who remained on the West Coast sought safety in numbers in the Chinatowns there. The complex relationship the Chinese had with the city of San Francisco and the community’s hybrid social structure gave rise to distinct architectural features. These could be seen in the picturesque balconies and pediments, restaurants, and curio shops in the area. 

 

The discrimination faced by the Chinese American immigrants highly influenced the physical environment of Chinatown. Discrimination and government policies kept the Chinese constricted to a small area at the western edge of the central business district. The Chinese people were banned from owning property by the State of California and were left to the mercy of the American landlords. The lack of space led to the formation of hybrid residential and commercial buildings in every space leftover in the city, creating a crowded and densely populated urban area. 

What first began as a ghettoized space by colonialists used to contain and segregate a predominantly displaced Chinese male bachelor society from the rest of society, Vancouver’s Chinatown has hardened to survive major threats to its existence — race riots, the TransCanada highway, and gentrification — and has now become a contested space between real estate developers, small businesses, and those who reside there. As Chinatown is very much a cultural and historic relic of Canada, the city of Vancouver and the province of British Columbia have pushed to have Chinatown designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

 

The Architecture of Chinatown 

In the 19th century, most buildings were multi-use and made of brick with no ornament or decoration except for the windows sills. There was no formal zoning followed in the area. Because of the lack of space, each multi-storied building had various uses juxtaposed within it. The storefronts of food and produce were opened out into the street so that the vendors could display their goods on hooks and counters. It was also common for the owner or employee of a store to live in an apartment in the same building. The restaurant business was one of Chinatown’s key elements, with Chinese restaurants popping up around every corner. The interiors of the slightly bigger restaurants were decorated with carved panels and wooden screens with geometric and abstract patterns imported from Guangdong.

The Chinese Opera became a wildly popular means of entertainment in San Francisco. The Shanghai Theatre and the Chinese Theater were popular opera houses where companies would come for a season of performances or more. Three other major means of entertainment in the almost completely male Chinese community were gambling, prostitution, and opium smoking. During the early 1850s, several Chinese gambling houses and brothels appeared in clusters around Sacramento Street and Bartlett Alley. Opium establishments would be in the dark and dingy basements of these buildings. 

 

Initially, there were very few women and families, so the most common form of residence was the residential hotel. A lot of the Chinese lived in houses that were prefabricated structures imported from Hong Kong during immigration. These were about 28 sq ft and 12ft high and made from a wooden frame composed of round timbers with a covering put over it. After the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, the Chinese got the opportunity to redesign their space to better represent their culture and social structure. They created an environment filled with monuments for prominent associations, commercial buildings, and Christian institutions. The new buildings had to conform to the existing roughly rectangular Chinatown plots with only one edge exposed to a street or alley. Chinese institutional buildings usually had axially symmetrical facades with a centrally placed entry gate opening onto a courtyard or the main hall. All the new buildings utilized brick construction instead of the original wood frame construction. 

Benevolent Associations

 

A major component of many Chinatowns is the family benevolent association, which provides some degree of aid to immigrants. These associations generally provide social support, religious services, death benefits (members’ names in Chinese are generally enshrined on tablets and posted on walls), meals, and recreational activities for ethnic Chinese, especially for older Chinese migrants. Membership in these associations can be based on members sharing a common Chinese surname or belonging to a common clan, spoken Chinese dialect, specific village, region or country of origin, and so on. Many have their own facilities.

Some examples include San Francisco’s prominent Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, aka Chinese Six Companies and Los Angeles’ Southern California Teochew Association. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association is among the largest umbrella groups of benevolent associations in the North America, which branches in several Chinatowns. Politically, the CCBA has traditionally been aligned with the Kuomintang and the Republic of China. The London Chinatown Chinese Association is active in Chinatown, London. Chinatown, Paris has an institution in the Association des Résidents en France d’origine indochinoise and it servicing overseas Chinese immigrants in Paris who were born in the former French Indochina.

Traditionally, Chinatown-based associations have also been aligned with ethnic Chinese business interests, such as restaurant, grocery, and laundry (antiquated) associations in Chinatowns in North America. In Chicago’s Chinatown, the On Leong Merchants Association was active.

The Expansion of Chinatowns 

By the late 1970s, refugees and exiles from the Vietnam War played a significant part in the redevelopment of Chinatowns in developed Western countries. As a result, many existing Chinatowns have become pan-Asian business districts and residential neighborhoods. By contrast, most Chinatowns in the past had been largely inhabited by Chinese from southeastern China. In 2001, the events of September 11 resulted in a mass migration of about 14,000 Chinese workers from Manhattan’s Chinatown to Montville, Connecticut, due to the fall of the garment industry. Chinese workers transitioned to casino jobs fueled by the development of the Mohegan Sun casino. In 2012, Tijuana’s Chinatown formed as a result of availability of direct flights to China. The La Mesa District of Tijuana was formerly a small enclave, but has tripled in size as a result of direct flights to Shanghai. It has an ethnic Chinese population rise from 5,000 in 2009 to roughly 15,000 in 2012, overtaking Mexicali’s Chinatown as the largest Chinese enclave in Mexico.

 

The 6 Most Historic Chinatowns in North America

1.San Francisco 

San Francisco Chinatown is the largest Chinatown outside of Asia as well as the oldest Chinatown in North America. It is one of the top tourist attractions in San Francisco. Since its establishment in 1848,  it has been important and influential in the history and culture of ethnic Chinese immigrants in North America. Chinatown is an enclave that has retained its own customs, languages, places of worship, social clubs, and identity. There are two hospitals, several parks and squares, numerous churches, a post office, and other infrastructure. Recent immigrants, many of whom are elderly, opt to live in Chinatown because of the availability of affordable housing and their familiarity with the culture. San Francisco’s Chinatown is also renowned as a major tourist attraction, drawing more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge.

Within Chinatown there are two major north–south thoroughfares. One is Grant Avenue, with the Dragon Gate (“Chinatown Gate” on some maps) at the intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue, designed by landscape architects Melvin Lee and Joseph Yee and architect Clayton Lee; Saint Mary’s Square with a statue of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen by Benjamin Bufano; a war memorial to Chinese war veterans; and stores, restaurants and mini-malls that cater mainly to tourists. The other, Stockton Street, is frequented less often by tourists, and it presents an authentic Chinese look and feel reminiscent of Hong Kong, with its produce and fish markets, stores, and restaurants. It is dominated by mixed-use buildings that are three to four stories high, with shops on the ground floor and residential apartments upstairs. During the time from 2009 to 2013, the median household income was $20,000 – compared to $76,000 citywide – with 29% of residents below the national poverty threshold. The median age was 50 years, the oldest of any neighborhood. As of 2015, two thirds of the residents lived in one of Chinatown’s 105 single room occupancy hotels (SRO), 96 of which had private owners and nine were owned by nonprofits. There are two public housing projects in Chinatown, Ping Yuenand North Ping Yuen. 

In the 1850s, Chinese pioneers, mainly from villages in the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong, began immigrating in large numbers to San Francisco, initially drawn by the California Gold Rush and the building of the first transcontinental railroad, and settling in Chinatown for refuge from the hostilities in the West.  Surviving the ravages of the 1880s, Chinatown became a haven for later waves of emigrants from China in the 20th century Working-class Hongkonger emigrants began arriving in large numbers in the late 1960s. Despite their status and professional qualifications in Hong Kong, many took low-paying employment in restaurants and garment factories in Chinatown because of limited English. An increase in Cantonese-speaking emigrants from Hong Kong and Mainland China has gradually led to the replacement in Chinatown of the Hoisanese dialect by the standard Cantonese dialect.

Due to such overcrowding and poverty, other Chinese areas have been established within the city of San Francisco proper, including one in its Richmond and three more in its Sunset districts, as well as a recently established one in the Visitacion Valley neighborhood. These outer neighborhoods have been settled largely by Chinese from Southeast Asia.  Despite these developments, many continue to commute in from these outer neighborhoods and cities to shop in Chinatown, causing gridlock on roads and delays in public transit, especially on weekends. To address this problem, the local public transit agency, Muni, is planning to extend the city’s subway network to the neighborhood via the new Central Subway.

Unlike in most Chinatowns in the United States, ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam have not established businesses in San Francisco’s Chinatown district, due to high property values and rents. Instead, many Chinese-Vietnamese – as opposed to ethnic Vietnamese who tended to congregate in larger numbers in San Jose – have established a separate Vietnamese enclave on Larkin Street in the heavily working-class Tenderloin district of San Francisco, where it is now known as the city’s “Little Saigon”. San Francisco Chinatown restaurants are considered to be the birthplace of Americanized Chinese cuisine such as food items like Chop Suey while introducing and popularizing Dim Sum to American tastes, as its Dim Sum tea houses are a major tourist attraction. Johnny Kan was the proprietor of one of the first modern style Chinese restaurants, which opened in 1953. Many of the district’s restaurants have been featured in food television programs on Chinese cuisine such as Martin Yan’s Martin Yan – Quick & Easy.

 

2. Vancouver 

Vancouver’s Chinatown is the largest Chinatown in Canada. It’s famous for its restaurants, stores, Sun Yat-Sen Garden and annual Chinese New Year Parade. The area is located primarily along Pender, Main and Keefer Streets, between Gastown and the Downtown Eastside (which isn’t actually the nicest part of the city). Due to the large ethnic Chinese presence in Vancouver — especially represented by mostly Cantonese-speaking multi-generation Chinese Canadians and first-generation immigrants from Hong Kong — the city has been referred to as “Hongcouver”.  However, most immigration in recent years has been Mandarin-speaking residents from Mainland China. Chinatown remains a popular tourist attraction and is one of the largest historic Chinatowns in North America, but it experienced recent decline as newer members of Vancouver’s Chinese community dispersed to other parts of the metropolitan area.

Chinese immigrants, primarily men, first came to Vancouver in large numbers during the late 19th century, attracted in part by the British Columbia gold rush of 1858 and then the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s. In the census of 1880–81, the total Chinese population in Canada was 4,383, of which the overwhelming majority (4,350) resided in British Columbia. After the completion of the railroad, under the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885, a head tax of CA$50 per person was levied solely on Chinese immigrants to discourage further settlement; the head tax was raised to $100 in 1900 and then $500 in 1903.

By 1900, Chinatown covered the four square blocks bounded by Canton Alley (on the west), Hastings Street (on the north), Keefer Street (on the south), and Main Street (on the east, named Westminster Avenue at the time), with Pender Street (then called Dupont) as the main commercial district. During this time, Vancouver’s Red Light district was present in the area, undergoing routine police checks and attempts to clean up the area. By 1906, the Dupont brothels were forced to close. As a result, several brothels and businesses moved to two parallel dirt paved, dead-end lanes off of Dupont, West of Carrall: Shanghai Alley and Canton Alley. While these immigrants were dispersed throughout Chinatown, they strongly concentrated these areas. In 1896, the health officer for the City of Vancouver reported the city had to destroy houses in Chinatown “owing to their filthy condition” and that “one could hardly pass through the [Chinatown] quarter without holding one’s nose.” Another health officer noted “The Chinese merchants and employers of labour endeavour to assist the health officials, and are, as a rule, willing to co-operate and help in this matter, but the lower classes of Chinese emigrants give a great deal of trouble unless constantly watched,” concluding that continued immigration would lead to “circumstances and conditions which predispose to infectious disease, and serve to spread it rapidly when once it is roused into activity.” This perception only worsened with the turn of the district. Residents of the area where said to face continuous “white hostility and discrimination” due to three main vices, drug problems, gambling and sex work. As these perceptions grew, the discrimination turned to violence, resulting in a destructive raid in 1907 that caused irreversible damage to the area.

 

In 1979, the Chinatown Historic Area Planning Committee sponsored a streetscape improvement program to add various Chinese-style elements to the area, such as specially paved sidewalks and red dragon streetlamps that demarcated the area’s borders while emphasizing it as a destination for heritage tourism. Starting with its designation by the province as a historic area in 1971 and subsequent economic shifts, Chinatown shifted from a central business district to playing a largely cultural role. Murality, a local non-profit, is installing a mural on East Pender Street with the aim of bringing colour and vitality to the neighbourhood. The growth of Chinatown during much of the 20th century created a healthy, robust community that gradually became an aging one as many Chinese immigrants no longer lived nearby.

Vancouver experienced large numbers of immigrants from the Asia-Pacific region in the last two decades of the twentieth century, most notably from China, whose population in the Vancouver Census Metropolitan Area was estimated at 300,000 in the mid-1990s.  A significant development since the 1980s has been the increase of transnational awareness among the Chinese. The heightened mobility of capital, information, people, and commodities across territorial boundaries and distance challenged the traditional meaning of migration. Today the neighbourhood features many traditional restaurants, banks, markets, clinics, tea shops, clothing stores, and other shops catering to the local community and tourists alike.The new Chinatown business plan encourages new entrepreneurs to move in—and has attracted a longboard store and German sausage shop—as ways of restoring storefronts and bringing in a younger crowd, and to make higher-income people more comfortable in the area. Attracted to the lower rent and the building’s heritage status, younger businesses have moved in, often with white owners who also live in apartments above the shops. After being displayed for almost 20 years at its current location, the gate was rebuilt and received a major renovation of its façade employing stone and steel. 

 

3. New York

The New York metropolitan area, consisting of New York City, Long Island, and nearby areas within the states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania, is home to the largest Chinese-American population of any metropolitan area within the United States and the largest Chinese population outside of China, enumerating an estimated 893,697 in 2017, and including at least 12 Chinatowns, including nine in New York City proper alone. Steady immigration from Mainland China, both legal and illegal, has fueled Chinese-American population growth in the New York metropolitan area. New York’s status as an alpha global city, its extensive mass transit system, and the New York metropolitan area’s enormous economic marketplace are among the many reasons it remains a major international immigration hub. The Manhattan Chinatown contains the largest concentration of ethnic Chinese in the Western hemisphere, and the Flushing Chinatown in Queens has become the world’s largest Chinatown, though it has also emerged as the epicenter of organized prostitution in the United States.

Historically, Chinatown was primarily populated by Cantonese speakers. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, large numbers of Fuzhounese-speaking immigrants also arrived and formed a sub-neighborhood annexed to the eastern portion of Chinatown east of The Bowery, which has become known as Little Fuzhou.  Ah Ken is claimed to have arrived in the area during the 1850s; he is the first Chinese person credited as having permanently immigrated to Chinatown. As a Cantonese businessman, Ah Ken eventually founded a successful cigar store on Park Row. He first arrived around 1858 in New York City, where he was “probably one of those Chinese mentioned in gossip of the sixties [1860s] as peddling ‘awful’ cigars at three cents apiece from little stands along the City Hall park fence – offering a paper spill and a tiny oil lamp as a lighter”, according to author Alvin Harlowin Old Bowery Days: The Chronicles of a Famous Street (1931). 

In the 1850s, the California Gold Rush brought a wave of Chinese immigration to the United States. Approximately 25,000 Chinese immigrants left their homes in search for gam saan (“gold mountain”) in California. In New York, immigrants found work as “cigar men” or carrying billboards, and Ah Ken’s particular success encouraged cigar makers William Longford, John Occoo, and John Ava to also ply their trade in Chinatown, eventually forming a monopoly on the cigar trade. It has been speculated that it may have been Ah Ken who kept a small boarding house on lower Mott Street and rented out bunks to the first Chinese immigrants to arrive in Chinatown. It was with the profits he earned as a landlord, earning an average of $100 per month, that he was able to open his Park Row smoke shop around which modern-day Chinatown would grow. n the years after the United States enacted the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, allowing many more immigrants from Asia into the country, the population of Chinatown increased dramatically. Geographically, much of the growth occurred in neighborhoods to the north. The Chinatown grew and became more oriented toward families due to the lifting of restrictions.  In the earliest years of the existence of Manhattan’s Chinatown, it had been primarily populated by Taishanese-speaking Chinese immigrants and the borderlines of the enclave was originally Canal Street to the north, Bowery to the east, Worth Street to the south, and Mulberry Street to the west. 

 

A significant difference between the two separate Chinese provincial communities in Manhattan’s Chinatown is that the Cantonese part of Chinatown not only serves Chinese customers but is also a tourist attraction. However, the Fuzhou part of Chinatown caters less to tourists.

By 2007, luxury condominiums began to spread from SoHo into Chinatown. Previously, Chinatown was noted for its crowded tenements and primarily Chinese residents. While some projects have targeted the Chinese community, the development of luxury housing has increased Chinatown’s economic and cultural diversity. Since the early 2000s, there has been a continuously increasing number of buildings in Chinatown, neighboring Two Bridges, and the Lower East Side, taken over by new landlords and real estate developers, who then charged higher rents and/or demolished the buildings to build newer structures.  Often, whenever this happens, many Fuzhounese tenants are more likely to be evicted, especially in the eastern portion of Chinatown, where illegal subdivision, overcrowding, lack of leases, and lack of immigrant paperwork are common. In addition, since the 2000s, there have been city officials inspecting apartment buildings and cracking down on illegal units. With tenants that have rent-stabilized leases, legal residency documents, no apartment subdivisions, and a lesser probability of subletting over capacity—most of whom are long-time Cantonese residents—it is usually harder for the newer landlords to be able to force these tenants out, especially including the western portion of Chinatown, which is still mainly Cantonese populated. However, newer landlords still continuously try find other loopholes to force them out.

 

For much of Chinatown’s history, there were few unique architectural features to announce to visitors that they had arrived in the neighborhood (other than the language of the shop signs). In 1962, the Lieutenant Benjamin Ralph Kimlau Memorial archway at Chatham Square was erected in memorial of the Chinese-Americans who died in World War II, designed by local architect Poy Gum Lee(1900–1968).  This memorial bears calligraphy by the great Yu Youren. A statue of Lin Zexu, also known as Commissioner Lin, a Foochowese Chinese official who opposed the opium trade, is also located at the square; it faces uptown along East Broadway, now home to the bustling Fuzhou neighborhood and known locally as Fuzhou Street. 

More decorations and cultural institutions followed. In the 1970s, New York Telephone, then the local phone company, started capping the street phone booths with pagoda-like decorations. In 1976, the statue of Confucius in front of Confucius Plaza became a common meeting place. In the 1980s, banks that opened new branches and others that were renovating started to use Chinese traditional styles for their building facades. The Church of the Transfiguration, a national historic site built in 1815, stands off Mott Street. The Chinese American experience has been documented at the Museum of Chinese in America in Manhattan’s Chinatown since 1980. In addition, Pearl River Mart, which opened in 1971, has become one of the more notable family-owned stores in Chinatown.

 

4. Mexico City 

Barrio Chino is a neighbourhood located in the downtown area of Mexico City, near the Palacio de Bellas Artes. The neighborhood is located on two blocks of Dolores Street and consists of a number of restaurants and businesses that import goods. The neighborhood consists of approximately 3,000 families with Chinese heritage in Mexico City.

The history of Barrio Chino is tied with the history of Chinese immigration to Mexico and Mexico City spans the decades between the 1880s and the 1940s-1950s. Between the years 1880 and 1910, during the term of President Porfirio Diaz, the Mexican government was trying to modernize the country, especially in building railroads and developing the sparsely populated northern states. When the government could not attract enough Western European immigrants, it was decided to allow Chinese workers into the country. At first, small Chinese communities appeared mostly in the north of the country, but by the early 20th century, Chinese communities could be found in many parts of the country, including Mexico City. 

 

A census done at the very end of the 19th century shows only 40 people registered as Chinese in Mexico City, but by 1910, that number had grown to 1,482. With the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, many Chinese in the northern states headed south to the city, both to escape the fighting and to escape nativist sentiment which had been particularly aimed at the Chinese.  This culminated in 1911, with 303 Chinese slaughtered in the Torreón massacre.  The Chinese in Mexico City congregated on Dolores Street one block south of the Alameda Central and the Palacio de Bellas Artes, in the historic center of Mexico City. They were basically businesspeople, opening restaurants, laundries, bakeries and lard shops. While initially, this population was confined to this particular neighborhood between 1910 and 1930, Chinese-owned businesses appeared in a number of other parts of the city, especially in the historic downtown. Comunidad China de México, A. C. sponsors festivals and cultural events to preserve and promote Chinese-Mexican culture in the neighborhood. By far the largest festival sponsored is the annual Chinese New Year’s celebration, which has as cosponsors organizations such as the borough of Cuauhtemoc and Coca-Cola. It is generally held on the weekend closest to the actual date of new year’s and crowds squeeze into the two-block stretch of Dolores Street to see Lion dances, fireworks and other traditional new year’s traditions and eat traditional foods such as steamed buns and roast suckling pig.

When you think Chinatown, you probably think of the classic archway welcoming you into the neighbourhood. The Chinese Arch in Mexico City was unveiled on 16 February 2008 as part of an effort to convert the small neighborhood into a tourist attraction. The arch was inaugurated by Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard and Chinese ambassador Yen Hengmin to pay tribute to Chinese immigration into the city as well as to improve relations between the city and the country of China. The arch is located at the Santos Degollado Plaza, one block west of Dolores Street. The arch is made of steel-reinforced concrete, covered ceramic, granite and marble, and is decorated with two large statues of lions on each side

 

5. Boston 

Chinatown, Boston is a neighborhood located in downtown Boston, Massachusetts. It is the only surviving historic ethnic Chinese enclave in New England since the demise of the Chinatowns in Providence, Rhode Island and Portland, Maine after the 1950s. Because of the high population of Asians and Asian Americans living in this area of Boston, there is an abundance of Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants located in Chinatown. It is one of the most densely populated residential areas in Boston and serves as the largest center of its East Asian and Southeast Asian cultural life. Chinatown borders the Boston Common, Downtown Crossing, the Washington Street Theatre District, Bay Village, the South End, and the Southeast Expressway/Massachusetts Turnpike. Boston’s Chinatown is one of the largest Chinatowns outside of New York City. 

Part of the Chinatown neighborhood occupies a space that was reclaimed by filling in a tidal flat. The newly created area was first settled by Anglo-Bostonians. After residential properties in this area became less desirable due to railway developments, it was settled by a mixed succession of Irish, Jewish, Italian, Lebanese, and Chinese immigrants. Each group replaced the previous one to take advantage of low-cost housing and job opportunities in the area. During the late-nineteenth century, garment manufacturing plants also moved into Chinatown, creating Boston’s historic garment district. This district was active until the 1990s.

In 1870, the first Chinese people were brought from San Francisco to break a strike at the Sampson Shoe Factory in North Adams, Massachusetts. The arrival of these Chinese workers were met with much hostility from members of the community. There was ill-intentioned words spread about them that were meant to create a bad image for the Chinese to the rest of the community in Boston. Prior to the immigration of Chinese workers from California in 1870, Boston’s Chinese population consisted of tea merchants or servants.

 

In 1874, many of these immigrants moved to the Boston area. As history and tradition details, many Chinese immigrants settled in what is now known as Ping On Alley. The first laundries opened on what is now Harrison Ave in Chinatown.  In 1875, as laundries were becoming more and more popular, the first restaurant, Hong Far Low, opened. In the 1800s and the 1900s, many Chinese immigrants came to Boston looking for work and for new opportunities. Due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese immigration was halted, and the population of Chinatown remained mostly male. There were many attempts to drive out the Chinese from Chinatown, including the widening of the main street (Harrison Avenue) which backfired and led to further development for the Chinese community. One example of the attempts to drive out the Chinese population was the murder of Wong Yak Chong in 1903 known as the Boston Chinatown immigration raid. The murder gave the police the opportunity to gather Chinese men and deport them. The police and immigration officials were able to arrest 234 people, and then eventually deport 45.

In the last few decades, with more white residents moving into Chinatown, there is worry about gentrification. For instance, the Asian population dropped to 46% in 2010. Another major concern is that historic towns and places are becoming more touristy and less cultural. Among Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, Boston has shown the highest increase in non-Asian residents moving into non-family shared households, with a 450% increase from 1990 to 2000. The traditional Chinatown Gate with a foo lion on each side is located at the intersection of Beach Street and Surface Road. This was once a run-down area, housing little more than a ventilation-fan building for the Central Artery Tunnel; however, a garden was constructed at this site as part of the Big Dig project. The Gate is visible from the South Station Bus Terminal, and is a popular tourist destination and photo opportunity.Offered by the Taiwanese government to the City in 1982, the gate is engraved with two writings in Chinese: Tian Xia Wei Gong, a saying attributed to Sun Yat-sen that translates as “everything under the sky is for the people”, and Li Yi Lian Chi, the four societal bonds of propriety, justice, integrity, and honor. 

 

6. Toronto 

The present neighbourhood of Toronto Chinatown was the result of the government expropriating Toronto’s first Chinatown in the late 1950s to make way for a new city hall and public square. As a result of the expropriations, a number of businesses and residents based in the city’s first Chinatown moved west towards Spadina Avenue during the 1950s and 1960s, later joined by other Chinese immigrants during the 1960s. The neighbourhood is one of several Chinatowns in Toronto that developed during the latter half of the 20th century.

 

Toronto’s present day downtown Chinatown was formerly a Jewish district, although a small Chinese community was already present in this location prior to the 1950s. The creation of this Chinatown was driven by the demolition of First Chinatown at Bay Street and Dundas Street West, from the 1950-1960s to make way for Toronto City Hall. While a handful of Chinese businesses still thrive there, much of the Chinese community have largely migrated west from there to the present Chinatown neighbourhood, thus its name, “West Chinatown”.  Chinatown continued to expand with the influx of Chinese immigrants during the 1960s, many of the wives and descendants of the Chinese men already in Canada due to the lifting of Canada’s racial exclusion act. With much of Toronto’s downtown Jewish population moving north along Bathurst Street, the businesses in this area became largely Chinese.

In the following decades, students and skilled workers arrived from Hong Kong, Guangdong province and Chinese communities in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean further increased the Chinese population, which led to the creation of additional Chinese communities east of Toronto. The neighbourhood has been noted as being a “near complete community” with housing, employment, and commerce, along with schools and social services all located within walking distance in the neighbourhood. Today, the economic and social centre of Toronto’s downtown Chinatown primarily runs north–south along Spadina Avenue to College Street to Sullivan Street and east–west along Dundas Street West from Augusta Avenue to Beverley Street. A mansion that is converted to the Italian Consulate is at the northwest corner of Dundas and Beverley.

 

Since the 2000s the West Chinatown has been changing from the influx of new residents, businesses from immigrants and second generation Canadians. The neighbourhood has continued to serve as a vital market hub and services, to people from inside the neighbourhood and outside.  The central location of the neighbourhood has also been a draw for property developers, changing the face of the neighbourhood. 

Chinatowns in Pop-Culture

Chinatowns have been portrayed in various films including The Joy Luck Club, Big Trouble in Little China, Year of the Dragon, Flower Drum Song, The Lady from Shanghai and Chinatown. Within the context of the last film “Chinatown” is used primarily as an extended metaphor for any situation in which an outside entity seeks to intervene without having the local knowledge required to understand the consequences of that intervention. The neighborhood or district is often associated with being outside the normal rule of law or isolated from the social norms of the larger society.

 

Chinatowns have also been mentioned in the song “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas whose song lyrics says “… There was funky China men from funky Chinatown …” Iconic martial arts actor Bruce Lee is well known as a person who was born in the Chinatown of San Francisco. Other notable Chinese Americans such as politician Gary Locke and NBA player Jeremy Lin grew up in suburbs with lesser connections to traditional Chinatowns. Neighborhood activists and politicians have increased in prominence in some cities, and some are starting to attract support from non-Chinese voters.

San Francisco Chinatown has served as a backdrop for several movies, television shows, plays and documentaries including The Maltese Falcon, What’s Up, Doc?, Big Trouble in Little China, The Pursuit of Happyness, The Presidio, Flower Drum Song, The Dead Pool, and Godzilla. Noted Chinese American writers grew up there such as Russell Leong.