The Rise, Fall and Future of Chinatowns in the U.S.

By: Tara Yarlagadda  | 

chinese new year celebration, D.C.
Dragons dance among firecrackers to end the celebration of Chinese New Year, in Chinatown, Washington, D.C., 2020. Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In nearly every major city in the U.S., you can find a Chinatown. These dense urban centers, recognized for their prominently decorated Chinese American businesses, have endured for centuries and across multiple generations.

Chinatowns serve as community hubs for new immigrants and tourist destinations but also as symbols of a longstanding, tumultuous history that ties directly into America's xenophobic treatment of Chinese immigrants.

Chinatowns were borne out of necessity due to "racial exclusion" and "self protection," says Min Zhou, director of UCLA's Asia Pacific Center and professor of sociology and Asian American Studies. Overt racism against Chinese immigrants compelled them to seek refuge in dense ethnic enclaves, which became known as "Chinatowns."

"They have to develop their own Chinatown in their own little enclave in order to survive," Zhou says. Informal housing restrictions and segregation against Asians also led Chinese immigrants to congregate in Chinatowns, since they could not live freely among, or intermarry, white Americans.

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The First Chinatown

Many Chinese immigrants began arriving in the U.S. in the mid-1800s, drawn by the economic prospects of working for the growing Transcontinental Railroad, working in lumber mills in the Pacific Northwest, or seeking fortune in California's Gold Rush, which they called "Gold Mountain." Some 25,000 Chinese immigrants came to the U.S. in the 1850s alone.

The first formally recognized Chinatown in the U.S. took place in San Francisco, where the first Chinese immigrants arrived in 1848. The area was established in the late 1840s, not long after the first American flag was raised in the city.

 Chinese butcher and grocery store
A Chinese butcher and grocery store in San Francisco, circa 1885.
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

At first, it was known as "Little Canton" due to the Cantonese-speaking immigrants that came from the province of Canton — known today as Guangzhou — in southeastern China. In 1853, local newspapers named the area "Chinatown," as it grew to become a 12-block district of 22,000 Chinese immigrants by the 1880s. The ratio of men to women was 20:1.

Since the 1875 Page Law prevented Chinese men from bringing their wives or children, most early immigrants to Chinatown were single men, Zhou adds. After World War II, when immigration restrictions against Chinese immigrants were removed and family-based immigration laws were established, Chinese women were able to come in much larger numbers to the U.S, leading to a family-oriented culture in Chinatown.

Many Chinatowns can be distinguished by arched, decorated gateways known as paifang, which have ceremonial uses in Chinese villages. There might also be Buddhist temples and tea houses. However, the core defining feature of any Chinatown is the business district. "Ethnic businesses define the community," Zhou says.

Many of the businesses that immigrants established, such as laundries, cigar production or shoe-making, served both Chinese and white clientele, Zhou says.

Zhou describes three types of organizations that served immigrants in Chinatown: social organizations, district and family organizations (based on the region or village in China where immigrants came from) and tongs — brotherhoods that provided legal services, housing and jobs for newly arrived immigrants.

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Attacks on Chinatown

At first Chinese immigrants were welcomed, or at least tolerated in the U.S. But that changed as their numbers increased and competition for jobs became greater. In 1871, a white mob lynched 17 Chinese men and boys in Los Angeles — a horrific hate crime that has largely been forgotten in the history textbooks. The widespread anti-Asian nativist fears of the time provided fodder for these crimes. Then-California Governor John Bigler openly argued in favor of more restrictions on Chinese immigrants.

"Historically [Chinatown] was perceived as kind of a foreign and exotic place," says Zhou, but was also seen as a center of disease and crime, she notes.

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, which prevented both the immigration of Chinese people to the U.S. as well as Chinese already in America from becoming naturalized citizens. This was the first law restricting immigration to the U.S.

Anti-Chinese sentiment and white supremacist attacks led to a fire in the Chinatown in San Jose, California in the early 20th century. "During [bubonic plague] pandemics in the early 20th century, the Chinatown in Honolulu was destroyed [from an out-of-control fire], and San Francisco Chinatown was cordoned off," says Andrew Leong, associate professor of legal studies and Latinx and Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, in an email.

However, he notes that the situation was even worse for Chinese immigrants that lived outside the protection of Chinatowns. For example, white men expelled nearly 500 Chinese individuals from the Gold Rush town of Eureka, California in 1885. "Therefore, Chinatowns represented 'sanctuary' for many Chinese," Leong says.

But as anti-Asian hate crimes have surged in the U.S. during the past year, Chinatowns have once again become targets of hate crimes. "Today, there is anti-Asian racism, and Chinatown is a scapegoat" for these xenophobic crimes, says Zhou.

police on patrol in Chinatown, San Francisco
San Francisco police officer William Ma walks down the middle of the street while on foot patrol in Chinatown on March 18, 2021. The San Francisco police have stepped up patrols in Asian neighborhoods in the wake of a series of shootings at spas in the Atlanta area that left eight people dead, including six Asian women.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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The Future of Chinatown

Today there are about 50 Chinatowns in the U.S. Some of the best known are located in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Honolulu, Seattle, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston and Portland, Oregon.

To this day, Chinatowns retain their purpose as a lifeline for Chinese immigrants, Zhou says, helping them get settled in a new country. Many Chinatown residents are lower-income; 24 percent of Manhattan's Chinatown residents live below the poverty line.

But many of the country's oldest Chinatowns are no longer vibrant communities. In more recent decades, Chinese Americans have shifted away from urban Chinatowns toward the suburbs, especially as larger numbers of educated Chinese professionals move to the U.S.

"If you're going to the suburb, it's a different dynamic," Zhou says. Rather than a concentrated area of businesses, she notes, in the suburbs you'll see Chinese businesses, shops and restaurants scattered around.

Monterey Park, California, for instance, has been dubbed "the first suburban Chinatown." "[It] became majority Asian American in the 1990s [and] has long been a first stopping point for newly arrived Chinese seeking bigger houses away from downtown Los Angeles," reported the Seattle Times in 2012. The suburban San Gabriel Valley, where more than 500,000 Asian Americans live, has been a growing hub for Chinese immigrants outside of Los Angeles.

Even within traditionally urban Chinatowns, the population demographics are shifting, says Zhou, as second-generation Chinese Americans move out and leave the city.

And for residents who wish to stay, rising housing costs can be a problem. "While racism created Chinatowns, reverse white flight from the suburb back into the urban areas now threaten the future of Chinatowns through gentrification," Leong says.

Immigrants from other Asian countries are still finding refuge in Chinatowns. Seattle's Chinatown was renamed to the Chinatown-International District in 2005 to reflect the growing Vietnamese and Filipino communities.

Tourists visit a shop in the San Francisco Chinatown
Tourists visit a shop in the San Francisco Chinatown, March 24, 2021. There is concern that many Chinatowns have become tourist attractions rather than vibrant communities.
Xinhua/Wu Xiaoling via Getty Images

Many Chinatowns are hanging on by a thread. Baltimore, Detroit, Los Angeles and Philadelphia are just some of the cities whose Chinatowns have populations of less than 50 percent ethnic Chinese. While the D.C. Chinatown still features some Chinese-owned businesses, there were only 300 Chinese people living there in 2015, down from a high of 3,000 in 1970. And while roughly 14,000 people — about 70 percent Chinese — live in San Francisco's Chinatown, some worry about how the community can retain its culture in the face of gentrification, which threatens to drive out family-run businesses.

However, many second and third-generation Chinese Americans now run projects to preserve them, such as the W.O.W Project in Manhattan's Chinatown. These kinds of nonprofits could help save Chinatown, according to Zhou. "It's important for the second generation to come back to protect the community from gentrification," she says.

Especially as anti-Asian crimes are on the rise, Chinatowns can serve as places of refuge for Chinese Americans. "Due to anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic, the relevance of Chinatowns has become an even more pressing issue in the historic and present need for sanctuary," Leong says.

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