This article discusses Chinatown patterns in North America. For the purposes of this article North America is defined as Canada and the United States. For a broad survey of individual Chinatowns in the region, see Chinatowns in North America. For information on Chinatowns in Mexico and Central America, please refer to Chinatowns in Latin America. The common features of Chinatowns and social problems common to Chinatown are covered in the main Chinatown article.
Examples of rural and small town Chinatowns include the communities of Locke and Weaverville, located north and northwest of San Francisco, California. Others include a "China Alley" in the Central Valley town of Hanford, California, Chinese Camp, and a site in Butte, Montana.
In the late 19th century western United States, Chinese-American immigrants were not always welcome, and found it dangerous to be seen in public. In response, these immigrants built elaborate underground communities in many cites through the American West. Many of these underground communities have been preserved, and are now the subject of historical tours, in cities such as Pendleton, Oregon, Havre, Montana, and Deadwood, South Dakota.
Extinct Chinatowns include the ones in California (San Luis Obispo, Nevada City, Riverside, Walnut Grove, Rio Vista, Marysville), British Columbia (Lillooet, Barkerville, Yale, New Westminster, Cumberland and others), Alberta (Strathcona), Nevada (Reno, Virginia City), South Dakota (Deadwood), and Wyoming (Rock Springs).
Nowadays, these small, early Chinatowns tend to serve as museums rather than areas of bustling commerce as is the case in their urban and suburban counterparts. While most of these frontier-era Chinatowns have largely disappeared, their remnants and other small Chinatowns still standing can be found, especially in the western region of the U.S. The majority of "Chinese" restaurants in these particular Chinatowns tend to prominently display Budweiser beer signs and serve American Chinese cuisine, such as chop suey. The old rural/frontier and urban Chinatowns were often stereotyped for having ethnic Chinese-owned laundries. In most cases, they have now widely disappeared over time in most of the old urban Chinatowns and the stereotype no longer persists.
In recent years, several excavations have been made and some remnants of the rural Chinatowns were unearthed such as in San Luis Obispo, California. Many early Chinatown artifacts and pieces can be found in some local museums.
In the early years of Locke, California, the Chinese-American population was booming and thus led to a creation of the local chapter of the Kuomintang.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the Chinese Americans (i.e., descendants of the earliest Chinese immigrants) who were generally better-educated and often spoke more fluent English than their parents and grandparents—and also lost much fluency in the Chinese language during acculturation in American society—moved out of the rural regions and resettled in the major cities. After immigration restrictions were placed on Mainland Chinese, there has been no new Chinese immigration to these towns. Nowadays, there are few remaining pockets of ethnic Chinese that live in these small rural Chinatowns. The extant Chinese American population in these particular rural Chinatowns is aging and slowly dying out.
|Urban Chinatowns of the past (up to ~1960s-1970s)||Urban Chinatowns now|
|Group||Predominantly Chinese of Taishanese descent and working Hong Kong immigrants||Pan-Asian multicultural (Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Thais)|
|Principal businesses||Laundry businesses, markets||Restaurants, markets, garment factories (New York City)|
On the other hand, many large American and Canadian cities now have more than one Chinatown—an older mainly urban one, and others attached to newly created suburban communities, although the term Chinatown is used in English only to refer to the original, older Chinatowns. The early Chinese immigrants settled in major North American coastal cities such as San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Vancouver, thus giving those cities historic and bustling old Chinatowns that still stand today, essentially serving as anchors for another wave of ethnic Chinese immigration.
The suburban Chinatowns were generally established in the 1970s, and were the result of three factors: The relaxation of Chinese immigration restrictions (the Chinese Exclusion Acts previously enacted in 1882 in the United States and in 1923 in Canada), the passage of laws that forbade racial discrimination in real estate, and improved relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China in "ping-pong diplomacy."
With the normalizing of relations, it caused elation for potential Mainland Chinese emigrants and investors but at the same time it also caused unease among the Taiwanese and Hong Kong residents (a major "push" factor for emigration).
In the 1970s, the Mainland Chinese-born and U.S.-educated Realtor Frederic Hsieh was instrumental in bringing about the development of the first suburban Chinese communities.
In sharp contrast to the old Chinatowns, these new Chinatowns were settled voluntarily but there is now some self-imposed de facto segregation.
Today, a large majority of ethnic Chinese do not necessarily reside within the old Chinatowns. While there are some Chinatown residents, many may live in surrounding neighborhoods that provide easy access to the goods and services provided in Chinatowns. Many Chinese immigrants, especially the first-generation, who are without cars, tend to take rapid transit (such as subway in New York City, or San Francisco's electric streetcars and buses) to go shopping in Chinatowns.
The new Chinatowns and old Chinatowns have a number of differences. Traditionally, the older Chinatowns tended to be separate communities apart from the rest of American society and contained strong internal institutions such as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association in New York City and the Six Companies in San Francisco. These institutions served as quasi-governments and mediated relationships between Chinese and non-Chinese.
|Old Chinatowns (traditional urban ethnic community)||Newer urban or suburban Chinese immigrant communities|
|Working-class||Middle- to upper-class|
|Middle-aged and senior population||Younger (under 50) population|
|Cantonese, Taishanese (declining), Hokkien (in New York City)||Cantonese-dominated in U.S. and in Canada, significant Mandarin minority|
|"Exotic" tourist, dining, and shopping attractions for non-Chinese||Financial and service center for local Chinese immigrant community|
|Rigidly controlled by the CCBA|
|Aging infrastructure||Modern shopping centers and mini-malls|
|San Francisco, Manhattan, Philadelphia, Toronto||Flushing, Queens, New York; Sunset Park, Brooklyn, New York; Edison, New Jersey; Bellaire Boulevard of Houston, Texas; Markham, Ontario|
The tourism industry of Chinatowns has become a major source of revenue since the 1920s, and therefore, many businesses are ever reliant on the Chinese cuisine restauarants to draw in customers of all ethnicities. Montreal even has a Hilton Chinatown, although its Chinatown is fairly small. Today, the visitor can literally sense the old Chinatowns, which tend to have a collection of unique establishments such as numerous markets selling live fish and poultry, incense coming from shops or joss temples, and ethnic Chinese merchants in front of their overloaded storefronts selling cheap imported wares such as trinkets, clothing, toys, or foodstuffs. Also, a larger concentration of small mom-and-pop grocers with outdoor sidewalk produce stands, dim sum bakeries, take-out delicatessens with displays of complete roast ducks and roast pigs on their windows, and bazaars can be found in the older and traditional Cantonese-dominated Chinatowns.
Dim sum in Chinatown is available in generally large and overcrowded Cantonese seafood restaurants during the morning and midday. In urban Chinatowns, the dim sum bakeries—usually with limited amount of seating—are often frequented by middle-aged and elderly North American Chinese. In some cases, the bakeries may also serve as local social gathering places for these seniors.
Chinatowns have many large business and street signs written entirely in the Chinese language. English-language street signs are usually translated into poor Chinese by non-Chinese-speaking city planners. During the day time, many old Chinatowns are usually crowded, the quintessential image, and have heavier pedestrian traffic.
Conversely, the new Chinatowns tend to truly cater to ethnic Chinese, with authentic Chinese restaurants and suburbia shopping centers with Chinese merchants. While the old Chinatowns remain touristic for whites, Hispanics, and other ethnic groups, several new urban and suburban Chinatowns often serve as stopovers for visiting Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese nationals. Take-out delicatessens serving roast duck and a variety of chicken are mainly attached to sit-down Chinese restaurants.
Also, the new quasi-Chinatowns usually have a selection of Cantonese seafood restaurants and a wider range of other Chinese cuisine - for example, Chinese Buddhist vegetarian, Taiwanese cuisine self-serve cafeterias, and Chinese Islamic cuisine (with lots of lamb) - that are rarely found in old Chinatowns. With a large Asian immigrant clientele, many Chinese restaurateurs do not feel there is any incentive nor the pressure to "Westernize" the cuisine or its portions to suit the taste of non-Chinese. Thus, a great number of truly authentic cuisine are to be found in the new urban and suburban Chinatowns.
There are also more modern-style cafés serving fusion cuisine, bubble tea shops, coffeeshops, tea houses, upscale department stores, chic boutiques, specialty stores (e.g., stores offering wireless phones and service plans, Asian popular culture), nightclubs, Internet gaming facilities, and karaoke ok bars (or KTV parlors) that mainly cater and appeal to younger Asian descent immigrants and the native-borns. The current Taiwanese fad of boba milk tea (boba nai cha in Chinese), also known as pearl milk tea, has especially spread in the satellite Chinatowns, especially with several chains owned by Taiwanese immigrant entrepreneurs. The older Chinatowns have been much slower to catch on to these newer trends and thus, the penetration of such fads is visibly fewer. This is largely explained by the considerably larger population of older-generation Chinese (many of whom understand little or no English), lower levels of income, and the premium cost or lack of available real estate in many of the urban Chinatowns. Inadequate parking areas in the old Chinatowns are also usually important considerations.
Many of the new quasi "Chinatowns" also have several retail chains and branches and this represents the relative interconnectedness between them. Several examples of well-known urban and suburban Chinese retail and restaurant chains include 99 Ranch Market (大華超級市場), Lollicup (樂立杯), China Trust Bank (美國中信銀行), Hong Kong Supermarket (香港超級市場), Tapioca Express (品客多), Sam Woo Restaurant, Q-Cup, Ten Ren Tea Co. Ltd. (天仁茗茶), and Ajiichiban (優之良品) in the United States and T & T Supermarket in Canada.
Many of the businesses are more clustered and centralized in the older, cramped Chinatowns, making it easier and more suitable to walk between merchants; hence, they tend to have more pedestrian traffic. With a site and situation in downtown areas, street parking in many urban Chinatowns is often scarce, containing parking meters and paid parking lots, especially in the urban Chinatowns on weekends. In one instance, the business leaders of Vancouver's Chinatown have attempted to alleviate parking problems by financing the construction of a large multi-story parking structure. Such parking problems sometimes cause "old" Chinatown businesses to lose customers and relocate to newer Chinatowns.
By contrast, the newer suburban Chinatowns, typically huge shopping centers with dedicated large free parking areas and structures, tend to be more dispersed, decentralized and spread out over a wider area, making it quite difficult to get around without viable transportation. Some of these new "Chinatowns" span a long stretch of linear street. Examples are the Golden Village along No. 3 Road in Richmond, B.C. (a suburb of Vancouver), the Bellaire Boulevard in Houston, Texas, the Rockville Pike in Rockville, Maryland, and Highway 7 and Kennedy Road in Toronto.
Early Chinese immigrants to urban Chinatowns were mostly from the Taishan area, close to Guangzhou in Guangdong province, China, and Zhongshan, near Macau. They were mainly impoverished male laborers who often left their family behind in China and some of the meager wages they earned in North America would be channeled back to their families. They immigrated to the U.S. and Canada in the 19th century. Because they lacked employment opportunities, they performed manual labor such as laying railroad tracks, working in the gold and coal mines of California and Yukon, working on farms and in factories, or operating dry goods stores or laundries.
Taishanese was the de facto official dialect of many Chinatowns, although there were also many Zhongshanese who dominated many businesses as well. Standard Cantonese later became the lingua franca among the groups. Today, while the old Chinatowns are still heavily populated by Taishanese and Cantonese people, the former is slowly being overshadowed by other Chinese dialects).
As part of the American "melting pot" philosophy, most of the "assimilated" or Americanized second-generation and other descendants of the early immigrants have merged into the general non-Chinese population. Since the 1970s, new ethnic Chinese immigrants from various areas of Asia have generally taken their place. Such immigrants had practically very little common ground with the already established old-time immigrants and Chinese Americans descended from earlier Taishanese migrants.
In addition, many Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians, especially ethnic Chinese and also those of non-Chinese descent who speak Chinese, have also settled and established businesses in or nearby Chinatowns -- thus creating a unique mix of pan-Asian culture and heritage. Many, but not all, Chinese Vietnamese came primarily from the Cholon area - itself a Chinatown - of Ho Chi Minh City and other areas of southern Vietnam. The Chinese Vietnamese, in particular, have transformed the character of many old urban, and even the new suburban, Chinatowns by establishing small businesses in the Chinatowns in Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia,Montreal, and Toronto. In other cities, such as Philadelphia, entirely new urban Vietnamese "Chinatowns" have developed away from the "old" Chinatowns.
Chinese Vietnamese establishments are not always readily apparent, inasmuch as some Chinese Vietnamese storekeepers and restaurateurs do not use the Vietnamese language on their signage, but rather primarily use Chinese. In fact, many Chinese Vietnamese from Cholon speak very little or no Vietnamese; many rarely encountered a non-Chinese speaker while in Vietnam. With an increase in both ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese Vietnamese businesses in Chinatowns, they have been derisively called "Vietnamtowns" or "Little Saigons".
Due to several perceived socioeconomic, cultural, and linguistic differences between the Mandarin-speaking Taiwanese and Cantonese-speaking Chinatown inhabitants (the latter being old-generation immigrants from southern Mainland China), there has been very little Taiwanese immigration to the old predominantly Cantonese Chinatowns as explained below.
In another changing dynamic, several old Chinatowns - once strongholds of those of southern Chinese descent-are undergoing so-called "Mandarinization" as more Mainland Chinese immigrants move into the Chinatowns of San Francisco. (Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
While some old Chinatowns continue to thrive, Chinatowns in many North American medium-sized towns and urban cities have declined or disappeared. Some examples include San Jose, California; Detroit, Michigan; Denver, Colorado; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Monterey, California. The Chinatown of Stockton, California is now only a one-block residential area. In the 1880s, some early urban Chinatowns were destroyed during race riots. Later, aging Chinatowns were demolished as part of urban renewal projects.
These new communities, being in generally more suburban areas, were attractive to both new immigrants and younger second-generation citizens from older Chinatowns. These new satellite Chinatowns have been called "suburban Chinatowns" and "mini-Chinatowns", although many people in these communities do not embrace those terms because of the negative connotations and perceptions attached to the Chinatown.
Some of these developments are taking place in neighborhoods traditionally associated with other ethnic groups, specifically those that are Caucasian (for example, Italians or Irish). Through the phenomenon known as white flight, these neighborhoods came to be reestablished as Chinatowns. This method of Chinatown development can be seen across the English-speaking world (see also: Chinatowns in Australasia), also expanding into areas that have not traditionally had Chinatowns, such as in Oklahoma City and Atlanta, Georgia.
Interestingly, tourist guides (e.g., bus and walking tours), Internet sites, and travel publications (including those published by official city, state, and provincial visitor's bureaus) invariably refer to the more traditional old Chinatowns without mentioning the much larger, modern and vibrant new Chinatowns.
Many urban Chinatown-based development and visitors bureaus maintain official tourist-oriented websites containing extensive lists of Chinatown businesses, maps, and upcoming events. A large number of less-touristy satellite/suburban Chinatowns do not have such sites. Please see external links at the end of this article for several examples of them.
In the 1900s, the U.S.-educated democratic revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen (called Dr. Sun Zhongshan in China) visited many old Chinatowns to gain moral and financial support of Chinese Americans for his cause in overthrowing the ruling, although weakening and crumbling, Qing Dynasty government and to gain support for his fledging Kuomintang, a pan-Chinese establishment, that prior to 1949 was based in Mainland China. The Chinese Americans greatly lent support to Sun. Many Chinatowns have honored Dr. Sun's work through erecting statues, botanical gardens, and naming Chinese-language schools in his name, and generally displaying the Republic of China flag (with a white sun and red and blue colors).
The Kuomintang also maintained local branches in several Chinatowns. During the World War II, Chinatown leaders from the CCBA also supported the Republic of China under Chiang Kai-shek in its campaign against invading Japan.
There are also differences in the relationships between the Chinatowns and various Chinese political actors. Chinese politics in many old Chinatowns were dominated by the Kuomintang party tied to Taiwan. In newer Chinatowns, there are significant numbers of supporters of Taiwan independence who were estranged from the Republic of China government before the 1990s but who have been drawn much closer since the mid-1990s as the government on Taiwan has become more localized. Until the mid-1980s, the People's Republic of China generally ignored the Chinatowns in the United States as they were bastions of Kuomintang support, but more recently the PRC has made a stronger and somewhat successful attempt to gain sympathy and influence within American Chinatowns. In particular, the PRC has made a strong effort to court supporters of the Kuomintang who have become disenchanted with the movement that the ROC government is making toward Taiwan independence.
Both the People's Republic of China and Republic of China governments tend to be established in cities with large Chinese populations and both attempt to maintain close relationships with leaders of Chinatowns. Mainland China has an overseas office and Taiwan is represented through the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. In San Francisco's Chinatown, in particular, there has been fighting between Mainland China and Taiwan. Formerly a bastion of KMT following, most of San Francisco's Chinese have shifted allegiances with China and the support of the Kuomintang in several Chinatowns have generally declined. This is due to fact that ethnic Chinese have ancestral ties to villages in Mainland China as well as its growing economic clout.
In mid-2004, Kuomintang loyalists staged a mass protest at the behest of Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association Los Angeles Chinatown to demand a recount of the contested Chen Shui-bian election.
The CCBA is ethnocentric in its outlook as it operates Chinese-language schools and Chinese cultural events. During the U.S. civil rights era of the 1960s, the conservative CCBA were often at odds with the more radical and militant U.S.-born Chinese American activists. The civil rights era also coincides with the large influx of poor working-class Hong Kong Chinese immigrants that were living and working in poor conditions in San Francisco Chinatown during the 1960s.
The CCBA has support for the Kuomintang and flies the flag of the Republic of China above its buildings.
Establishment of local chapters of the CCBA in major Chinatowns
Many suburban Chinese immigrant communities are served by cable and satellite Chinese-language stations beamed from Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, such as the Cantonese-language Jade Channel (TVB) and Mandarin-language ETTV, China Television (CTV), and the mainland-Chinese Chinese Central Television (CCTV). These stations feature lengthy television drama series and feature Chinese-language films. Some satellite Taiwanese stations have a 24-hour all-news format. Call-in programs with "talking heads" and pundits on Taiwanese politics are major features of Taiwanese-based networks and are likely to affect the overseas Taiwanese vote.
The World Journal newspaper is widely read among pro-unification Taiwanese and the Mainland Chinese and it has large following in the United Staates. With strong emphasis on Taiwanese politics, the writing style of this newspaper tends to be very formal, which Hong Kong Chinese immigrants sometimes find daunting.
Sing Tao Daily is read by the Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong immigrant population. The writing of Sing Tao tends to be more colloqual.
The free Epoch Times newspaper is mainly focused on news of Falun Gong and strongly anti-communist.
Following the successes of the East Coast bus lines, similar services are occurring on the West Coast, albeit on a smaller scale. There are bus services connecting the Chinatowns and suburban ethnic Chinese communities of the San Francisco Bay area, the Greater Los Angeles area, and Las Vegas. The bus stops are typically at a parking lot of a Chinese supermarket. One major West Coast bus line offering such service is Bravo Travel.
From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, substantial waves of Taiwanese immigrants arrived primarily to the United States, mostly to the Los Angeles area and Silicon Valley of California. While there has been Taiwanese immigration to Canada, it has been in relatively smaller amounts compared with the large numbers of immigration from Hong Kong.
Taiwan's economy vastly improved and the democratic reforms took hold. Therefore, by the late 1990s, immigration from Taiwan began to decrease, and new Chinese immigrants now generally consist of two groups: well-educated professionals from the People's Republic of China, who tend to work in high-tech areas, and legal citizens and undocumented aliens from Fujian province working mostly in unskilled service industries. Most mainland Chinese are heavily concentrated in the New York City area, especially the working-class Fujianese population, and the Los Angeles area. According to The New York Times, many illegal immigrants from Fujian to the United States are said to be smuggled through Canada and Mexico.
An influx of working-class Hong Kong immigrants—many of whom were Mainland Chinese immigrants from the Taishan and other areas of Guangdong province who settled in Hong Kong for several years before moving on—arrived to the United States during much of the late 1960s and 1970s. In recent years, however, there has been relatively little immigration into the United States from Hong Kong, with most emigrants from Hong Kong ending up in Canada, usually Vancouver, British Columbia.
In the U.S., this change is a result of stricter requirements and the limited U.S. immigration quota (approximately 5,000 per year; formerly 600 per year in the pre-Reagan era) allotted for the SAR, compared to 20,000 per year for a country. However, this negates the fact that some Hong Kong Chinese immigrate to Canada, reside and become citizens there for several years, and then resettle in the United States in indirect immigration, so to speak. These Chinese Canadian immigrants have blended in with the Chinese American population.
In addition, after the Vietnam War, the immigration of ethnic Chinese Vietnamese refugees, some of whom represented the Vietnamese bourgeoisie as well as former farmers and fishers and were poor upon arrival, had steadily increased during the 1980s. The Chinese Vietnamese speak Cantonese and/or Teochew (Pinyin: Chaozhou) as well as fluent Vietnamese and this group provides a stark contrast to the generally well-educated and affluent Taiwanese and Hong Kong immigrants. Several Chinese Vietnamese have established themselves.
Ethnic Chinese immigration from Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore to the United States has been somewhat more limited.
With figures based on the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, New York City (including Flushing, New York) remained the top choice of immigrants from the People's Republic of China. Meanwhile the San Francisco Bay Area continues to be the most popular United States destination for Hong Kong immigrants. San Francisco's Sunset & Richmond Districts; Millbrae; and the East Bay cities of Fremont, San Leandro & Milpitas contain large populations of Hong Kong Chinese although sizable populations of Hong Kong immigrants can also be found in other Bay Area suburbs. Throughout the 1980s, the Los Angeles cities of Monterey Park (and the San Gabriel Valley) and Silicon Valley region attracted more Taiwanese. They now attract mainly new Mainland Chinese and a smaller number of Hong Kong immigrants. Nonetheless the San Gabriel Valley cities of Arcadia, Temple City, Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, Diamond Bar, and Walnut; Irvine in Orange County; and the Silicon Valley cities of San Jose, Cupertino, and Mountain View have large populations of Taiwanese Immigrants today.
Canada offers easy entry for any family rich enough to invest in the Canadian economy. One can practically buy a citizenship by opening a small business in Canada. Toronto overall has received more Hong Kong immigrants than Vancouver. However given the size of Vancouver's overall population especially when compared to Toronto's overall population, the large number of Hong Kong emigrants have a greater feel and impact in Vancouver especially in the suburbs of Richmond, Burnaby, Coquitlam, Kerrisdale, etc. However, Hong Kong immigration has topped off. Vancouver for a short period of time in the mid 90s was the top destination for the large number of Taiwanese immigrants arriving in the city. However just like Hong Kong immigrants have slowed today, immigration into Canada from Taiwan has been small in numbers as well these days. Statistics from Citizenship and Immigration Canada reveals that Toronto is consistently ranks as the main destination for the Mainland Chinese, with Vancouver ranking second.
Some of the older Chinatowns continue to attract naturalized working class mainland Chinese and Southeast Asian Chinese immigrant families. In some cases, many families often use them as a starting point for later integration and social mobility into North American society.
|Group||Main large wave of immigration||Primary destinations|
|Hong Kong Chinese (Hong Kong, Special Administration Region)||1960s-1970s, 1980s-1990s (mainly to Canada)||Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, Toronto|
|Taiwanese (Republic of China)||1970s-1980s||Los Angeles, Vancouver, Houston, San Francisco Bay Area|
|Mainland Chinese (People's Republic of China)||1980s to present||New York City, Toronto, Los Angeles, Vancouver|
|Southeast Asian overseas Chinese||1980s||Los Angeles, Houston, Oakland, Toronto, Vancouver|
Sources: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, Citizenship and Immigration Canada