The Changing Face of America’s Chinatowns

Most major American cities have a “Chinatown,” easily identified by Chinese-language shop and street signs, Chinese restaurants and merchants selling Chinese goods. The neighborhoods have long histories and are popular tourist destinations, but like many sections of urban America, they face the challenge of development and rising property costs as they try to maintain their tradition as ethnic residential areas.

New immigrants to the United States have often tried to settle among those coming from the same country, making their transition easier by having immediate access to community support networks for jobs, housing and worship, and living in a neighborhood where fluent English skills are not a necessity

Like the Chinese, who began immigrating to the United States in the mid-19th century, other groups established neighborhoods like “Little Italy,” “Irishtown” and “Little Havana” as areas to live, work and socialize. But while many urban U.S. neighborhoods are still named for a predominant ethnic group and retain some of their character, economic conditions and assimilation have often dramatically changed the residential makeup. Are America’s Chinatowns facing a similar risk?

In both San Francisco, which hosts the oldest American Chinatown, and New York, which is home to the largest, Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans are increasingly found in the suburbs instead of the urban centers. Many affluent and better educated immigrants have typically moved directly to suburbia. But Chinatowns have traditionally served as attractive destinations for lower-skilled workers lacking English-language skills.

Part of the broader trend toward suburbia can be blamed upon the urban renewal process known as “gentrification,” in which aging buildings and homes are renovated or replaced by new, higher-priced living spaces, raising nearby property values and forcing many long-time residents and lower-income families to find a cheaper place to live.

Employment is another factor. During much of the 20th century, the U.S. Chinatown economy relied heavily upon garment factories, laundry services and restaurants that supplied jobs within the neighborhood. Ironically, competition from Chinese imports has forced many garment factories to close, and with fewer nearby job prospects, many residents have also opted to move to suburban neighborhoods.

A third reason is the reduced number of Chinese immigrants. China’s rapid economic expansion has led to higher wages and better job opportunities back home, making overseas emigration less appealing, and thereby limiting the repopulation of Chinatowns as assimilated residents decide to leave.

In fact, New York’s Chinatown, which grew large enough to expand into areas of Little Italy, is now home to many other immigrants from Asian countries, as well as newcomers from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The effects of gentrification have likewise attracted many young urban professionals to the area.

To showcase the changes in its local Chinatown, Boston.com published a photo gallery to compare the neighborhood with the way it looked in 1987. The photos show how an old theater has been converted into an upscale apartment building, coffee shops have replaced adult video stores and mainstream chain stores have moved into the neighborhood.

CHINATOWN STILL AN ENTRY POINT FOR IMMIGRANTS

Despite its changed character, Chinatown remains the cultural and economic center for new Chinese immigrants in Boston, according to Tunney Lee, a professor who has studied the neighborhood’s history. “It’s the most flourishing ethnic neighborhood in the city,” Lee told Boston.com.

Many of today’s Chinatowns still provide an instant community to Chinese newcomers. In New York, the infrastructure set up by Chinese groups such as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and other organizations is increasingly being tapped by immigrants from places like Eritrea, Iran and Mexico, according to a February 22, 2011, article that appeared in the New York Times.

“It’s an entry point,” anthropologist Kenneth J. Guest told the Times. “The Chinatown infrastructure, which has been set up to be part of a whole migration industry for Chinese coming into the country, has begun to be accessed by other immigrant groups looking for a way into the low-wage labor market.”

Not all urban U.S. Chinatowns are facing the same level of economic pressure from rising property values. In Chicago, for example, the population has increased by more than 24 percent — to 7,254 — in the last decade, according to a January 17, 2012, article published by Northwestern University’s Medill Reports.

Theresa Mah, a policy consultant with the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, told Medill Reports that many of the newer housing options, as well as adjacent areas, remain affordable and are attracting new immigrants. Their presence will boost demand for English-language classes, bilingual social services and education, she said.

“New immigrants continue to see this area as a port of entry,” Mah said, “because it is close to jobs that they can get without English skills, social services through the long-established agencies in the community, and good public transportation that serves the area.”

Hopefully, many more American Chinatowns will be able to retain not only their character, but also the residents that have helped to set the neighborhoods apart from the surrounding city. Chinatown represents more than just a haven for tourists looking for interesting areas to explore, but also how American immigrants have been able to make a place for themselves and create a unique mixture of old and new traditions within the most populous U.S. cities.

 

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