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What is Chinatown?

Chinatown is a vibrant cultural enclave found in many cities worldwide, serving as a hub for Chinese communities abroad. These districts brim with rich traditions, authentic cuisine, and unique architecture, offering a glimpse into the heritage of one of the world's oldest civilizations. Discover how Chinatown's bustling streets weave the tapestry of a dynamic culture. Ready to explore further?
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Chinatown is a district within a larger city which hosts a significant Chinese population. Many major cities around the world have a Chinatown, including New York, London, and San Francisco. These areas tend to have largely Chinese-focused stores, signs, and services, which makes some of them popular tourist destinations for those hoping to experience another culture. Historically, areas like these have been associated with racial discrimination and a number of stereotypes.

Characteristics

The entrance to a Chinatown.
The entrance to a Chinatown.

Many Chinatowns used to consist largely of new immigrants, though many now have residents whose families have lived there for several generations. The reason these areas are attractive to new immigrants is because they can network with people they know and who can speak their native language. As they gain financial independence and a greater knowledge of the surrounding city, they may choose to stay close to known friends and neighbors for comfort. Some Chinese prefer to live in proximity to other people of their ethnicity because it helps them retain their language and culture, and because they can conveniently access foods, religious services, and other items that they are accustomed to. Additionally, many Chinatowns have cultural associations that schedule regular activities for their members and provide social services.

Tourism

A street in a Chinatown.
A street in a Chinatown.

Many Chinatowns are popular tourist destinations, because they provide a culturally distinctive experience. While visiting an area like this is not at all same thing as going to China, it provides a taste of what life is like in Chinese communities, and an opportunity to enjoy traditional Chinese cuisine, and to buy arts and crafts. A Chinatown may also host cultural events, ranging from Lunar New Year parades to Mandarin classes. Major cities may actively promote their Chinese community, and make it easy to access for visitors.

Famous Chinatowns

Simplified Chinese characters.
Simplified Chinese characters.

There are Chinatowns on almost every continent, but some of the most famous ones are those in Manhattan, New York; San Francisco, California; London, England; and Manila, in the Philippines. The one in Manila is thought to be the oldest one in the world, having been founded in the 1500s, while those in Manhattan and San Francisco are among the oldest and largest in the US. The Chinatown in London actually moved from its original place in Limehouse after being destroyed by bombings in WWII, and is now located in Soho.

History

Cantonese is spoken in many Chinese communities outside of China.
Cantonese is spoken in many Chinese communities outside of China.

Chinatowns have historically arisen in places with a lot of new Chinese immigrants. For instance, many Chinatowns in California started to expand rapidly during the 1840s, when many Chinese people immigrated to the US in hopes of finding jobs. Since most of the boats from China to the US docked in California, many immigrants settled in the area.

Areas like these also arise because of racial discrimination. Chinese immigrants have historically faced discrimination in many regions of the world, and sometimes they settled in specific neighborhoods because they were forced to. Rental or sale of property to Chinese was once widely prohibited in many cities, forcing the Chinese community into a small area because that was the only area where they could live.

Stereotypes

It is thought that the Chinatown in Manila, in the Philippines, is the oldest in the world.
It is thought that the Chinatown in Manila, in the Philippines, is the oldest in the world.

Non-Chinese people have held a number of stereotypes about Chinatowns throughout history. Some of the most common ones are that these areas are dangerous, controlled by gangsters, and unregulated by police. Part of the attraction of these areas has been the idea that they are somewhere where a person can get illegal things or behave immorally. Many of these stereotypes can be traced back to orientalist attitudes and works of fiction, such as Limehouse Nights. Though some aspects of the stereotypes were occasionally true — for instance, some Chinatowns have longstanding gang problems — they are mostly exaggerated or untrue.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the origin of Chinatowns around the world?

San Francisco is among the major world cities to have a Chinatown district.
San Francisco is among the major world cities to have a Chinatown district.

Chinatowns originated in the 19th century when Chinese immigrants, often escaping economic hardship and political turmoil, began settling in enclaves in major cities around the world. These neighborhoods served as cultural and social hubs for the immigrants, providing a sense of community and familiarity. They also offered a place to share resources, maintain cultural practices, and support each other in a foreign environment.

What is the cultural significance of Chinatown to the Chinese community?

Manhattan is home to an area called Chinatown.
Manhattan is home to an area called Chinatown.

Chinatown holds immense cultural significance for the Chinese community as it represents a slice of their homeland, preserving language, traditions, and customs. It's a place where festivals like Chinese New Year are celebrated with great enthusiasm, and traditional Chinese medicine, arts, and cuisine are readily available. Chinatowns serve as a bridge between generations, allowing older immigrants to pass down their heritage to younger ones in a diasporic context.

How do Chinatowns contribute to the local economy?

Chinatowns contribute significantly to local economies as centers of tourism, commerce, and employment. They attract visitors with their unique cultural experiences, shops, and restaurants. According to a report by the Asian American Federation, New York's Chinatown alone generates hundreds of millions in economic activity annually. These neighborhoods also provide opportunities for immigrant entrepreneurs to start businesses, fostering economic growth and diversity within the broader community.

Are Chinatowns found only in the United States?

No, Chinatowns are a global phenomenon found in many countries across the world, including Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Southeast Asian nations. Each Chinatown reflects the unique blend of Chinese and local culture, creating diverse experiences. For instance, London's Chinatown showcases a mix of Cantonese and British influences, while Bangkok's Chinatown is known for its vibrant street food scene, blending Thai and Chinese flavors.

What role do Chinatowns play in the preservation of Chinese culture?

Chinatowns play a crucial role in preserving Chinese culture outside of China. They are living museums where traditional Chinese language, calligraphy, martial arts, and opera are practiced and taught. Temples and community centers in Chinatown often host cultural events and festivals, ensuring that the rich tapestry of Chinese heritage continues to thrive. These neighborhoods also act as a repository for historical narratives and the collective memory of the Chinese diaspora.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

Rotergirl

I'd love to visit a big-city Chinatown. I'm told they're fascinating places. A Chinatown walking tour would be great, especially in a city like San Francisco, where it's walker-friendly.

I'd also like to try the Chinese food in a Chinatown. I know it's radically different from what most Americans are used to, and it would be fun to try it -- some of it, anyway. I know you can get homemade buns filled with pork or vegetables and I'd love to try those, along with some of the sweets that are popular.

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    • The entrance to a Chinatown.
      By: Guillaume Baviere
      The entrance to a Chinatown.
    • A street in a Chinatown.
      By: TOMO
      A street in a Chinatown.
    • Simplified Chinese characters.
      By: Stu
      Simplified Chinese characters.
    • Cantonese is spoken in many Chinese communities outside of China.
      By: Vlad
      Cantonese is spoken in many Chinese communities outside of China.
    • It is thought that the Chinatown in Manila, in the Philippines, is the oldest in the world.
      By: Jonald John Morales
      It is thought that the Chinatown in Manila, in the Philippines, is the oldest in the world.
    • San Francisco is among the major world cities to have a Chinatown district.
      By: Can Balcioglu
      San Francisco is among the major world cities to have a Chinatown district.
    • Manhattan is home to an area called Chinatown.
      By: cesar
      Manhattan is home to an area called Chinatown.