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What is Chinatown?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.


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.


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

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.


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.


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.

CulturalWorld.org is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

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

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Discussion Comments
By Rotergirl — On Mar 24, 2014

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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