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Alternative meanings: Chinatown (disambiguation)
The largest Chinatown in North America is in San Francisco, California, where signs, storefronts, proprieters, and even lamp posts bring the culture of China to the United States.
The largest Chinatown in North America is in San Francisco, California, where signs, storefronts, proprieters, and even lamp posts bring the culture of China to the United States.

Chinatown is an urban region containing a large population of Chinese people within a non-Chinese society. The term Chinatown has also been used (mostly by non-Chinese) to describe urban areas where large numbers of people of Asian descent live and own small businesses, such as the Vietnamese, Japanese, Thais, and Koreans. Chinatowns are most common in Southeast Asia and North America, but growing Chinatowns can be found in Europe and Australia.

Chinatowns were formed in the 19th century in many areas of the United States and Canada as a result of discriminatory land laws which forbade the sale of land to Chinese outside of a restricted geographical area and which promoted the segregation of people of different ethnicities. However, the location of a Chinatown in a particular city may change or disappear over time.

Chinatowns were established in European port cities as Chinese traders settled down in the area.

In the past, overcrowded Chinatowns in urban areas were shunned by the general non-Chinese public as ethnic ghetto and therefore seen as places of cultural insularism. Nowadays, many old and new Chinatowns are considered viable centers of multiculturalism, commercialism and tourism, if somewhat superficial. In some cases, with new investments, new Chinatown developments have also revitalized many run-down and blighted areas and turned them into centers of vibrant economic and social activity in recent years.

Many Chinatowns have a long history, such as Nankinmachi, the nearly three centuries old Chinatown in Nagasaki, Japan. Some Chinatowns are relatively recent developments and were formed within the 1990s—such as the Chinatown of Las Vegas, Nevada in the United States. Others still only blueprints or artistic renderings. Indeed, many areas of the world are embracing the development and redevelopment (or regeneration) of Chinatowns, such as in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. However, the case is different in Italy, where right-wing ideology and anti-Chinatown sentiments have made it more challenging.



In Chinese, Chinatown is usually called in Mandarin Táng rén jiē (唐人街: The street of the Tang people. The literal translation of the word is an uncommon term for the Chinese, used here since the Cantonese, which make up a large proportion of immigrants, were only fully brought under imperial control under the Tang Dynasty). Indeed, some Chinatowns are just a street, such as Fisgard Street in Victoria, British Columbia. In Cantonese, it is Tong yan gai (Tang people street) and the modern Tong yan fau (唐人鎮), which literally means Tang people town or more accurately, Chinese town. It is Tong ngin gai in Hakka, the widely spoken and diffused dialect among overseas Chinese. Tang and Tong refer to the Tang Dynasty, an era in Chinese history.

A more modern Chinese name is Huábù (華埠: Chinese City) which is used in the semi-official Chinese translations of some cities' documents and signs. , pronounced sometimes as , usually means seaport; but in this sense, it means city or town. The literal word-to-word translation of Chinatown is Zhōngguó Chéng (中國城), which is occasionally used in Chinese writing.

In Francophone regions (such as France and Quebec, Canada), Chinatown is often referred to as le quartier Chinois (the Chinese Quarter; plural: les quartiers Chinois) and the Spanish-language term is usually el barrio chino (the Chinese neighborhood; plural: los barrios chinos), used in Spain and Latin America. Other countries also have names for Chinatown in local languages; however, some local terms may not necessarily translate as Chinatown. Some countries have adopted the English language term.

Several alternate English names for Chinatown include China Town (generally used in British and Australian English), Chinese District, Chinese Quarter and China Alley (an antiquated term used primarily in several rural towns in the western United States for a Chinese community; these sites are now historical sites).

Settlement patterns

The first Chinese settlers of the establishment of Chinatowns began in the 18th century. Taishanese and Cantonese settled in the first North American Chinatowns. The Cantonese mainly formed Chinatowns in North America and Latin America. The Hokkien and Teochew (both group speaking Mini-Nanny sub-group of Chinese dialects) were the dominant group in Southeast Asian Chinatowns. The Hakka groups established Chinatowns in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

By the late 1970s, the Vietnam War also played a significance part in the development and redevelopment of various Chinatowns in developed Western countries. As a result, Chinatowns have become pan-Asian business districts and residential neighborhoods. By contrast, Chinatowns in the past were solely inhabited by Chinese from southeastern Mainland China.


These features are characteristic of most Chinatowns everywhere. In some cases, however, they may only apply to Chinatowns in Western countries, such as those in North America, Australia, and Western Europe.


Many tourist-destination metropolitan Chinatowns can often be easily distinguished by large red pagoda-style arches and gates with bronze lion statues on the opposite sides of the street that greet visitors. Historically, these gateways were donated to a particular city as a gift from the Republic of China government and business organizations. On the other hand, construction of the red arches were also financed by local financial contributions from the Chinatown community. The lengths of these arches vary from Chinatown to Chinatown; some span an entire intersection and some are smaller in height and width. The popular perception of Chinatown often includes these gates.

Antiquated features

Many early Chinatowns were characterized by the large number of Chinese-owned chop suey restaurants (chop suey itself is a Chinese American concoction and therefore it is not considered authentic Chinese cuisine), laundry businesses, and opium dens until around the mid-20th century when most of them began to disappear or become anachronisms. In early years of Chinatowns, the opium dens were patronized as a relaxation and to escape the harsh and brutal realities of a non-Chinese society (it was the profiteering British who had introduced opium to China during the Qing Dynasty). These businesses no longer exist in many Chinatowns and they have been replaced by Chinese grocery stores, restaurants, and other services.


Chinatowns worldwide are usually popular destinations for various ethnic Chinese and other Asian cuisines.

Some Chinatowns still have old faux Chinese American cuisine restaurants with stereotypical "Chinese" English writing, large red doors, Chinese paper lanterns and zodiac placemats. Outside of Chinatown, these restaurants are also found in many areas without a significantly large Chinese-speaking population.

Most authentic restaurants in urban and suburban Chinatown for immigrant customers do not use these features and in some cases, because of new ethnic Chinese immigration, some Chinese American cuisine restaurants in the area have become anachronisms. In many Chinatowns, there are frequent numbers of large authentic Cantonese seafood restaurants (with egg or spring rolls only served during dim sum hours) and small restaurants with delis.

Cantonese seafood restaurants (Cantonese: hoy seen jo ga) typically use a large dining room layout, have ornate designs, typically specialize in seafood such as expensive Chinese-style lobsters, crabs, prawns, clams, and oysters all kept live in tanks before preparation. They also offer the delicacy of shark fin soup. Some seafood restaurants may also offer dim sum in the morning through the early afternoon hours. These restaurants are also used for weddings, banquets, and other special events. Due to the higher prices of the restaurants, they tend to be more common in Chinatowns in developed countries and in affluent Chinese communities, notably in Australia, Canada, and the United States. Incidentally, there are much fewer of them in the older Chinatowns; for example, they are practically non-existent in Vancouver's Chinatown, but more are to be found in its suburbs. Competition between these restaurants is often fierce. Hence, owners of seafood restaurants hire and even "steal" well-rounded chefs, many of whom are from Hong Kong.

Also, Chinese barbecue deli restaurants, called siu lop in Cantonese, are generally low-key and serve relatively inexpensive fare such as won ton noodles (or won ton mein), chow fun, and rice porridge or jook in Cantonese Chinese. They also tend to have displays of whole pre-cooked Peking ducks and pigs on their windows, a common feature in most Chinatowns worldwide. These delis also serve barbecue pork (cha sui), chicken feet and other Chinese-style items relatively uncommon, so to speak, to the non-Chinese Westerner palate. Food items are usually intended for take-out (Britisher: takeaway). Some of these Chinatown restaurants sometimes have the reputation of being "greasy spoons". Nonetheless, they are are still generally patronized by Chinese and other ethnic customers.

Some small Chinese restaurants in Chinatowns may offer both Chinese American cuisine - for Western customers - and authentic Chinese cusine for Chinese-speaking customers.

The arrival of Vietnamese immigrants, both ethnic Chinese and non-Chinese, to many Chinatowns have introduced and opened restaurants that serve Vietnamese phở beef noodle soups and Franco-Vietnamese sandwiches. Some immigrants have also started restaurants serving Teochew Chinese cuisine. Some Chinatowns old and new may also contain several pan-Asian restaurants offering a variety of Asian noodles under one roof.


Most Chinatown businesses are actively engaged in the import-export businesses; hence, a large number of Trading Companies are found in Chinatown.

Small ginseng and herb shops are common in most Chinatowns.

Most Chinatown grocers and markets sell a variety of Asian grocery items imported from East Asia (chiefly Mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea) and Southeast Asia (principally Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia). For example, most Chinatown markets stock items such as sacks of Thai jasmine rice , Mainland Chinese chrysanthemum and oolong teas. bottles of oyster sauce , rice vermicelli, Hong Kong soy bean beverages, Malaysian snack items, Taiwanese rice cracker s, and Japanese seaweed and Chinese specialties such as black duck egg s (often used in rice porridge), bok choy and water chestnuts. These markets may also sell fish (especially tilapia) and other seafood items, which are still kept alive and well in aquariums, for Chinese and other Asian cuisine dishes. These are ethnic items that generally cannot be found or simply overpriced outside of the Chinatown enclaves. The proliferation of Asian supermarkets in the suburbs of North America and Australia have replaced the functions of the old Chinatowns.

In keeping with Buddhist funeral traditions, Chinese specialty shops also sell a variety of funeral items which provide material comfort in the afterlife of the deceased. Shops typically sell specially-crafted replicas of small paper houses, paper radios, paper televisions, paper telephones, paper jewelry, and other material items. They also sell "hell money" currency notes. These items are intended to be burned in a furnace.

Chinatowns also contain small businesses that sell imported Video CD and DVDs of Chinese-language films and karaoke. VCD is a format that has not caught on in Western countries, but are sold in ethnic Chinese shops. These VCDs are mainly titles of Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese films, while there are also VCDs of Japanese-language anime. Many VCDs are official and others are counterfeit.

Benevolent associations

A major component of many old Chinatowns worldwide is the family benevolent association. These associations generally provide social support, religious services, death benefits (members' names in Chinese are generally enshrined on tablets and posted on walls), meals, and recreational activities for ethnic Chinese, especially for older Chinese migrants. Membership to these associations can be based on members sharing a common Chinese surname, spoken Chinese dialect, a specific region or country of origin, and so on. Many of these associations have their own facilities. Some examples include San Francisco's prominent Chinese Six Companies and Los Angeles's Southern California Teochew Association. The Chinese Consolidate Benevolent Association is among the largest umbrella group of benevolent associations in the North America.

In Paris, France, there is the Association des Résidents en France d'origine indochinoise.

Annual events in Chinatown

Most Chinatowns the world over present Chinese New Year (or also known as Lunar New Year) festivities with ubiquitous dragon and lion dances accompanied by the clashing of cymbals and by ear-splitting loud Chinese firecrackers, especially in front of ethnic Chinese storefronts where the "dragon" attempts to reach for a lettuce or catch an orange. Storekeepers usually donate some money to the performers. In addition, some streets of Chinatowns are usually closed off for parades, Chinese acrobatic s and martial arts demonstrations, street festival s, and carnival ride s - this is dependent on the promoters or organizers of the events. Others may also be held in a parking lot/car park, local park, or school grounds within Chinatown. These events are popular with the local ethnic community and also to non-Chinese gawkers.

Some Chinatowns hold an annual "Miss Chinatown " beauty pageant, such "Miss Chinatown San Francisco," "Miss Chinatown Hawaii," or Miss Chinatown Houston" (just to name a few examples).

Dragon and lion dances

Dragon and lion dances are performed in Chinatown every Chinese New Year. They are also performed to celebrate a grand opening of a new Chinatown business, such as a restaurant or bank. In Chinatowns of Western countries, the performers of dragon and lion dances in Chinatown do not necessarily need to be ethnic Chinese to perform. Chinatown dances may have black or white people participating as well.

For future success, ceremonial wreaths are usually placed in front of new Chinatown businesses by well-wishers as well.


The Kuomintang of the Republic of China has established many local offices in Chinatowns all over the world.

Social problems in Chinatown

Like many other communities, the older Chinatowns have their share of social problems. In the past and present, before Chinatowns were viewed and valued as tourist attractions, many Chinatowns have had reputations of being dilapidated ghettoes and slums. They were once the sites of brothels, opium dens, and gambling halls.


In modern times, competing Asian street gangs and organized crime (such as the Tongs and the Hong Kong-based Triads) continue to plague the metropolitan Chinatowns worldwide where Triads have their operations, including London, San Francisco, New York City, Sydney, and Vancouver. Tongs are Chinese secret societies. There have been 'Tong wars' or 'civil wars', so to speak, between the Tong groups in the older Chinatowns. Initially, many Chinatown gangs were formed to supposedly defend the community from the lo fahn (Cantonese word and transliteration for "Caucasians") but later turned on members of their own ethnic community. For example, in North America, Chinese American street gangs often have connections with the tongs and triads. Examples of such street gangs include the Joe Boys and Jackson Street Gang (after the major street of San Francisco Chinatown).

Turf wars have been common in the older Chinatowns. Gang rivalry among Chinatown gangs has sometimes been high profile. As Chinatowns tend to be tourist attractions, tourists in Chinatowns have sometimes been victims of these gang warfare crimes. In 1977, a shoot-out in a San Francisco Chinatown restaurant (where the rival gang were normally based) occurred, in which two tourists and several waiters were murdered by stray gunfire in a botched assassination attempt on a Wah Ching (華青) gang member. This incident is notoriously known as the Golden Dragon Massacre and it mobilized the San Francisco Police Department to create an Asian crime unit.

In the Los Angeles Chinatown of 1984, Chinese Vietnamese gang members shot and murdered a white LAPD officer in the line of duty and wounded his Japanese American partner. The officers were responding to a silent robbery alarm at a Chinatown jewelry store and a shoot-out ensued. A three-year trial concluded in 1988, and the killers received the verdict of life imprisonment.


Racketeering against Chinese merchants (e.g., restaurants and shops) by the gangs is common in the older Chinatowns worldwide, especially during the Chinese New Year. Worldwide, Triad activity is usually suspect. In U.S. Chinatowns, many Triads and Chinese American teenage gangs - some are the younger native-born and others are slightly older foreign-born - often perpetuate the crimes. Failing to pay the "protection money" to the gangs often resulted in either vandalism (such as broken windows), kidnapping, murder, or arson to the Chinese establishment or bodily harm to its owner. For example, on January 24, 2001 around Chinese New Year, in the Richmond Chinatown district of San Francisco, two Chinese restaurants were firebombed almost simultaneously. Three teenagers were convicted of the crime and sentenced to six years each in prison.

However, the suburban Chinatowns are not entirely immune from the acts of extortion. In the so-called "new Chinatown" of Richmond, British Columbia, the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) arrested six male suspects in connection with extortion that involved assaulting a Chinese Canadian waiter and then vandalizing the restaurant in 1999. In the summer of 2003, in San Gabriel, California, Asian gunmen shot out a window of a Chinese restaurant to allegedly send a message to the owner to pay protection and it resulted in a death of a waitress, a Mainland Chinese immigrant. Triad extortion activity is also rife in several Chinatowns of Sydney, Australia. Chinese restaurants have especially been targeted in Sydney.

Many Chinese victims in Chinatown are often reluctant to report any incidents of gang harassment to authorities because they fear possible retaliation. First-generation immigrants, who often speak limited English, may be in the country illegally, or have a general distrust of the police or government in general. Indeed, many immigrants came from countries where the police intimidated the population, such as with Communist China and Taiwan's martial law under President Chiang Kai-shek and the government persecuted the population, as with Vietnam. In Hong Kong, until recently, the police were often corrupt and ineffective.

Also compounding to the problem is the fact that Chinese immigrant restauranteurs and storekeepers sometimes dismiss the exploitative extortion as another cost of doing business in the form of a "business tax" and thus, simply shrug it off.

Smuggling of immigrants

The Triads are also primarily responsible for smuggling illegal immigrants into the Chinatowns of Australia, Europe, and North America, often from China and Vietnam. These Asian smugglers are called "snakeheads". In order to pay for their passage, many of these immigrants are indentured who will end up in "under the table" low-wage (often lower than the minimum wage) service jobs, e.g., as restaurant waiters or dishwashers, masseuses in massage parlors, prostitutes, and garment sweatshop.

Some of these social problems have been the subject for several Hollywood police films such as The Corruptor (set in New York Chinatown but filmed in Toronto's Chinatown), starring Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat, and Year of the Dragon with Mickey Rourke.

Decaying Chinatowns

Many older Chinatowns such as the ones in Houston and Vancouver have been declining over the years. Social ills such as homelessness and drug-related problems occur with some Chinatowns in urban areas. For example, Vancouver's Chinatown is in close proximity to the notorious drug-infested Downtown Eastside. Hence, many vagrants - oftentimes by non-Chinese - are seen aggressively panhandling and sometimes causing a nuisance on the streets of older Chinatowns making it unattractive for future investment. Indeed, homelessness has been a problem in the Chinatowns of Honolulu, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Vancouver that need to be addressed in redevelopment programs. Also, being near the inner-city, the Los Angeles Chinatown and countless others have had a perception of being unsafe, especially at night, thus many Chinatown businesses close normally aronud 5 or 6 pm with only a handful of restaurants open. Most Chinatowns are ghost towns in the evening. Some visitors and local Chinese business owners are often turned away from urban Chinatowns. By contrast, the vibrant suburban Chinatowns in North America have a bustling nightlife with a number of restaurants with longer business hours.

There have been programs between Chinatown community members and the local police working together to improve the safety and aesthestics of Chinatowns, such as graffiti removal. A notable improvement has been the Chinatown in Los Angeles. However, several revitalization plans have failed to take off due in the past to low funding. Police departments in other cities are developing Chinatown outreach programs.

The old Chinatowns now face heavy competition from the ethnic Chinese ad pan-Asian large supermarkets, shopping centers, and mini-malls found in the suburbs. Indeed, many old Chinatowns have experienced declining revenue. For example, the Chinatowns of San Francisco and Oakland compete with the large shopping centers in Cupertino and the Silicon Valley and the Los Angeles's Chinatown faces distinct challenges from the San Gabriel Valley's multiple "Chinatowns" of California, and with a multitude of acclaimed Chinese cuisine restaurants, the gleaming suburban Chinese Canadian business district of Richmond, British Columbia has nearly rendered the aging Vancouver Chinatown obsolete for business and revenue in becoming the focal point of Chinese culture in the greater Vancouver and Puget Sound area. Chinese New Yorkers - businesses and customers - are largely abandoning Manhattan's Chinatown in droves for the new Chinatown in Flushing.

Gentrification may be the answer to reverse decline in Vancouver, as the downtown condo tower boom is now moving toward Chinatown. New upscale 40 storey condo towers are being constructed as are urban retail centres. It is believed that with yuppie Asian and non-Asian population returning to the area, Chinatown will not only survive but will become the centre-piece of Vancouver's incredible mosaic of diversity and neighbourhoods. Gentrification and urban renewal policies, on the other hand, have had a negative effect on the U.S. Chinatowns in Philadelphia (where a Philadelphia Phillies baseball stadium is proposed), Boston and Washington, DC (where the MCI Center has shrunk the Chinatown a great deal).

SARS Concerns

Because Toronto has become the home for a large number of Chinese immigrants, many Chinese Canadians tend to travel to and from Asia on a regular basis. In 2003, several deaths attributed to the outbreak of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus in Toronto prompted a major scare as it was spread by a Chinese Canadian woman who had visited Hong Kong, managed to contract the virus during her visit, and died upon her return to Canada. A panic spread across cities with Chinatowns in Canada and in the United States as many Chinese businesses urged people who had recently been traveling in China (where SARS was first reported) or Hong Kong to stay away. In addition, many Chinese restaurants and shopping centers, especially in the Chinatowns of Toronto and Markham, saw a reduction in business because of the perceived SARS threat.

As a result, many Chinese Canadians and even Chinese Americans faced an economic impact on their businesses. (During the peak of the hype, several businesses in Chinatowns old and new even capitalized on the fear by selling face masks and SARS "survival kits".) To allay some of the public fears in Canada and worldwide, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman had lunch in a Toronto Chinatown restaurant to show that the restaurants and Chinatown in general were safe for tourism.

There were rumors circulating around Chinese communities and the Internet (especially with e-mail chain letters) to avoid certain Chinese restaurants and supermarkets in many urban and suburban Chinatowns because they could allegedly contract the virus. Some authorities have theorized these warnings were initiated by rival competing Chinese businesses. There was no factual basis found for these claims.

Chinatowns worldwide

Chinatowns in Africa
Chinatowns in Asia
Chinatowns in Australasia
Chinatowns in Europe
Chinatowns in Latin America
Chinatowns in the Middle East
Chinatowns in North America

Chinatowns are most common in North America, Asia, Australasia and Europe, but are common across the globe. Immigration patterns determine the economic, political and social character of individual Chinatowns, as do their intranational locations (urban, suburban or rural). Most Chinatowns grow organically but some countries have taken to building and promoting Chinatowns within their bigger cities.

See also: List of Chinatowns

Chinatown in film, television, and the arts

See also

External links to general sites

External links to North American Chinatowns

External links to European Chinatowns

External links to Australasian Chinatowns

Further reading

  • Chinatown: Conflicting Images, Contested Terrain, K. Scott Wong, Melus (Vol. 20, Issue 1), 1995. Scholarly work discussing the negative perceptions and imagery of old Chinatowns.
  • The First Suburban Chinatown: The Remaking of Monterey Park, California, Timothy P. Fong, 1994
  • Mexicali's Chinatown, James R. Curtis, Geographical Review (Vol. 85, Issue 3), 1995
  • San Gabriel Valley Asian Influx Alters Life in Suburbia Series: Asian Impact (1 of 2 articles), Mark Arax, Los Angeles Times, 1987

Last updated: 11-07-2004 00:48:53