Cities Journal

Visit Some Of America’s Most Beautiful Chinatowns


People of Chinese descent have been an integral part of the United States since the 19th century when they helped build this country and bring it into the modern age. The 1990s and the 2000s saw another explosion of Chinese immigration and our cities became richer for it.

One of the idiosyncrasies of the Chinese-American population is that they have traditionally been, at least on average, less inclined to let go of parts of their heritage which makes them unique. Chinatowns have played a huge role and districts have been springing up in a number of America’s major cities, proudly displaying and celebrating a culture that has lasted for more than 5,000 years and which more than deserves to be displayed and celebrated.

And while a large number of Chinatowns have developed into tourist traps more than ethnic enclaves, in certain parts of New York City, we are once again witnessing an emergence of the more “traditional” Chinatowns that are serving as safe havens for newcomers to the country.

Today, however, we are more concerned with the older, more touristy Chinatowns of the United States.

We simply have to start with the oldest and probably the most famous Chinatown in all of the U.S. – the one in San Francisco. San Fran was the city where the vast majority of country’s first Chinese immigrants landed and as such, it became the first city in the country to get its own Chinatown. It is also the biggest Chinatown in the U.S., covering more than 20 blocks. The district is packed with traditional architecture and cultural artifacts that can really transport you to China if you wish. Of course, we must also not forget the culinary history of the San Francisco Chinatown which is still going strong to this day.

Just south of the Empire State Building, you will find yet another world-famous Chinatown, the one in Manhattan, NYC. It is yet another historic Chinatown which is in parts so hardcore that you will not even be able to find any signs in English. Thanks to its historic prominence and the traditional way of life that is still very much alive in New York’s Chinatown, it even got listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In Seattle, you will find a Chinatown that is not just Chinese. Namely, it was more than just the Chinese who helped build this unique Chinatown. In the 19thcentury, this was the place where immigrants from all over East and Southeast Asia came to feel more at home in the new country they would call their home. Seattle’s Chinatown is to this day also a place where the Filipino, the Vietnamese and the Japanese live and proudly celebrate their cultures. You might say that the Seattle’s Chinatown is the best way to see Asia without leaving the United States.

Boston’s Chinatown has had quite a history over the decades, but it is still standing strong after all these years. Its life began in the 1870s when Chinese people arrived in Boston in order to break a strike at a shoe factory. A few years later, many of the workers and their families were living in the city. Various political decisions and some less-than-savory moments in American history all put a strain on Boston’s Chinatown throughout the years, but it is still there and it is still very proud of its Asian heritage.

The history of Honolulu Chinatown is perhaps even more interesting, especially since it never quite mirrored the course some of U.S.’s other Chinatowns had to take. For example, Honolulu’s Chinatown was never so much of a Chinatown but more a part of the city where Chinese residents lived. In Hawaii’s capital, there were always more integrated than in some other American cities and there was never too much need for an ethnically homogenous enclave. After Hawaii became a state, the area known as Chinatown went through years of troubles, riddled by prostitution and unlicensed casinos. Today, like in many other cities, it has become a cultural and arts hub. If you look hard enough, however, you can still find some remnants of its more tumultuous days.


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