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Chinatown, USA

Updated on May 9, 2013
Washington, DC.
Washington, DC. | Source
San Francisco, California.
San Francisco, California. | Source
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. | Source
Chicago, Illinois.
Chicago, Illinois. | Source
Los Angeles, California.
Los Angeles, California. | Source
Manhattan, New York, New York.
Manhattan, New York, New York. | Source
Old Town, Portland, Oregon.
Old Town, Portland, Oregon. | Source
Boston, Massachusetts.
Boston, Massachusetts. | Source

Overview. Stop and think how many Chinatowns there are in the United States and it's amazing. More impressive is considering where some of them are; places that one would not expect. Often marked by their decorative arches, some are easily missed and occupy no more than a few parallel streets in typical tight urban settings. Others, like the most famous in San Francisco and New York, cover dozens of city blocks. How and when did they get there? Simply, with Chinese immigration to the United States in the mid to late 19th century. Chinese came to the United States as cheap labor, originally to build the transcontinental railroads, they first came to California. After the Burlingame Treaty was signed in 1868 the United States normalized relations with China, taking a less imperialistic tack, which further encouraged immigration from China. Most Chinese immigrants hoped to make money and then return to China but. similar to other immigrant experiences in the United States, going back home became unfeasible for a number of reasons, so they stayed and often stayed together mostly because they were often unwelcome in the United States, especially by Nativists. The growing numbers of Chinese alarmed Nativists and reached fever pitch which resulted in Congress passing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This Act effectively outlawed Chinese immigration to the United States and wasn't repealed until 1943 with the passage of the Magnuson Act. However, the remaining Chinese stayed, many American-born by this point, and living in the same neighborhoods afforded them safety - thus the origins of America's Chinatowns. Many of the Chinatowns survived and are still vibrant communities in their respective cities however many others, such as the one in San Diego, California, and Deadwood, South Dakota, no longer exist. Others, such as those in Houston, Texas, and Atlanta, Georgia, have a more modern face and have largely been developed with in the last thirty years with the arrival of Chinese immigrants and other Asian-Americans, such a Vietnamese and Koreans.

San Francisco, California. Established in 1848 it is the oldest in the United States and North America and the largest Chinese community beyond Asia with 100,500 people. It is a must-see attraction for any visitor to the Bay Area and one of the most popular destinations in the region. Centered around Portsmouth Square in the Telegraph Hill and North Beach sections of the city, Chinatown is said to be the most densely populated area in the United States west of New York City. The original settlers were mostly males from southern China's Guangdong Province who sought labor on the railroads and in the gold fields during the Gold Rush. It remains one the city's favorite and most popular tourist attractions.

New York, New York. Located in lower Manhattan Chinatown in New York rivals that of San Francisco and one of nine Chinatowns in the NY metropolitan area. Manhattan's Chinatown dates to at least 1858 and was began by Ah Ken who famously peddled cigars. Many Chinese who followed him peddled the same goods. Today's Chinatown in Manhattan has close to 100,000 residents.

Los Angeles, California. A Chinatown has existed in LA since 1880 but it has often moved for various reasons among which violence against the Chinese has played a part. "The Massacre of 1871" was the most notorious incident where 19 Chinese were lynched by a local mob. Today it numbers just under 30,000 and is located in downtown LA but that doesn't include the thousands of Chinese who live in greater LA.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Only a few blocks from Center City is Philadelphia's small but colorful Chinatown. With under 1,500 residents in occupies primary a stretch of 10th Street and a few perpendicular streets and alleys. Although it is small, tiny compared to others, it's a great blast of color and culture in city notorious for urban blight. The first Chinese business in Philadelphia dates to 1871 although today's Chinatown is late, having been established in the early 1960s.

Washington, D.C. Between 5th and 8th Streets in NW DC today's Chinatown formed around the 1930s and relocated from its previous grounds along Pennsylvania Avenue. It counts about 3000 people and has the typical assortment of restaurants and Asian food shops.

Chicago, Illinois. Chinese have been in Chicago since 1869 with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad and a Chinese neighborhood was started soon afterward with the concentration of Chinese shops and businesses. The current Chinatown numbers 8,000 and dates to 1912 located around Armour Square. Chinatown, Chicago is but one of many ethnic enclaves in a city famous for its multi-ethnicities.

Honolulu, Hawaii. Chinese first came to Hawaii in the late 19th century to work the sugar cane fields and today's Chinatown remains despite setbacks which included a plague epidemic and the Great Chinatown Fire of 1900. Other setbacks followed and by the 1960s Hono's Chinatown was gritty and seedy. Today has has enjoyed a turnaround and its cultural highlights include the Buddhist Kuan Yin Temple which dates to 1880 and Legend Seafood, a great place for old style dim sum, ha gau and taro treats.

Boston, Massachusetts. Close to Boston's historic garment district and not too far from the Freedom Trail, Chinatown, Boston has survived the vicissitudes of Boston's growth. It is small, comparatively, but remains the center of the city's ethnic Chinese population, which dates to the late nineteenth century.

Seattle, Washington. Better known as the Chinatown-International District, the district shares the cultural heritage with Japanese and Filipino ethnicities as well as Koreans and many Indochinese nationals. Chinese have been in Seattle since at least the late 1850s and the ethnic district experienced some false starts because of fires and nativist pressure. Along with a vibrant Japan-town, Asians eventually settled north of King Street by the early 20th century and around this area has coalesced the current International District.

Portland, Oregon. Part of Old Town Portland, Chinatown has been here since about 1880 and is now included in the National Register of Historic Places.

Oakland, California. Today's Chinatown, just across the bay from its more famous counterpart in San Francisco, is more of a pan-Asian neighborhood, but still represents the enclave of Chinese who first settled in Oakland as early as the 1850s.

Monterey Park, California. This list would be remiss without including a lesser known but well populated city just 10 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. The city of Monterey Park, mostly populated by Taiwanese expats, is a defacto suburban Chinatown. It is the city with the highest concentration of Asian Americans in the United States. Of the 60,000 residents, 67% are of Asian descent of which almost 48% are of Chinese heritage. There's no Chinatown here per se but since the street (and and even bank) signs are all bilingual the presence is impossible to ignore.


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    • brownella profile image

      brownella 4 years ago from New England

      Interesting hub, I suppose whenever I think of Chinatown I think of NYC. It was nice to be reminded of the struggle of early immigrants especially now, with the immigration debate so much in the forefront of national politics. Thanks for sharing :)

    • jvhirniak profile image

      jvhirniak 4 years ago

      GetitScene - It is overshadowed by the others because its suburb but it's not to miss!

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 4 years ago from The High Seas

      I didn't know about China Town in Monterey Park but I'm definitely going to take the wife there now. Thanks for helping me find it!