Why does the U.S. have so many Chinatowns?

Rooted in both racism and marketing, historic immigrant enclaves grapple with a crippling pandemic, rising rents, and uncertain futures.

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In San Francisco’s Chinatown, the commerical thoroughfare Waverly Place includes pagoda-like storefronts and strings of lanterns. Much of the neighborhood’s “exotic” vibe was engineered by 20th-century merchants hoping to lure tourists to the area.

Why does the U.S. have so many Chinatowns?

Rooted in both racism and marketing, historic immigrant enclaves grapple with a crippling pandemic, rising rents, and uncertain futures.

Behind an ornate archway with a tiled, curved roof in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, a solemn golden statue of Chinese revolutionary leader Dr. Sun Yat-Sen sits alone. Although it’s a sunny August afternoon, most of the souvenir stores and art galleries surrounding him in the usually busy Central Plaza marketplace are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, doors locked shut behind heavy metal gates. The craggy Wishing Well at the center of the shopping zone is bone dry.

The eerie silence breaks as a figure—spotting me—emerges from underneath an unlit “Phoenix Imports” neon sign. “Come on in!”

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Diners eat at New Lun Ting Cafe in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 2016.

Born and raised in Chinatown, Phoenix Imports owner Glenn SooHoo has witnessed the growth, decline, and revitalization of his neighborhood over the past 50 years. Since as early as Lunar New Year in January, L.A.’s Chinatown—and other such enclaves across North America—has been in crisis, buffeted by the twin traumas of xenophobia and a public-health crisis.

“The virus is hampering business and the tourist industry,” says SooHoo. “At New Year’s, we had our 121st Golden Dragon Parade celebration, and only like 10 percent of the people showed up. The virus didn’t have anything to do with Chinatown, but it being associated as an Asian thing by the president, people just got that phobia about it.”

As historic Chinatowns struggle during the pandemic, it’s worth looking at why residents—and visitors—flocked to them in the first place.

A land of opportunity—and gold

Chinatowns have been in the U.S. for more than 170 years. The first one, in San Francisco, served as an unofficial port of entry for Chinese immigrants escaping economic and political chaos in the mid-1800s. Men sought their fortunes in the California Gold Rush, and when mining waned, they found work as farmhands, domestic helpers, and in the 1860s, as workers for the Transcontinental Railroad. These men were bachelors who needed sleeping quarters, clean clothes, and hot meals after long days of grueling labor; this lead to a proliferation of housing, laundry services, and restaurants in burgeoning, Chinese-centric neighborhoods.

As the immigrants fanned out around the country seeking more work, Chinatowns mushroomed all over the United States. At one time, there were more than 50 of them.

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San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest one in the U.S., and the largest outside of Asia.

But these Chinatowns were also borne out of growing racial tension and discrimination in housing and employment. After the abolition of slavery, Chinese immigrants provided a cheap source of labor, leading to resentment from the white working class, especially during the Long Depression from 1879 to 1896.

Enacted in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act severely limited immigration for more than 60 years. Anti-Chinese sentiment resulted in street brawls, race riots, and even lynching and massacres. During that time, many Chinatowns were destroyed by fire or natural disasters or abandoned by people fleeing the violence.

Immigrant cities rising from the ashes

While the earliest Chinatowns comprised modest wooden and brick buildings, the Asian motifs—pagodas, tiled roofs, bamboo-shaped fonts, and dragon imagery—we see today came about as a way to promote tourism. When the original San Francisco Chinatown was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and the devastating fire that followed, a group of wealthy Chinese merchants saw an opportunity to combat anti-Chinese sentiment by giving their neighborhood a flashy makeover.

Until then, San Francisco’s Chinatown was thought of as a seedy, crime-ridden ghetto, rife with opium dens, gambling, and prostitution. The Chinese merchants hired Scottish-American architect T. Paterson Ross and engineer A.W. Burgren to design a new Chinatown, incorporating religious iconography and architectural elements of the 10th-13th century Song dynasty.

The new neighborhood was a fantasy vision of China, a country neither man had ever visited. A prominent Chinese-American businessman, Look Tin Eli, spearheaded the project as a new city with “veritable fairy palaces filled with the choicest treasures of the Orient.” The strategy worked: San Francisco’s Chinatown was reborn as an “exotic” destination for Western tourists.

Other Chinatowns followed suit, adopting similar aesthetics. After Los Angeles’ original Chinatown was torn down in 1933 to make way for a new Union Station, Chinese community leaders organized efforts to rebuild Chinatown a few miles away. Prolific L.A. architects Erle Webster and Adrian Wilson modeled the open-air Central Plaza in the new Chinatown after the Forbidden City in Beijing, with restaurants, souvenir shops, grocery stores, bakeries, and nightclubs featuring musical performances.

But some Chinatowns took a different tack. Instead of projecting a family-friendly atmosphere, Chinatowns in Chicago and New York City promoted a kind of “slum” tourism, where white tourists were invited to revel in the sights, sounds, and smells of poor, ethnic neighborhoods. Visitors dined at chop suey restaurants, peeked into opium dens, and maybe witnessed a tong (Chinese secret society) gang fight in the alley.

From bustle to bust and back

Chinatowns’ fortunes rose and fell over the ensuing decades. In 1943, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and immigration opened up again. In 1965, the Hart-Celler Act removed quotas based on national origins, which led to an explosion of newcomers from China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Cambodia. Chinatowns, once again, became the first stop for many immigrants.

Peter Ng, CEO of Chinatown Service Center (CSC), moved to L.A. from Hong Kong in the 1970s. “When I first got here, my parents and I lived inside Chinatown,” he says. “Everyone was conducting business inside Chinatown. There were only a couple of authentic Chinese restaurants back then, so everyone came here. It was really a thriving time.” CSC was founded in 1972 to provide health, housing, and advocacy to the growing community.

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Sau Ling, owner of The Lucky Creation Vegetarian restaurant, is pictured in her storefront in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 2016.

The ’60s also marked turbulent times in American history. Washington D.C.’s Chinatown was devasted when Chinese-owned stores were looted and buildings were burned down during the weeklong 1968 riots triggered by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Civil unrest and urban decay, along with the search for more housing and job opportunities, prompted immigrants to move away from Chinatowns in D.C. and other cities, giving rise to new satellite Asian communities in places like L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley and New York’s Flushing, Queens. “The Chinese diaspora is cast so far and wide even within large metros that a single hub for Chinese people is no longer practical or desirable,” says journalist Eddie Lin, who grew up in L.A.’s Chinatown in the ’70s.

But before the pandemic, downtown living in many cities had gained popularity and commercial developers had started paying attention to once-neglected Chinatown real estate. Luxury apartments and trendy restaurants took over rent-controlled buildings and mom-and-pop stores. As a result, gentrified Chinatowns in cities like D.C. and San Jose, California, were reduced to shadows of their formerly vibrant selves, with only a handful of Chinese restaurants and arched gateways left standing.

With the pandemic, xenophobia and hope

Enter President Donald Trump and the coronavirus pandemic. “Unfortunately, Trump’s rhetoric around the virus and beyond has empowered even more horrific and racist acts since COVID,” says Hoi Leung, curator of the Chinese Culture Center (CCC) of San Francisco. California has tallied at least 800 hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders since the pandemic began.

Alarmed by anti-Asian sentiment and the downturn in business, many Chinese Americans are fighting back. This year, CCC partnered with artist Christine Wong Yap for the Art, Culture, and Belonging in Chinatown project, for which people were asked to submit their personal recollections of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Through intentional art and educational programming, CCC hopes visitors and residents view the neighborhood like a museum, “where it becomes an interactive site to deepen their understanding and sense of belonging through engaging with stories, people, and history,” Leung says, cautioning that without care and activism, Chinatowns will eventually disappear.

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Pedestrians stroll near New Lun Ting Cafe in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

For millennials Victoria Lee and Jennifer Tam, Manhattan’s Chinatown has always held a special place in their hearts. Growing up, Lee spent weekends with her grandmother who lived in Chinatown, while Tam moved to Chinatown a decade ago from Houston, Texas.

After seeing the economic impact COVID had on the neighborhood, the two friends started Welcome to Chinatown, a nonprofit supporting the area’s small businesses with additional resources and revenue streams. “The business impact happened much earlier in Chinatown than in the rest of New York City, due to the rise of xenophobia,” Tam says. “We’re here to help say, ‘Chinatown will always be open for business.’”

Tam and Lee spotlight various businesses on their Instagram page, raise funds to feed the senior community, and partner with local artists to create merchandise like tote bags and mugs. “Welcome to Chinatown is a love letter to Chinatown, a way to give back to a community that has given so much to us,” Tam says. To Tam and Lee, the neighborhood still embodies much of the Chinese-American experience. “It’s important to us that we preserve the narratives and stories that have been built here,” Tam says.

Hard work and resilience

In L.A., sun-bleached red lanterns line the green awning of a brick building. Next door, the concrete parking lot has been converted into an outdoor dining space with potted plants, umbrellas, and string lights. Hop Woo was one of a handful of restaurants that remained open during the pandemic. “We’ve never closed,” says chef-owner Lupe Liang. “During the stay-at-home order, we changed to takeout. And now, we have a beautiful space for outdoor dining.”

When Liang and his wife, Judy Cen, opened Hop Woo in L.A.’s Chinatown in 1993, they started with just eight tables. Hop Woo grew to be a thriving business with more than 150 tables, serving garlicky lobster noodles and barbecued meats to a diverse crowd of tourists and locals. “We’ve been in Chinatown for 27 years and we’ve always been busy,” Cen says, “except for this year.”

A few blocks north of Hop Woo at Phoenix Imports, SooHoo is working to ensure his shop’s future. SooHoo’s grandfather, She Wing SooHoo, launched a gift shop called Chew Yuen Company in 1938, one of the first businesses in Central Plaza. When She Wing retired, Glenn’s father Walter took over the family business, opening a storefront next door and renaming it Phoenix Imports.

“We’ve been here for 80 years,” he says. “We’ve been through everything, good and bad, and whatever it is, we’re still going to be here. I’m not here to make money, I just want to keep this Chinatown alive for the next generation.”

Rachel Ng is a Los Angeles-based writer who specializes in food and travel. Follow her on Instagram.
Andria Lo is a Berkeley, California-based photographer. Her book Chinatown Pretty celebrates the street style and wisdom of senior citizens in Chinatowns across America. Follow her on Instagram.