Saving America’s Chinatowns

Jason Margolis


From New America Media and PRI’s The World:


A few months back, author Bonnie Tsui wrote a short article in The Atlantic magazine titled “The End of Chinatown.”


“I think ‘end,’ is the end of Chinatown as we know it,” said Tsui.


“So we have known it as this home for working-class immigrants, you know the rural poor. It’s always been that gateway, it’s the starting point. And it has been a necessary starting point. Now if demographic conditions continue as they are and the great economic engine – this global juggernaut that is China – now continues on, maybe these vast swaths of rural poor find other opportunities in China and they don’t have to come to the U.S.”


This is already happening. Tsui’s cites statistics charting a slow and steady decline of Chinese immigrants from a peak of six years ago.


Declining Immigration


Tsui said, “And so the question remains: If new immigrants are no longer part of the fabric of Chinatown, then what would allow it to live on?”


This question has rattled some Chinese-American community leaders in places like San Francisco, home of America’s oldest Chinatown. I walked around the neighborhood with Gordon Chin, sort of a local celebrity and founder of the Chinatown Community Development Center.


“This Chinatown started in the 1830s with Chinese immigrants coming over to work in the fields, and later on with the discovery of gold in the 1840s, and shortly thereafter to work on the railroads,” said Chin as he gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of the area.


It’s easy to lose focus in Chinatown. I know these streets reasonably well. I used to walk them daily to get to work, through the crowded markets, tacky tourist shops and brightly colored pagodas, lanterns and Oriental architecture.


And the crush of people – San Francisco’s Chinatown is the most densely populated neighborhood west of Manhattan. It’s a place of immigrants, where English is not the primary language. But as fewer Chinese migrate here, I asked Gordon Chin, What did he think was going to happen to American Chinatowns? He said with crisis, comes opportunity.


“So in terms of opportunity with the growth of China, there’s pride with that, there’s economic opportunity, there’s socio and cultural ties.”


San Francisco’s Chinatown is still very much a vibrant, bustling place. But many smaller Chinatowns, from nearby Oakland to Washington, D.C., have struggled.


Chin and his colleague Gen Fujioka, who was also walking with us, know this could also happen here. But they don’t see it anytime soon. Fujioka called Bonnie Tsui’s article, “The End of Chinatown” an “over-simplification.”


“Bonnie is recognizing that it is a challenge. Communities have to recreate themselves, find relevance for today, it’s not just about the past. And I think that challenge exists for every community, and I think Chinatowns are no different,” said Fujioka.


Staying Relevant


To stay relevant, Chinatowns must transition to places that attract second and third generation Chinese Americans, people like Frank Wong. Wong grew up in the Sunset District, an outlying neighborhood of San Francisco. The Sunset is also heavily Chinese, but Wong said newer Chinese communities in outlying districts can never replace the original downtown Chinatowns.


“I would like to keep it the way it is, it’s a symbol of who I am, and my culture,” Wong said.



Wong has a special attachment to San Francisco’s Chinatown. He helps run a family restaurant here, the R and G Lounge, where First Lady Michelle Obama stopped while in the city last summer.


But he said many of his Chinese-American friends from the suburbs don’t share his affinity for Chinatown. Wong said over the past decade, he’s seen fewer Chinese Americans come visit.


He observed, “There used to be a lot more events on the weekends, for example, festivals, or anything like that, that used to always be occurring all the time. But that just doesn’t happen anymore based on the fact that not as many people would show up. Over the years, they just totally eliminated those types of things.”


This trend bothers Wong both as a Chinese American and a local businessman. To combat this, restaurants throughout Chinatown, like New Asia, are looking for ways to broaden their customer base.


The New Asia is a cavernous, but packed, room with waiters pushing dim sum carts through crowded passageways. Speaking through a translator, Owner Hon So said he’s worked hard to keep his restaurant busy.


So said on Christmas Eve and Day they host the Kung Pao Kosher Comedy festival. As the name implies, it’s a largely Jewish audience, laughing, and more important to So, eating his food. Last year, So said, the festival brought in 600 people and that events like this are helping his business diversify and survive.


But as Chinatowns reinvent themselves and become less Chinese, at what point do they cease being genuine Chinatowns?


I boarded an elevator with Gordon Chin in Chinatown’s first public housing project, where Chinese and Chinese-Americans have been living there since the 1950s.


As we got out of the elevator, we saw several residents, none of whom were Asian. I asked Chin how he felt about the changes unfolding here.


“Fine,” said Chin. “I mean Chinatowns across the country have always been very fluid, and it’s not always been 100 percent Chinese.”


I also asked Bonnie Tsui how she felt about the changes in Chinatown. Besides her article in The Atlantic, Tsui also wrote a book called American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods. Tsui has a personal connection to the one in Manhattan.


“I think back to the fact that my grandfather worked in a fortune cookie factory down in [Manhattan’s] Chinatown when I was growing up. And the fortune cookies that were peppering my household were little reminders of his path down to Chinatown everyday,” said Tsui.


She went on, “I talk to my grandparents about how they feel about this place they lived in, this place for decades. And they say they’re happy they left, but they were happy that it was a home for them when they got here.”


Chinatowns Can Evolve


While Tsui writes fond portraits about American Chinatowns, she also describes the neighborhoods in stark language – dirty, overcrowded places, where immigrant families often cram into one-room apartments.


“I want to be clear that I’m not actually of the opinion that they should be preserved as is,” said Tsui.


Tsui said Chinatowns can successfully evolve. For example, she cites Honolulu’s Chinatown, now a home to a thriving nightlife scene. Art galleries are popping up in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.


“These things are not “Chinese,” but they are fitting in somehow, and they’re kind of finding a way to co-exist, or more than co-exist, with the long-time Chinese residents in the neighborhood.”


Of course that brings us back to Tsui’s original question: Is this the end of Chinatown as we know it? It’s an interesting debate, but it’s also worth remembering: People have been predicting the disappearance of American Chinatowns since the 1920s.


New America Media

Photos: Yan and Yung, Tyler Hewitt (Flickr, Creative Commons).

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