Year-round, Chinatowns are usually among the top attractions to visit in a city. Once a gate into a new country for Chinese and Asian immigrants, they are today cultural hubs, great places to shop for bargains and to discover exotic tastes.
But the world is changing and so are the Chinatowns. Some of the oldest Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York are striving to stay authentic and you can still find family run businesses, live fish, jade shops and bargain markets. There is also something real to be found in the made-up Chinatowns popping up everywhere.
Here are 5 Chinatowns worth visiting around the world:
San Francisco, USA: Legacy is sharing space with modernity
It seemed quiet when we visited in the summer, but there is a buzz in the air, a fresh coat of paint on the buildings, some good street art and the shops and restaurants are really busy. Food stores display exotic produce that you cannot find anywhere else in the city and businesses are pretty much run by Chinese families.
Many of the inhabitants have a low income and are elderly. They rent small apartments in fragile buildings that are not up to date with the latest health and safety regulations. However, like the Chinatown itself, they have their charm and fit well with the atmosphere here. Surely they face gentrification, but they find a way to welcome change and stay relevant to the Chinese population.
Besides wondering around the streets, I recommend going for a meal. If you are on a budget, you will enjoy a great meal and good value for money. If you are not so tight, go where the locals go. If it’s busy everyone wants to get in and you will be literally pushing your way in together with groups of Chinese families. The other thing to look for is a restaurant with live fish – a good indicator of where the Chinese people dine out. The cook will bring his ladder to reach into the tank for the order and pull out the fish right in front of you.
New York City, USA: threatened by gentrification
In Manhattan’s Chinatown, the population of Chinese inhabitants has dropped well below 40% and luxury housing developments are soaring. An increasingly non-Chinese population is moving in, threatening to replace the cultural identity of the place; more than 100 new art galleries have replaced Chinese family run businesses and chain businesses are setting up shop.
But the Chinatown Tenants Union are here to stay and say that Chinatown is not for sale. The Chinatown Art Brigade movement has run anti-gentrification protests.
Now is the time to visit Manhattan’s Chinatown and see how things are changing. The locals are definitely more engaged than ever in activities to restore and preserve their heritage. Many artwork projects and historic walk maps were created by community led workshops and it just shows what a community can do when they work together.
Las Vegas, USA: the made-up Chinatown
Las Vegas is a man-made city, a big shopping mall, casino and entertainment business. It was therefore inevitable that one bright developer will attempt to capitalise on the Chinatown experience. In 1995, inspired by his experience in Los Angeles’s Chinatown a Taiwanese developer named James Chen opened Chinatown Plaza in Las Vegas, a 3-mile stretch of Asian businesses ideal for shopping and eating out. It is a few minutes drive from the Bellagio area and very easy to find. Although, it is not full of highly decorative Asiatic shops like you find in authentic Chinatowns, they have Taiwanese, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Japanese, Vietnamese and other Asian restaurants. The food is delicious and great value. We had dinner at Raku and the deserts were just wonderful!
London’s Chinatown is based in Soho, central London: nine streets, four gates. Like most other Chinatowns, this was once an undesirable part of the city and it is today a prime real estate area. The rising rental rates for central London make Soho a competitive and challenging area for the Chinese family run businesses to continue their activity. Today, with a few exceptions, heritage Chinese trade businesses have closed and on the food side, chain restaurants are creeping in. But there is hope on the horizon to get tourists to stop here for more than a photo by the Chinese gates and a meal.
China Exchange, a charity based in London’s Chinatown, provides a series of community led walking tours, workshops, exhibitions and activities meant to entice visitors to discover the heritage of the Chinese community in London.