AskDefine | Define Chinatown

User Contributed Dictionary



China + town

Proper noun

  1. A district of a city or town (in a country other than China) in which there is a large concentration of Chinese residents and businesses.

Extensive Definition

A Chinatown is a section of an urban area with a large number of Chinese outside the majority-Chinese countries of Greater China. Chinatowns occur all over the world, including those in East Asia, Southeast Asia, North America, South America, Australia, Europe and the United Kingdom.
In the past, overcrowded Chinatowns in urban areas were generally shunned by the non-Chinese public as ethnic ghettos, and seen as places of vice and cultural insularity where "unassimilable foreigners" congregated. Nowadays, many old and new Chinatowns are considered significant centers of commercialism and tourism. Some of them also serve, to varying degrees, as centers of multiculturalism, if in a somewhat superficial manner.
Many Chinatowns are focused on commercial tourism, whereas others are actual living and working communities; some are a synthesis of both. Chinatowns also range from rundown ghettos to modern sites of recent development. In some, recent investments have revitalized run-down and blighted areas and turned them into centers of economic and social activity. In certain cases, this has led to gentrification and a reduction in the specifically Chinese character of the neighborhoods.
Some Chinatowns have a long history, such as the Chinatown in Nagasaki, Japan, or Yaowarat Road in Bangkok, both of which were founded by Chinese traders more than 200 years ago. Chinatown, San Francisco, California was the first Chinatown to be established outside Asia, during the California Gold Rush, which began in 1848. Other cities in North America where Chinatowns were established in the mid-nineteenth century include almost every major settlement along the West Coast from San Diego to Victoria BC and Vancouver BC. The British Columbia Chinatowns played major roles, as ports of entry, in the Klondike Gold Rush and Caribou Gold Rush. By the second half of the nineteenth century, bustling Chinatowns were also established in New York and Chicago. The discovery of gold in Australia caused the establishment of relatively small Chinatowns in cities there, and similar migrations of Chinese resulted in tiny settlements termed "Chinatowns" being established in New Zealand and even South Africa. European Chinatowns, such as those in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, are for the most part smaller and more recent than North American Chinatowns. Other Chinatowns are newer, such as in Chinatown, Las Vegas in 1995, Dubai, and Santo Domingo and have received official recognition.

History of the earliest Chinatowns by region

Trading centres populated mainly by Chinese men and their native wives had existed throughout Southeast Asia for many years but emigration to other parts of the world from China accelerated in the 1860s with the enactment of the Treaty of Peking, which opened the border for free movement. The early emigrants came primarily from coastal province of Guangdong and Fujian (Fukien)—where Cantonese, Min Nan (Hokkien), Hakka, and Chaozhou (Teochew, Chiu Chow) are largely spoken—in southeastern China. Initially, the Qing government of China was unconcerned by the emigration of this population as they were likely considered socially undesirable and "traitorous" to China. Moneymaking was also frowned upon in Confucianist China, which Chinese migrants were intending to earn wages as sojourners. However, the Chinese were not a unified group but were divided upon sub-ethnic/linguistic lines, as feuds between those of Cantonese (Punti) and Hakka stocks were common. Generally, there were also sub-divisions based on Chinese clans/surnames.
Taishanese and Cantonese settled in the first North American (United States, Canada), Australian, and Latin American Chinatowns (Cuba, Mexico, Peru). Most of them were brought as coolie slaves to build the railroad. As a group, the Cantonese are linguistically and ethnically distinct from other groups in China with migrants especially coming mostly from the Siyi and Sanyi regions (with various variations of spoken Cantonese) of Guangdong; Cantonese remained the dominant language and heritage of many Chinatowns in Western countries until the 1970s. Due to laws in some countries barring the importation of Chinese wives (for fear of the perceived Yellow Peril), some Chinatowns emerged as bachelor’s societies where males dominated and the male-to-female ratio population was generally skewed. In Latin America, many Cantonese-speaking migrants arrived as indentured labourers particularly in Peru (to work in the deadly guano fields) and Cuba (to labor in sugar plantations) giving those countries substantial Chinatowns.
The Hokkien and Teochew (both groups speaking the Minnan sub-group of Chinese dialects), along with Cantonese are the dominant group in Southeast Asian Chinatowns. Chinese migrants also pioneered some major Southeast Asian cities, such as Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and hence Chinese influence is felt there. The Hakka groups established Chinatowns in Africa (particularly Mauritius), Latin America and the Caribbean. Northern Chinese settled in Korea in the 1940s.
In Europe, early Chinese were generally seamen who jumped ship and began to provide services for other Chinese mariners. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century the United Kingdom treated China as part of its unofficial Empire employing Chinese in its merchant marine in significant numbers. Consequently, from the 1890s onwards, significant Chinese communities grew up in London and Liverpool—the main ports for the China trade. However, these communities were a mixture of Chinese men, their British wives and their Eurasian children. Moreover, they were generally inhabited by those Chinese catering for Chinese seamen. The majority spread throughout these cities usually operating laundries at this time.
France received a large settlement of Chinese immigrant laborers, mostly from the city of Wenzhou, Zhejiang province of China (to this day, France continues to attract many Chinese immigrants from this particular province; Paris’ newest Chinatown in Belleville is heavily influenced by such immigrants). Chinatowns are also found in the Indian cities of Calcutta (once Hakka influenced) and Bombay.
By the late 1970s, the Vietnam War also played a significant part in the development and redevelopment of various Chinatowns in developed Western countries. As a result, many Chinatowns have become pan-Asian business districts and residential neighborhoods. By contrast, most Chinatowns in the past were solely inhabited by Chinese from southeastern China.
Historic Chinatowns such as San Francisco (see Chinatowns in North America#Northern California) has had a significant influence on the perception of Chinatowns in western countries. Although, in reality it and other North American Chinatowns fall outside the tradition of Chinese settlement in having significant numbers of Chinese women.


Chinatown, Singapore Singapore's Chinatown centers around the major Eu Tong San street and branches out over a large area onto side streets. It is served by an MRT station by the name of 牛车水 (Pinyin: niu2che1shui3) literally meaning "bullcart waters". Near the station is a large covered shopping area primarily geared at tourists, although not far from this one can find local markets, bakeries, full-blown Chinese malls, plenty of restaurants, the night market on Smith Street, and several temples including the recently completed Buddha Tooth Relic temple. A curiosity of the Singapore Chinatown is that in the middle of it is the large Sri Mariamman Hindu temple. Unlike other countries with Chinatowns, in which the population of Chinese origin is relatively low in number, Singapore's population is dominated by over 70 percent Chinese descendants. Hence, the "Chinatown" is not a center of immigration and inexpensive food but rather a center of celebration of Chinese culture and often more upscale in taste than outside it.
Yaowarat Road, Bangkok, Thailand
Established in the 1700s, Chinatown is located in one of the oldest areas in Bangkok. It was set up by Chinese traders who came in junks to trade with Thailand (Siam) during the Rattanakosin period, about 1700s. By the end of 1891, King Rama V had cut many roads, Yaowarat Road is one of them. Therefore Chinatown doesn't consist of only Yaowarat Road, but also covers others such as: Charoen Krung Road, Mungkorn Road, Songwat Road, Songsawat Road, Chakkrawat Road etc. Yaowarat is the centre of the area.
Tayote Tan, Yangon, Myanmar
Meaning Chinese Roads or Quarters, it covers almost a fifth of downtown Yangon. The lay-out of Chinatown dates back to the British expansion of Yangon, around the 1850s, thus being as old as the downtown.
Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards in 1571, trade between ethnic Filipino Malays and Chinese traders was already established in pre-colonial Manila. Manila's Chinatown is one of the oldest in Asia, established sometime in the late 17th century. It is home to many ethnic Chinese who left the Chinese mainland for a home in the Philippines. Binondo is a stone's throw away from the District of Intramuros, which was the Philippine's administrative capital under Spanish rule. The district was within the range of Intramuros' canons to quell any uprising the Chinese could have started. Binondo became a center of commerce during the American colonial era of the Philippines, since the Chinese were known to be experts in trading and finance. Banks, department stores, restaurants, insurance companies, nearly all giant commercial establishments were built in Binondo, the most prominent of which are located in the Escolta Avenue, though these are somewhat out of vogue and dilapidated today. World War II destroyed much of Binondo's commercial establishments. After the war, most companies relocated to Makati, the current central business district of Metro Manila.
Shinchimachi, Nagasaki, Japan
With the overthrow of the Ming Dynasty by the Qing in the late 17th century, some Chinese (supporters of the Ming) fled to Japan and formed a Chinatown community in Nagasaki before the start of the 18th century, making it (along with the Binondo district of Manila of the Philippines) one of the earliest Chinatowns to be established. Under the isolationist policies of the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan, Chinese and Dutch traders and settlers were confined to Nagasaki. Trade was subsequently resumed with China and Shinchimachi became a trading hub. Shinchimachi has long been the ethnic Chinese cultural and commercial center in Japan, although it size pales in comparison to its counterpart in Yokohama.
Cholon, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
In the early 18th century, Chinese settlers established Chinatowns mainly in Southeast Asia, including the Cholon district of the former Saigon, Vietnam. Cholon was heavily fortified by Chinese to protect against frequent harassment by native Vietnamese Tay Son loyalists. It remains largely a bustling Cantonese-speaking enclave, comprising Districts 5 and 6 of the city, now renamed Ho Chi Minh City.


Chinatown, San Francisco, California, United States As a port city, San Francisco's Chinatown formed in the 1850s and served as a gateway for incoming immigrants who arrived during the California gold rush and construction of the transcontinental railroads of the wild western United States. Chinatown was later reconceptualized as a tourist attraction in the 1910s. Once a community of predominantly Taishanese Chinese-speaking inhabitants, it has remained the preeminent Chinese center in the United States. Incidentally, the fortune cookie was invented here.
Chinatown, New York, New York, United States New York's Chinatown is one of the largest in the world and continues to be a location of shopping and recreation for both Chinese immigrants and those interested in Chinese cuisine and culture alike. As a major port of immigration to the United States, New York's Chinatown also includes large residential areas as well as common residential services such as laundromats, grocery stores, and markets.
Chinatown, Boston, Massachusetts, United states Boston's Chinatown is smaller and focused on food, as almost every business in the roughly 4 blocks is in the food industry. While small supermarkets also exist, most Chinese immigrants in Boston go elsewhere to much larger and more complete markets that have set up elsewhere outside the cramped Chinatown. Boston's Chinatown also gained popularity for the several companies that served Boston Chinatown to New York Chinatown bus routes, of which today two continue to operate and use Boston's South Station instead, a short walk from Chinatown.
Chinatown, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada Vancouver's Chinatown is the largest in Canada, and the second largest in North America, after San Francisco, CA. Dating back to the late 19th century, the main centre of the older Chinatown is Pender and Main Streets in downtown Vancouver, which is also, along with Victoria's (Chinatown, Victoria), one of the oldest surviving Chinatowns in North America, and has been the setting for a variety of modern Chinese Canadian culture and literature. Vancouver's Chinatown contains numerous galleries, shops, restaurants, and markets, in addition to the Chinese Cultural Centre and the Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden and park; the garden is the first and one of the largest Ming era-style Chinese gardens outside China.
Chinatown, Toronto, Ontario, Canada In the Greater Toronto Area there are around 50 Chinese malls and plazas selling products shipped over the Pacific. Downtown there are bilingual English-Chinese signs on major streets. Old Chinatown was established in the early 20th Century and moved to the current location at Dundas and Spadina in the 1970s. Although this is the largest Chinatown, there is no single one Chinatown in Toronto as there are several similar regions in the Greater Toronto area.
Chinatown, Chicago, Illinois, United States What once used to be one street of Chinese restaurants and gift shops has grown to include housing developments, businesses and an outdoor mall. Chinatown Square consists of restaurants, gift shops, doctor's clinics, groceries, banks, and other businesses such as insurance offices, hair saloons and eyeglass shops. Even though the area is constrained by the Red Line train at the east border, the Amtrak railway on the west side, 26th Street along the south end, and the empty railroad lot to the north, the area is growing outward toward McCormick (east), the Loop (north), Bridgeport (south/SW), and Pilsen (west/NW). Most of the Chinese population lives in Bridgeport where it was once dominated by Italians and Irish. Now the population is moving toward McKinley Park and Brighton Park. Chicago has another Chinatown uptown, predominately Chinese-Vietnamese. It is growing, and housing prices are almost double those of the original Chinatown.
Chinatown, Houston, Texas, United States There are two Chinatowns: the old Chinatown located downtown near the George R. Brown Convention Center and the new one located west of Bellaire in the Alief neighborhood along Bellaire Boulevard between Gessner and Dairy Ashford. Houston Chinatown is a place of food, Chinese groceries, films, souvenirs, and the offices of the Chinese Merchants’ Association.


Chinatown, London, United Kingdom
London's Chinatown was established in the Limehouse district in the late 19th century as Chinese seamen established themselves in the city. Its reputation has come to define Chinatowns as exotic and dangerous with various vices, such as opium dens and gambling dens (called fan tans). Chinatown served as the setting for classic British anti-Chinese literature such as villainous Dr. Fu Manchu as well as a setting for one Sherlock Holmes story. Its end came as Limehouse was destroyed during The Blitz by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War. With an influx of new immigrants from then British possession of Hong Kong, a new Chinatown (mainly commercial) became established in the Soho district of central London in the 1950s and 1960s.
Chinatown, Liverpool, United Kingdom
Similar in many respects to London's original Chinatown in its origins and the inter-marriage between local women and Chinese men, Liverpool's Chinatown never had the glamour of that of London.
At the beginning of World War Two there were 20,000 Chinese seamen based in the city and London's Chinatown was reduced to insignificance. Chinese sailors settled down with local women and in the war years the city's Eurasian population grew rapidly. By the end of the conflict it numbered around 1,000. With the end of the War the men were forcibly repatriated leaving behind them their wives and their children. Few were ever to see their families again. see:
With the Communist victory in China 1949, men were no longer recruited from the Mainland. Rather they came from Hong Kong and Singapore. Some did settle and marry local women but Liverpool's Chinese or rather Eurasian population had reached its peak and was in decline as they married into the local community.
In the late 1950s a new group of Chinese began to arrive in significant numbers from Hong Kong's New Territories. For the first time Liverpool and London had Chinese Chinatowns. Their mixed race past became forgotten.
Chinatown, le quartier chinois, Paris, France
During World War I, 140,000 Chinese arrived in France as temporary labour, replacing French male workers who went to the war. Most left after 1918, but a community of 2,000 stayed and created the first Chinatown (l'Ilot Chalon) near the Gare de Lyon. Nothing is left of it today.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Wenzhou Chinese settled in Paris and worked as leather workers near the Jewish neighborhood in the 3e arrondissement. Taking over the wholesale trade lost by the Jews during the German occupation of France during World War II, this Chinese community still exists today, but remains extremely discreet. No obvious signs of Chinese culture are to be seen in the rue du Temple, though most shops in this wholesale neighborhood are held by overseas Chinese.
Today's Chinatown was created in the 1970s in 13e arrondissement. Fleeing persecution and civil wars in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, those overseas Chinese, mostly Teochew and Cantonese, settled in this newly renovated area. Unlike the Wenzhou settlement in 3e arrondissement, signs of Chinese culture are more likely to be seen and a strong business community has developed. An estimated 68,000 residents of Chinese origin now live in this area of Paris.
With China opening up, more Chinese settlements are developing in Paris and its suburban areas. In Belleville (19e arrondissement), another wave of Wenzhou have settled and has taken over this originally North African settlement. Large communities are to be found in small towns outside Paris like Lognes/Torcy, or Noisy Le Grand, where earlier migrants settled, but again without bringing out the usual signs of Chinatown.
Illegal immigration from China is booming; authorities also fear that France's "Authorized Destination Status" with easier visa procedures for China nationals will only increase uncontrolled migration. Illegal workshops have been existing for several years, without always being located within "official" chinatowns and still exist and flourish in different areas in the 11e arrondissement and outside of the city of Paris.


The features described below are characteristic of most Chinatowns. In some cases, however, they may only apply to Chinatowns in Western countries, such as those in North America, Australia, and Western Europe.

Arches, or Paifang

Many tourist-destination metropolitan Chinatowns can be distinguished by large red arch entrance structures known in Mandarin Chinese as Paifang (sometimes accompanied by mason lion statues called "fu lions" on the opposite sides of the street that greet visitors). They usually have special inscriptions in Chinese. Historically, these gateways were donated to a particular city as a gift from the Republic of China government (such as Chinatown, San Francisco) and business organizations—an exception is long-neglected Chinatown in Havana, Cuba, which received materials for its paifang from the People's Republic of China as part of Chinatown's gradual renaissance. Construction of these red arches was also financed by local financial contributions from the Chinatown community. Some span an entire intersection and some are smaller in height and width. Some paifang can be made of wood, masonry, or steel and may incorporate an elaborate or simple design.
However, some Chinatowns that still do not have the arch feature are considering installing one, such as the Chinatowns in the U.S. cities of Seattle (artistic renderings at and Houston and the Canadian city of Toronto, as these arches are believed to increase tourist traffic. Additionally, work is being done by the Chinese community of London, United Kingdom, to promote a newer, more authentic Chinese arch on Wardour Street—as opposed to existing gwei lo versions present on Gerrard Street (pictured above)—in Chinatown, London. London's Chinatown now has an official website Chinatown London

Bilingual signs

Many major metropolitan areas with Chinatowns have bilingual street signs in Chinese and the language of the adopted country. Other public services are sometimes bilingual also (for example, banking machines; the Calgary Police Service began adding Chinese characters to patrol vehicles assigned to Chinatown in the 1980s to increase ties to the community).

Antiquated features

Many early Chinatowns were characterized by the large number of Chinese-owned chop suey restaurants (chop suey itself is American Chinese cuisine and is not considered authentic Chinese cuisine), laundry businesses, and opium dens, until around the mid-20th century when most of these businesses began to disappear; though some remain, they are generally seen as anachronisms. In early years of Chinatowns, the opium dens were patronized as a relaxation and to escape the harsh and brutal realities of a non-Chinese society, although in North American Chinatowns they were also frequented by non-Chinese. Additionally, due to the inability on the part of Chinese immigrant men to bring a wife and lack of available local Chinese women for men to marry, brothels became common in some Chinatowns in the 19th century. Chinese laundries, which required very little capital and English ability, were fairly prosperous. These businesses no longer exist in many Chinatowns and have been replaced by Chinese grocery stores, Chinese restaurants that serve more authentic Chinese cuisine, and other establishments. While opium dens no longer exist, illegal basement gambling parlors are still places of recreation in many Chinatowns, where men gather to play mahjong and other games. These shady gambling venues are featured, when portraying Chinatown, in the media such as an episode of The X-Files and the comedy film High School High.


Most Chinatowns are centered on food and hence Chinatowns worldwide are usually popular destinations for various ethnic Chinese and increasingly, other Asian cuisines such as Vietnamese, Thai, and Malaysian. Some Chinatowns such as Singapore have their localized style of Chinese cuisine. Restaurants serve many Chinatowns both as a major economic component and social gathering places. In the Chinatowns in the western countries, restaurant work may be the only type of employment available for poorer immigrants, especially those who cannot converse fluently in the language of the adopted country. Most Chinatowns generally have a range of authentic and touristy restaurants.
San Francisco's Chinatown retains many historic restaurants, including those established from the 1910s to the 1950s, although some that lasted for generations have shut in recent years and others have modernized their menus. Many Chinatown eateries from that era specialized in American Chinese cuisine (or, depending on where they were located, Canadian Chinese cuisine, Chinese Cuban cuisine, etc.), especially chop suey and chow mein. They often used gaudy neon lighting to attract non-Chinese customers, large red doors, Chinese paper lanterns, and zodiac placemats. Often these restaurants had English-language signs written in a typeface intended to appear stereotypically "Chinese" by being composed of strokes similar to those in hanzi writing.
Generally, restaurants serving authentic Chinese food primarily to immigrant customers have never conformed to these Chinatown stereotypes. Because of ethnic Chinese immigration and the expanded palate of many contemporary cultures, the remaining American Chinese and Canadian Chinese cuisine restaurants are seen as anachronisms but remain popular and profitable. In many Chinatowns, there are now many large, authentic Cantonese seafood restaurants, restaurants specializing in other varieties of Chinese cuisine such as Hakka cuisine, Szechuan cuisine, Shanghai cuisine, etc., and small restaurants with delis.

Chop suey and chow mein eateries

Lit by neon signage, restaurants offering chop suey or chow mein mainly for the benefit for non-Chinese customers were fairly frequent in Chinatowns of old. These dishes are offered in standard barbecue restaurants and takeouts (take-away restaurants).

Cantonese seafood restaurants

Cantonese seafood restaurants (海鮮酒家, pronounced in Cantonese as hoy seen jau ga) typically use a large dining room layout, have ornate designs, and specialize in seafood such as expensive Chinese-style lobsters, crabs, prawns, clams, and oysters, all kept live in tanks until preparation. They also offer the delicacy of shark fin soup. Some seafood restaurants may also offer dim sum in the morning through the early afternoon hours as Chinese-speaking female waiters announce the names of dishes whilst pushing steamy carts (Britisher: trolleys) of food and other pastries across the restaurant. Despite the popularity of dim sum brunch among ethnic Chinese and often crowded and very chatty atmosphere of the dining rooms, they are generally considered loss leaders. These restaurants are also used for weddings, banquets, and other special events.
These types of restaurants flourished and became in vogue in Hong Kong during the 1960s and subsequently began opening in various Chinatowns overseas. Owing to their higher menu prices and greater amount of investment capital required to open and manage one (due to higher levels of staffing needed), they tend to be more common in Chinatowns and satellite communities in developed countries and in fairly affluent Chinese immigrant communities, notably in Australia, Canada, and the United States, where they have received significant population of Hong Kong Chinese émigrés. Poorer immigrants usually cannot start these kinds of restaurants, although they too are employed in them. There are generally fewer of them in the older Chinatowns; for example, they are practically non-existent in Vancouver's Chinatown, but more are found in its suburbs such as Richmond, British Columbia, Canada. Competition between these restaurants is often fierce; hence owners of seafood restaurants hire and even "steal" well-rounded chefs, many of whom are from Hong Kong.

BBQ delicatessens/restaurants

Also, Chinese barbecue deli restaurants , called siu laap (燒臘) and sometimes called a "noodle house" (麵家, mein ga) in Cantonese, are generally low-key and serve less expensive fare such as wonton noodles (or wonton mein), chow fun (炒粉, stir-fry rice noodles), yang chow fried rice (揚州炒飯), and rice porridge or congee, known as juk in Cantonese Chinese. They also tend to have displays of whole pre-cooked roasted ducks and suckling pigs hanging on their windows, a common feature in most Chinatowns worldwide and in which Chinatowns are widely known for. These delis also serve barbecue pork (叉燒, cha siu), chicken feet and other Chinese-style items less welcome to the typical Western palate. Food is usually intended for takeaway (American: take-out). Some of these Chinatown restaurants sometimes have the reputation of being "greasy spoons" and reputation for poor service. Nonetheless, with their low prices, they are still patronized by both Chinese and any other customers on a budget.
To adapt to local tastes, the best Chinese Mexican-style Cantonese cuisine is said to be found in Mexicali's Chinatown (or La Chinesca in its local Spanish) or the Chinese Peruvian cuisine in the Barrio Chino of Lima.
Vietnamese immigrants, both ethnic Chinese and non-Chinese, have opened restaurants in many Chinatowns, serving Vietnamese pho beef noodle soups and Franco-Vietnamese sandwiches. Some immigrants have also started restaurants serving Teochew Chinese cuisine. Some Chinatowns old and new may also contain several pan-Asian restaurants offering a variety of Asian noodles under one roof.


A special feature of Chinatown in Lima, Peru (Barrio Chino de Lima) is the chifa, a Peruvian-Chinese type of restaurant which mixes Cantonese Chinese cuisine with local Peruvian flavors. Chifa is the Peruvian Spanish deriative of the Cantonese phrase jee fon (饎飯), which renders as "cook rice" or as "cook meal'". This type of restaurant is popular with native Peruvians.

Street vendors

Besides restaurants, the Chinatowns of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Singapore are noted for their street vendors selling local-style Chinese food from carts and stalls. They are also known as hawker stands and many have developed into hawker centers.


Most Chinatown businesses are engaged in the import-export and wholesale businesses; hence a large number of trading companies are found in Chinatowns.

Ginseng, herbs and animal parts

Small ginseng and herb shops are common in most Chinatowns, selling products used in traditional Chinese medicine. The Canadian government has stepped up policing of Chinese traditional medicinal stores and on a few occasions several Chinese stores in Vancouver and Toronto have been raided for products taken from the harvesting of rare and endangered species, such as tiger bone, bear paw and bear gall bladder. This has been alleged by some Chinese to be racial persecution, despite environmental and moral concerns. Other products sold in this trade include sea cucumbers, sea horses, lizards, deer musk glands, , shark fins, swallows' nests, antlers, bear bile pills, crocodile bile pills, deer musk pills, rhino skin pills, and pangolin pills, as well as a wide range of mushrooms, herbs, bark, seaweed, roots and more.


As with the restaurant trade, grocery stores and seafood markets serve a key function in Chinatown economies, and these stores sell Chinese ingredients to such restaurants. Such markets are wholesalers. Chinatown grocers and markets are often characterized by sidewalk vegetable and fruit stalls – a quintessential image of Chinatowns – and also sell a variety of grocery items imported from East Asia (chiefly Mainland China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea) and Southeast Asia (principally Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia). For example, most Chinatown markets stock items such as sacks of Thai jasmine rice, Chinese chrysanthemum and oolong teas, bottles of oyster sauce, rice vermicelli, Hong Kong soybean beverages, Malaysian snack items, Taiwanese rice crackers, and Japanese seaweed and Chinese specialties such as black duck eggs (often used in rice porridge), bok choy and water chestnuts. These markets may also sell fish (especially tilapia) and other seafood items, which are kept alive in aquariums, for Chinese and other Asian cuisine dishes. Until recently, these items generally could not be found outside of the Chinatown enclaves, although since the 1970s Asian supermarkets have proliferated in the suburbs of North America and Australia, competing strongly with the old Chinatown markets.

Religious and funerary supplies

In keeping with Buddhist and Taoist funeral traditions, Chinese specialty shops also sell incense and funeral items which provide material comfort in the afterlife of the deceased. Shops sell specially-crafted replicas of small paper houses, paper radios, paper televisions, paper telephones, paper jewelry, and other material items. They also sell "hell money" currency notes. These items are intended to be burned in a furnace.
These businesses also sell red, wooden Buddhist altars and small statues for worship. Per Chinese custom, an offering of oranges are usually placed in front of the statue in the altar. Some altars are stacked atop each other. These altars may be found in many Chinatown businesses.

Video CD stores

Chinatowns may contain small businesses that sell imported VCDs and DVDs of Chinese-language films and karaoke. The VCDs are mainly titles of Hong Kong and PRC films, while there are also VCDs of Japanese anime and occasionally pornography. Often, imported bootleg DVDs and VCDs are sold owing to lax enforcement of copyright laws.

Street merchants

Street merchants selling low-priced vegetables, fruits, clothes, newspapers, and knickknacks are common in most Chinatowns. Most of the peddlers tend to be elderly (Cantonese: lo wah cue).

Benevolent and business associations

A major component of many Chinatowns is the family benevolent association, which provides some degree of aid to immigrants. These associations generally provide social support, religious services, death benefits (members' names in Chinese are generally enshrined on tablets and posted on walls), meals, and recreational activities for ethnic Chinese, especially for older Chinese migrants. Membership in these associations can be based on members sharing a common Chinese surname or belonging to a common clan, spoken Chinese dialect, specific village, region or country of origin, and so on. Many have their own facilities.
Some examples include San Francisco's prominent Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (中華總會館), aka Chinese Six Companies, and Los Angeles' Southern California Teochew Association. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association is among the largest umbrella groups of benevolent associations in the North America, which branches in several Chinatowns. Politically, the CCBA has traditionally been aligned with the Kuomintang and the Republic of China.
The London Chinatown Chinese Association is active in Chinatown, London. Paris has an institution in the Association des Résidents en France d'origine indochinoise and it servicing overseas Chinese immigrants in Paris who were born in the former French Indochina.
Traditionally, Chinatown-based associations have also been aligned on ethnic Chinese business interests, such as restaurant, grocery, and laundry (antiquated) associations in Chinatowns in North America. In Chicago's Chinatown, the On Leong Merchants Association was active.

Annual events in Chinatown

Most Chinatowns present Chinese New Year (also known as Lunar New Year) festivities with dragon and lion dances accompanied by the rhythm of clashing of cymbals, clanging on a gong, clapping of hardwood clappers, by pounding of drums, and by loud Chinese firecrackers, set off especially in front of ethnic Chinese storefronts, where the "lion" character attempts to reach for a lettuce or catch an orange. The lion typically contains two performers and performances may involves several stunts. In return, storekeepers usually donate some money to the performers, some of whom belong to local martial arts affiliations.
In addition, some streets of Chinatowns are closed off for parades, Chinese acrobatics and martial arts demonstrations, street festivals, and carnival rides—this is dependent on the promoters or organizers of the events. Other festivals may also be held in a parking lot/car park, local park, or school grounds within Chinatown.
Some Chinatowns hold an annual "Miss Chinatown" beauty pageant, such as "Miss Chinatown San Francisco," "Miss Chinatown Hawaii," "Miss Chinatown Houston" or "Miss Chinatown Atlanta."

Dragon and lion dances

Dragon and lion dances are performed in Chinatown every Chinese New Year, particularly to scare off evil spirits and bring good fortune to the community. They are also performed to celebrate a grand opening of a new Chinatown business, such as a restaurant or bank.
Ironically, many lion and dragon dances are considered more preserved in true form in Chinatowns than in China itself. This discrepancy is attributed to the fact that traditional Chinese customs, including lion and dragon dances, were unable to flourish during the political and social instabilities of Imperial China under rule of the Qing Dynasty and were almost eliminated completely under the communist order of the People's Republic of China under Chairman Mao Zedong. However, due to the migration of Chinese all over the world (particularly Southeast Asia), the dances were continually practiced by overseas Chinese and performed in Chinatowns.
Ceremonial wreaths and leafy green plants with red-coloured ribbons strewn across are also usually placed in front of new Chinatown businesses by well-wishers (particularly family members, wholesalers, community organizations, and so on), to assure future success.

Developments of newer Chinese retail from 1970s to present day

Newer arrivals of Chinese immigrants—from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia—generally ignored the older Chinatowns that were established by the earlier immigrants. Political instabilities and upheavals in East Asia during the 1970s and 1980s, caused an influx of new immigration. Additionally, investors and developers were taking advantage of major real estate opportunities. For example, developers have built up strip malls. Satellite Chinese communities outside old Chinatowns are especially common in Pacific Rim anglosphere countries of Australia, Canada, and United States.
Later waves of immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan have arrived with comparative affluence and may have no need for the benevolent associations described above. These communities contain restaurants and stores but in sprawled out fashion (some in suburban form), rather than in cramped conditions. They are not called "Chinatowns" per se, but serve as quasi-Chinatowns. In place of the term "Chinatown", some of these business districts have earned nicknames which correspond to the cities of the immigrants' origins, such as "Little Taipei" (Monterey Park, California, United States), "Little Shanghai" (Ashfield, New South Wales, Australia), and "Little Hong Kong" (Richmond, British Columbia, Canada).
These new forms of Chinese retail are typically to be located in the cities of Australia, Canada, and the United States and serve as newer centers of Chinese activity. As a result, some cities that received significant amounts of recent Chinese—namely San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, and Sydney—have one main Chinatown (often of historic value) and an alternative center of retail and cultural activities in outlying communities.
The article Chinatown patterns in North America describes these developments. Effects on the old Chinatowns are mentioned in Social problems in Chinatown.

Factors influencing developments of newer quasi-Chinatowns

Examples of new Chinatowns

The articles Chinatowns in North America and Chinatowns in Australasia provide more detail while the List of Chinatowns has general locations.
Flushing, Queens, New York (New York City)
In the 1970s and 1980s, Flushing was settled by an influx of Chinese immigrants from Taiwan—who have largely avoided Chinatown, Manhattan for the most part. The Chinese business district is located on Roosevelt Avenue. Today, the community is not exclusively Taiwanese/Chinese but also contains an adjacent Korean area.
Cabramatta, New South Wales, Australia (Sydney)
A new Chinese retail district was formed by ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam in the heavily working-class Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, but it also services the Vietnamese and Southeast Asian communities in general. This community contains a Chinese paifang that was built in 1989.
Richmond, British Columbia, Canada (Vancouver)
Hong Kong Chinese immigrants settled in the Vancouver area in the 1980s and 1990s. The shopping malls are located upon No. 3 Road (in an area called the Golden Village) in the fairly affluent suburb of Richmond, which have replaced the cultural influence of the poorer Chinatown in downtown Vancouver.
Markham, Ontario, Canada (Greater Toronto Area)
Many Chinese strip plazas are foundalong Highway 7 and Steeles (particularly around Steeles and Kennedy). The construction of Pacific Mall (North America's biggest Chinese-theme mall) in 1997 has attracted visitors from Toronto and abroad.
Cyrildene, South Africa (in Johannesburg) As an example of a growing satellite Chinatown outside the Pacific rim, immigrants from Fujian, China have set up shops in the newer Chinese enclave in Cyrildene (Derrick Ave), an eastern suburb of Johannesburg. It compares favouraby to the much faded Cantonese Chinatown in the CBD.

Names for Chinatowns

In Chinese, Chinatown is usually called, in Standard Mandarin, Tángrénjiē (唐人街): "Tang people streets". Indeed, some Chinatowns are just a street, such as the relatively short Fisgard Street in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada or the sprawling 4-mile (6.4km) long new Chinatown of Bellaire Boulevard in Houston, Texas. In Cantonese, it is called Tong yan gai (Tang people street) and the modern Tong yan fau (唐人埠), which literally means Tang people town or more accurately, Chinese town. Hong ngin gai is used in the Taishan dialect, the once prevalent dialect spoken in North American Chinatowns. It is Tong ngin gai in Hakka, one of the widely spoken and diffused dialects among overseas Chinese. Tang and Tong refer to the Tang Dynasty, an era in Chinese history. A more modern Chinese name is Huábù (華埠: Chinese City), used in the semi-official Chinese translations of some cities' documents and signs. Bù, pronounced sometimes as fù, usually means seaport; but in this sense, it means city or town. The literal word-for-word translation of Chinatown is Zhōngguó Chéng (中國城), occasionally used in Chinese writing.
In Francophone regions (such as France and Quebec), Chinatown is often referred to as le quartier Chinois (the Chinese Quarter; plural: les quartiers Chinois) and the Spanish-language term is usually el barrio chino (the Chinese neighborhood; plural: los barrios chinos), used in Spain and Latin America. (However, barrio chino or its Catalan cognate barri xines do not always refer to a Chinese neighborhood: these are also common terms for a disreputable district with drugs and prostitution, and often no connection to the Chinese.). The Vietnamese term for Chinatown is Khu người Hoa, due to the prevalence of the Vietnamese language in Chinatowns of Paris, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Montréal as ethic Chinese from Vietnam have set up shop in them. Other countries also have idiosyncratic names for Chinatown in local languages and in Chinese; however, some local terms may not necessarily translate as Chinatown. For example, Singapore's tourist-centric Chinatown is called in local Singaporean Mandarin Niúchēshǔi (牛车水), which literally means "Ox-cart water" from the Malay 'Kreta Ayer' in reference to the water carts that used to ply the area. Some languages have adopted the English-language term, such as Dutch, German, and Bahasa Malaysia. In Malaysia, the term Chinatown is named under administrative reason. Instead, the name Chee Chong Kai( 茨厂街)is preferred and agreed upon by the locals. Chee in Hakka means tapioca, chong means factory and kai means street. This is originated from a factory that was set up by Yap Ah Loy, a rich Kapitan (a Chinese immigrant that has administrative and political power under the British rule) that made tapioca. Chee Chong Kai is also called jalan Petaling or "Petaling Street".
Several alternate English names for Chinatown include China Town (generally used in British and Australian English), The Chinese District, Chinese Quarter and China Alley (an antiquated term used primarily in several rural towns in the western United States for a Chinese community; some of these are now historical sites). In the case of Lillooet, British Columbia, Canada, China Alley was a parallel commercial street adjacent to the town's Main Street, enjoying a view over the river valley adjacent and also over the main residential part of Chinatown, which was largely of adobe construction. All traces of Chinatown and China Alley there have disappeared, despite a once large and prosperous community.

Chinatowns worldwide

Chinatowns are most common in North America, Asia, Australia and Europe, but are common across the world.

United Kingdom

Main articles: Chinatown, London, Chinatown, Manchester, Chinatown, Liverpool and Chinatown, Birmingham Chinatowns in the UK are not heavily residential, the Chinese in the UK are relatively dispersed, and do not form ethnic enclaves as in many other countries, although the highest number are to be found in large cities and in the South-East. The United Kingdom has several Chinatowns, including the largest one in central London, located in the Soho area, established in the 1950s and 1960s. Other UK Chinatowns are found in the English cities of Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle, the Scottish cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, the Welsh capital Cardiff and a growing population of Chinese immigrants are present in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
London's Chinatown is mainly commercial with many Chinese restaurants and businesses. A new Chinese gate over Wardour Street marking the entrance to Leicester Square is planned as well. London's Chinatown is undergoing the politics of gentrification, with a £50 million planned regeneration.
There are plans to revive London's original Chinese district in Limehouse as part of the wider regeneration of East London. This area was bombed out, as with much of London, during the Blitz in the Second World War causing a relocation of the few ethnic Chinese who had lived there to other areas.
Other major Chinese-run businesses can be found in other parts of London, e.g. in suburban Croydon. At present, they consist mainly of a shopping centre with a major Chinese British supermarket chain as the anchor. One such centre in Croydon is called China Town Mall and has been built complete with Chinese-style architecture and gateway. Oriental City in Colindale, boasts a well stocked supermarket, a large food court of E/SE Asian cuisines, several other restaurants, a games arcade, herbal shops, masseurs, and a cultural performance space. Queensway, though a cosmopolitan blend of many cultures, also has a sizable Chinese presence and a substantial cluster of Chinese restaurants and other businesses.
The Chinatown in Liverpool in the Merseyside area is on Duke Street and is home to the oldest Chinese community in Europe. The arch located at the gateway is also the largest of its kind outside of China. It has been under regeneration. Sheffield has no official Chinatown although London Road, Highfield is the centre of the Sheffield Chinese community. There are many Chinese restaurants, supermarkets and community stores and home of the Sheffield Chinese Community Centre. The Sheffield Chinese community is pressing for the street to be formally labelled Sheffield's Chinatown.
Northern Ireland
Belfast in Northern Ireland has a large Chinese immigrant population. Although there is no formal Chinatown, the area on the street of Donegall Pass and Dublin Road exhibits the properties of many Chinatowns.
Glasgow contains a Chinatown.
In 2003, the city council of Aberdeen approved plans for a new Chinatown in the northern part of the city.

Artificial Chinatowns

The latest trend of Chinatowns has been to build-up artificial Chinatowns, constructed as Chinese-themed shopping malls in lieu of actual traditional communities. Examples are in Las Vegas (United States—see Chinatown, Las Vegas), Dubai (United Arab Emirates), Glasgow (United Kingdom), Incheon (South Korea), Dobroieşti (Romania), St. Petersburg (Russia) and Darwin (Australia) and in some Canadian cities, most notably the Golden Village in Richmond, British Columbia.
There is one such mall going up in 2006 in Manila in the Philippines, in which the project is called "Neo Chinatown" and is to be developed in conjunction with Filipino Chinese and Mainland Chinese businessmen.

Chinatown in film, television, and the arts



  • Father Ted (1998): episode titled "Are You Right There, Father Ted?" Features a Chinatown on Craggy Island, the fiction island off the coast of Ireland.
  • Hawaii Five-O (1978): episode titled "A Death in the Family", Honolulu Chinatown
  • The Incredible Hulk (1981): episode titled "East Winds"
  • Reading Rainbow (1980): educational series, "Liang & the Magic Paintbrush" episode, Manhattan Chinatown
  • Gideon Oliver (1989), episode 2 ("Tongs"), Louis Gossett, Jr., filmed in Manhattan.
  • My Secret Identity (1989): episode titled "The Eyes of the Shadow"
  • The Simpsons (1989–present day): animated series. Characters visit the Manhattan Chinatown in the episode "The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson". The first part of the episode titled "A Hunka Hunka Burns in Love" takes place in the fictitious Springfield Chinatown. Included are many exaggerated or ridiculous depictions of a dragon dance, fortune cookies, and an imagining of a "Tibettown".
  • Kung Fu: The Legend Continues (1993–1997): starring David Carradine and Chris Potter. Numerous episodes are set in the Chinatown of an unnamed major U.S. city as the protagonist lives in one. Filmed in Toronto.
  • Nash Bridges (1996–2001): episode titled "Promised Land", San Francisco's Chinatown, that has title character Nash (Don Johnson) and his unit investigating a powerful crime lord (Michael Paul Chan).
  • The X-Files (1996): episode titled "Hell Money", portraying San Francisco's Chinatown. Filmed in Vancouver.
  • Charmed (1998): episode titled "Dead Man Dating", San Francisco's Chinatown.
  • Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (1999–2006): two episodes in Manhattan Chinatown. The episode "Debt" deals with the issue of immigrant smuggling, whereas "Inheritance" deals with a serial offender who targets members of the Chinese community.
  • Time Machine: Chinatown: Strangers in a Strange Land (2000): documentary, The History Channel.
  • Law and Order: Criminal Intent (2001): cold open of the episode "Chinoiserie" features a heinous crime taking place in Manhattan Chinatown.
  • Martin Yan's Chinatowns (2002–2004): cooking show on Food Network Canada, shows multiple worldwide Chinatowns and their various Chinese cuisine.
  • Sucker Free City (2004) filmed for cable television and directed by Spike Lee, set and filmed on-location in San Francisco's Chinatown, a vignette dealing with a teenage Chinatown racketeer and selling of pirated gangsta rap CDs in Chinatown.
  • Family Guy (2005): In the episode "Breaking Out Is Hard to Do", Lois is sentenced to three years in prison for stealing. Peter smuggles Lois out of prison and they hop into a laundry van which brings them to "Asiantown" where they seek refuge. "Asiantown" is a reference to and resembles a Chinatown.



Further reading

  • Sons of the Yellow Emperor: A History of the Chinese Diaspora (1994) by Lynn Pan. Book with detailed histories of Chinese diaspora communities (Chinatowns) from San Francisco, Honolulu, Bangkok, Manila, Johannesburg, Sydney, London, Lima, etc.
  • Chew, James R. "Boyhood Days in Winnemucca, 1901–1910." Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 1998 41(3): 206-209. ISSN 0047-9462 Oral history (1981) describes the Chinatown of Winnemucca, Nevada, during 1901–10. Though many Chinese left Winnemucca after the Central Pacific Railroad was completed in 1869, around four hundred Chinese had formed a community in the town by the 1890s. Among the prominent buildings was the Joss House, a place of worship and celebration that was visited by Chinese president Sun Yat-Sen in 1911. Beyond describing the physical layout of the Chinatown, the author recalls some of the commercial and gambling activities in the community.
  • "Chinatown: Conflicting Images, Contested Terrain", K. Scott Wong, Melus (Vol. 20, Issue 1), 1995. Scholarly work discussing the negative perceptions and imagery of old Chinatowns.
  • Daniel Williams, "Chinatown Is a Hard Sell in Italy", Washington Post Foreign Service, March 1, 2004; Page A11.

Australian Chinatowns

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African Chinatowns

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Asian Chinatowns

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Latin American Chinatowns

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Middle East Chinatowns

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North American Chinatowns

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European Chinatowns

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Chinatown in Danish: Chinatown
Chinatown in German: Chinatown
Chinatown in Spanish: Chinatown
Chinatown in French: Chinatown
Chinatown in Korean: 차이나타운
Chinatown in Indonesian: Pecinan
Chinatown in Italian: Chinatown
Chinatown in Hebrew: צ'יינהטאון (רובע)
Chinatown in Lithuanian: Kinų kvartalas
Chinatown in Malay (macrolanguage): Pekan Cina
Chinatown in Dutch: Chinatown
Chinatown in Japanese: 中華街
Chinatown in Norwegian: Chinatown
Chinatown in Polish: Chinatown (dzielnica)
Chinatown in Portuguese: Chinatown
Chinatown in Russian: Чайна-таун
Chinatown in Finnish: Chinatown
Chinatown in Swedish: Chinatown
Chinatown in Turkish: Chinatown
Chinatown in Chinese: 唐人街
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