The changing but still colorful face of US Chinatowns

Updated: 2012-12-07 10:01

By Kelly Chung Dawson (China Daily)

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Traditional role of the urban communities survives, Kelly Chung Dawson reports from New York.

When 50,000-plus Chinese prospectors flocked to California during the mid-19th-century Gold Rush, makeshift communities sprang up seemingly overnight. They offered services, protection in numbers and familiar food to the new arrivals.

In 1848, the year historians consider the start of the Gold Rush, San Francisco's Chinatown - the first Chinese-immigrant enclave in North America - was founded. During subsequent decades, similar communities were established in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago, among other cities. Many of these communities remain today, but the character and dynamics of "Chinatowns" have changed - largely due to shifting demographics, gentrification and the dispersal of Chinese among the "ethnoburbs", described by experts as satellite communities of middle-class immigrants.

The changing but still colorful face of US Chinatowns

Revelers attend a Chinese New Year's parade in New York's Chinatown in January. [Photo/Agencies] 

In New York, the 100,000 or so residents of Manhattan's Chinatown - one of the most populous Chinese enclaves outside of Asia - are now outnumbered by the aggregate size of outer-borough communities in Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

The nominal Chinatown lost 17 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010, according to the US Census Bureau, while Flushing's rose by 93 percent and Sunset Park gained 71 percent.

"US Chinatowns are vulnerable and are in some cases fading out," said Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corp, set up in 2006 by local businesses and the New York City government to revive the area.

"The Jewish, German and Italian immigrant communities all disappeared, but we're still here. What gives us hope is that there are certain attributes in the traditional Chinatowns that suburban satellite communities simply can't compete with. Here in New York, it's our location, our concentration of Chinese associations and businesses, and, most importantly, the type of history and roots we have," said Chen.

"I believe that Chinatown will remain, and it will continue to evolve."

Today, the Census Bureau estimates that 3 million Chinese-American adults live in the United States; three-quarters of them were born outside the country.

The changing but still colorful face of US Chinatowns

Revellers dancing at the Chinese New Year parade in New York's Chinatown earlier this year. [Photo/Agencies]

Transition gateways

Historically, a US city's Chinatown has been a gateway for new immigrants who need help with their transition, said Daniel Abramson, an associate professor of urban design and planning at the University of Washington, who has studied the development of US Chinatowns.

"For low-income immigrants, it's especially important to live in communities that are spatially concentrated," he said. "They don't have mobility, so they rely on public transportation. They can't afford to buy houses in the suburbs, and they need face-to-face communication in their own language. They also need the opportunities that come with a centrally located place, because they don't have settled careers."

Illegal immigrants are more likely to live in a traditional Chinatown like the ones Abramson describes, because the density of older neighborhoods makes them harder to police, he said. Additionally, Chinatowns offer cheap, and often substandard, housing that attracts the type of immigrants who see their situations as transient.

A Chinatown's population also includes "floating" workers in low-skill jobs at restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses, said Howard Shih, census programs director at the Asian American Federation, a New York-based nonprofit organization.

"You don't necessarily have to speak English to find a job in a place like Chinatown," Shih said. "That's the appeal. You slowly develop skills and learn about opportunities, and then hopefully you move on.

"Right now, we are still seeing a stream of working-class immigrants who are looking for economic opportunities in hopes of sending money home to China. There is a continued need to help them get on their feet, to find jobs and learn English. That hasn't changed."

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