American Chinatowns are viewed by some as ethnic ghettos and places of exploitation by an internal Chinese American business elite and by society as a whole. Others see them as a source of economic opportunity and an aid in adjusting to a new environment for newly arrived Chinese. In either case, Chinatowns have been the points of entry into America for most Chinese immigrants, and they are an important part of American culture and history.
Thanks to Spain’s presence in the Americas and its trade with China, ethnic Chinese have been in America since the sixteenth century. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century, however, that significant numbers began to seek their fortune in Gam Saan, or “Gold Mountain,” as some called California. It was during this time that the
The lure of fortunes in the gold fields and steady work on the railroad brought immigrants by the thousands, who, in order to protect themselves from the mistreatment and discrimination of the greater society, congregated together and insulated themselves. In addition to this self-segregation, laws were passed that prohibited Chinese from buying land or living outside certain areas. These factors combined to create America’s Chinatowns, which have served as an American repository of the languages, customs, and culture of one of humankind’s oldest civilizations.
The majority of the early Chinese immigrants were either bachelors or men whose families remained in China. These early Chinatowns were seen as bachelor outposts where opium dens and
Store in New York City’s Chinatown in 1903.
After the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, Chinatowns were full of men who were willing to work in worse conditions and for less money than the greater population. Meanwhile, the railroad they had built brought thousands of easterners to the West seeking their fortunes. When these new arrivals found that most of the entry-level jobs had been taken by Chinese men, they declared them a threat and sought protection against the
In 1943, when the United States allied with China against Japan in World War II, the
It was finally the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (also known as the Hart-Celler Act) that made the most significant changes to the demographic profile of America’s Chinatowns. Among other significant changes, it permitted family members of Chinese Americans nonquota entry. Chinatowns had at last become a place for families.
By the early twenty-first century, the majority of Chinese immigrants came from non-Cantonese-speaking areas of China, particularly
Many of the new immigrants are accustomed to a Western lifestyle, speak Mandarin, Fukien, or other dialects, and are more comfortable going directly to middle-class Chinese communities in the suburbs. These satellite Chinese communities are replacing the old Chinatowns as the initial destination for many Chinese immigrants. They have been established across the country, notably in Flushing, Queens, in New York City, and in Monterey Park, San Jose, and Mountain View in California.
It should be noted that although Chinatowns are most often associated with urban centers, in their early days there were many rural and frontier Chinatowns. These rural Chinatowns gradually diminished as the urban Chinatowns grew, particularly between 1910 and 1940.
Chinatown population statistics are inexact due to low participation in the U.S. Census arising from
Chinese speakers call Chinatowns Tangrenjie (streets of Tang people) and regard them as cities within cities. Entering most Chinatowns can be like entering a different country, as one encounters exotic sights, sounds, and smells. The exotic nature of these communities has always made them places of interest for tourists, novelists, and romanticists. Some of their inhabitants find everything they need to live full lives and seldom leave or interact with outsiders.
Three types of associations, all based on traditional Chinese social organization, have played an important role in the lives of Chinatown inhabitants. Clans, or tsu, are organizations based on kinship or family name. Immigrants with family ties are organized to provide aid to each other in time of need. An individual might be provided the benefits of a clan based solely on his or her family name, even if there is no actual blood tie. The role of the clans has largely been taken over by government agencies.
The benevolent associations, or hui kuan, were organized around the places of origin of their members. They not only provided loans and other assistance but also arbitrated disputes among their members and exercised considerable power over them. Over time, the hui kuan were consolidated into a national group called the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, more commonly known as the
The face of Chinatowns has continued to change, but during the early twenty-first century, the communities still faced problems such as substandard housing, crime, and subsistence wages. These problems were growing with increased immigration. By 2008, more than half the population of San
At the same time, many new immigrants are highly skilled professionals and international businessmen who avoid the Cantonese-dominated old Chinatowns and turn instead to the middle-class satellite Chinese communities in the suburbs. Called “ethnoburbs” by some, these communities are flush with an influx of foreign capital, particularly from
While Chinese families still keep their differences from the rest of society in many matters, some of the old walls constructed by them and by the greater society are falling. For example, there has been an increase in mixed marriages, something historically resisted by Chinese families. Other evidence, including increasingly favorable attitudes toward ethnic Chinese by Caucasians, lends weight to the idea that Chinese Americans are less likely to remain insulated. These trends have led some sociologists to expect future Chinatowns to be no more than ethnic theme parks. Whatever their future, studies indicate that tourism will play a major role in their survival.
Whether they are destined to continue to be a destination for new Chinese Americans or to become nothing more than tourist attractions or centers of multiculturalism, Chinatowns have established an enduring place in American history.
Kinkead, Gwen. Chinatown: A Portrait of a Closed Society. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Presents New York’s Chinatown from the perspective of newly arrived immigrants. Lin, Jan. Reconstructing Chinatown: Ethnic Enclave, Global Change. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998. Examines New York’s Chinatown and deconstructs the stereotypes associated with the enclave. Min, Pyong Gap. Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge, 2005. Examination of the Asian American experience, including sections devoted to Chinese Americans. Yung, Judy. San Francisco’s Chinatown. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2006. Excellent collection of vintage photographs showing the history of San Francisco’s Chinatown, with an emphasis on daily life. Zhou, Min. Chinatown: The Socioeconomic Potential of an Urban Enclave. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. Focuses on the immigrant Chinese experience in New York’s Chinatown during the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Chinese Six Companies
Immigration Act of 1943
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965
War Brides Act of 1945
“Yellow peril” campaign