With Chinese immigration waning, U.S. Chinatowns are at a crossroads

This story is a part of

Human Needs

This story is a part of

Human Needs

San_Fran_Chinatown_989733581.jpeg

San Francsico's Chinatown is still thriving, but other Chinatowns across the country are struggling more as Chinese immigration slows. (Photo by Jason Margolis.)

Author Bonnie Tsui wrote a short article in The Atlantic magazine a few months ago titled “The End of Chinatown.”

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

It's already happening. Tsui cites statistics charting a slow and steady decline of Chinese immigrants from its peak six years ago.

“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?” Tsui said.

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

“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,” he said, while leading a behind-the-scenes tour.

It’s easy to lose focus in Chinatown, through the crowded markets, past tacky tourist shops and brightly colored pagodas, lanterns and Oriental architecture. It's hard to miss the crush of people — it’s 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, American Chinatowns are at a crossroads. Chin 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," he said.

And San Francisco’s Chinatown is still very much a vibrant, bustling place. But many smaller Chinatowns, like the one in nearby Oakland and another in Washington D.C., have struggled.

Chin and his colleague Gen Fujioka know this could also happen in San Francisco. But they don’t see it anytime soon. Fujioka called Tsui’s “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,” Fujioka said.

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 District is also heavily Chinese, but Wong says 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," he said.

Wong has a special attachment to San Francisco’s Chinatown. He helps run a family restaurant there, the R and G Lounge.

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

“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," Wong said. "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 The 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 Christmas Day they host the Kung Pao Kosher Comedy festival. As the name implies, it’s a largely Jewish audience, laughing and eating his food. Last year, So said the festival brought in 600 people. Events like that 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?

In Chinatown’s first public housing project — Chinese and Chinese-Americans have been living there since the 1950’s — you'll see many residents who aren't Asian at all. That's OK with Chin.

“I mean Chinatowns across the country have always been very fluid, and it’s not always been 100 percent Chinese," he said,

Tsui, the author, also wrote a book called “American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods,” and 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 Chinatown (Manhattan) when I was growing up. And the fortune cookies that were peppering my household were little reminders of his path down to Chinatown everyday,” Tsui said. “And 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.”

And while Tsui writes fond portraits of 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,” she said.

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," she said.

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.