August 02, 2007

Mixing the Salad Bowl: The Future of Chinatowns

Author_cn By C.N. Le

Why do you think that so many American cities have areas known as Chinatowns?

Chinatowns first appeared in California during the mid-1800s, and most assume that it was because the Chinese immigrants who came to the U.S. instinctively wanted to seclude themselves from the rest of American society.

In fact, the real reason why Chinatowns first appeared was just the opposite --
Chinese immigrants were forced to live in their own secluded neighborhoods and had no choice.

You see, after the Gold Rush ended and the Transcontinental Railroad was complete, many white workers viewed the Chinese immigrants who had helped build that railroad as a threat to their own job security. chinatown2-1

These views were very similar to those of contemporary Americans who worry about whether Mexican immigrants will affect their job prospects or wages.  These paranoid and racist sentiments fueled an anti-Chinese movement that culminated in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which marked the first time in U.S. history that one ethnic group was singled out and forbidden from coming to the U.S. The Act also forbade Chinese immigrants who were already here from becoming U.S. citizens. 

Other local and state laws restricted where the Chinese could live, what
jobs they could have, denied them a public education, and prevented them
from marrying whites.  In other words, it‘s not that the Chinese didn’t want to assimilate into mainstream American society. They weren’t given the option.

In the face of this overwhelming hostility Chinese immigrants had no other choice but to form their own ethnic enclaves -- the first Chinatowns. These Chinatowns at least allowed the Chinese to make a living among themselves, honed their small business ownership skills, and ultimately promoted greater ethnic solidarity among the Chinese.

In the eyes of most Americans, these Chinatowns were at best curious outposts where visitors could experience a "taste of the exotic" and at its worst, filthy ghettos overrun by subhuman heathens from a mysterious and faraway land.  Because of these popular stereotypes, for much of their existence, Americans basically left these Chinatowns alone.

But that began to change when starting in the 1970s, many Chinatowns around the country (most notably in New York City and San Francisco) began to flourish and expand as large numbers of Chinese immigrants began arriving in the wake of the1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.  As more Chinese immigrants moved in and ethnic businesses opened up, these Chinatowns almost single-handedly revitalized many largely abandoned urban downtown areas.

However, as the Christian Science Monitor reports, their recent success has started to lead to their undoing -- as downtown areas become hip, fashionable, trendy, and desirable again, many Chinatowns are fighting for their existence in the face of overwhelming demands for their land and grand development plans. In Boston, for example:

Residents of [Boston's] Chinatown next door see the 20 acres - called the "Chinatown Gateway" on zoning maps - as their best chance to develop much-needed affordable housing and alleviate a severe housing crunch.  But the city's redevelopment authority has dubbed the area "South Bay" and envisions a new downtown district with upscale apartments, hotels, and offices.

This struggle in Boston is the latest land squeeze that is changing the nature of Chinatowns across the United States. As America's downtowns become hip again, urban real estate is becoming so valuable that ethnic enclaves find it increasingly difficult to survive as the first stop for new immigrants, most of whom have few skills and speak no English.

Once a fixture in most major US cities, many Chinatowns are no longer littlesaigon1-1 magnets for new arrivals. San Diego's Chinatown is now a historic district. A coalition in Phoenix is trying to save the last remaining Chinatown structure from becoming a luxury apartment building. Four of the Chinese enclaves in the ten largest U.S. cities - Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia - are now commercial areas. Dallas, which never had a historic Chinatown, designated a retail center as "Chinatown" in the 1980s. Other Chinatowns in Seattle, Detroit, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., are today primarily tourist spots.

Urban development will ultimately win out, and as part of that trend, Chinatown will become a tourist destination, predicts Michael Liu, a
research associate at the Institute for Asian-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.  "The question is, who will this new Chinatown benefit?"

Are Chinatowns like the one in Boston destined to fade away into the pages of Americans history?  To be honest, the picture is not encouraging.  As history shows, just as the spread of capitalism around the world fundamentally transforms many societies and economies, gentrification and urban/suburban development has leveled many historic neighborhoods. 

At the same time, Asian Americans have increasingly achieved socioeconomic parity with the majority white population -- and in some instances, have surpassed them. Many Asian Americans are now moving into mixed or predominantly white affluent neighborhoods and other social settings. Asian Americans attend college at a higher rate than any other ethnic group, and their family incomes are also significantly higher than those of other minorities.

Asian Americans are increasingly integrating themselves into the American mainstream.  As a result, many may no longer have a strong attachment to traditional ethnic enclaves like Chinatowns.  While
they may still have a strong sense of their Asian identity, they also want to enjoy the fruits of their hard work and live outside of traditional urban Chinatowns.  For many Asian- and Chinese Americans, there is less demand for what Chinatowns have to offer.

The increasing development of suburban ethnic enclaves has created an interesting new version of the old Chinatown. Chinese and other Asian American residents get to enjoy the amenities that affluent suburbs can provide while at the same time they can also enjoy the company and social-psychological comfort of having large numbers of co-ethnic neighbors.

In fact, many suburban Chinatowns and other Asian-majority communities now exist around the country, including Monterey Park and its surrounding cities in southern California; Sunnyvale and its neighboring cities in northern California; and Flushing, Bayside, and Palisades Park and others in the New York City metropolitan area.  As these ethnic enclaves within suburbs continue to flourish and attract even more residents, they stand as perhaps a new model of assimilation in contemporary American society.

As American society continues to become more globalized and transnational, the definition of what it means to be an American is changing and expanding.  The new, emerging picture includes room for those who may not have been born in the U.S., who may not be white, and who might prefer to live in a co-ethnic enclave, but who nonetheless consistently make valuable contributions to American society, culture, and economy.


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It is so easy as a tourist to forget that Chinatowns and other urban enclaves are places where people are building lives in the present tense, because they often have "old world" charm that draws people to visit.

On my other blog focusing on just Asian American-related issues and news, I just posted about the newest officially-recognized Asian American ethnic enclave, "Cambodia Town" in Long Beach, CA:

It's funny you mentioned the "Chinatown" in Dallas. I actually went there about six months ago when my fiance and I were looking for a restaurant for our banquet. Since we live in NYC, we had to rely on recommendations from others about where to go. It is literally just a shopping center under a highway. It was dismal. Especially in contrast to neighborhoods in DFW suburbs like Arlington and Garland that may not have been officially designated "Chinatowns" or "Little Saigons" but actually have large Chinese/Vietnamese populations (and all the shops and restaurants that have grown up around them).

Here's an interesting book about the role of religious institutions in NYC's chinatown and how they connect Chinese immigrant communities around the country.

NYC's (and LA's, to a lesser extent) Chinatown is the gateway to the many restaurant jobs that Chinese immigrants take all over the country. As this author likes to tell his students, there are more Chinese restaurants in the US than McDonalds and Taco Bells combined. A pretty interesting fact that touches on several aspects of globalization and migration.

worth noting, thanks for sharing

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