A Guide to the World’s Chinatowns
You will find Chinatowns in many cities around the world. They are both enclaves for Chinese migrants, many of whom settled the districts over a hundred years ago, and important centres for commerce, as well as dynamic precincts that are often the first stop for both locals and travellers seeking out Asian culture and a variety of exotic cuisines.
Many Chinatowns were once urban ghettos, where restaurant work was the only employment available for poorer immigrants who would buy time to gain fluency in the language of their adopted country. Many countries banned women as migrants or guest workers, and so early Chinese enclaves were often male-only groupings that meant intermarriage with the host community became common. Today, however, these vibrant suburbs are an important part of the multicultural fabric of their cities, and are revitalised living and working communities that have become major tourist destinations.
The Chinese Diaspora
Manila’s Chinatown is regarded as the oldest, established in 1594, and the British in Singapore had named a district Chinatown by 1844. San Francisco is the oldest and one of the largest Chinatowns in North America, and like Melbourne in Australia, was established in the mid-nineteenth century after goldrushes had brought Chinese diggers in search of gold. As well, many Taishanese and Cantonese people arrived as contract labourers to work on the railroads. From the 1890s, significant Chinese communities developed in London and Liverpool, major ports for the China trade, as Chinese mariners chose to stay after their voyages.
Bustling Chinatowns were also established in cities such as Vancouver, New York City, Chicago, Toronto, while European Chinatowns in Europe, including Paris and Manchester, have a more recent establishment date as part of burgeoning post World War Two migrations. After the Vietnam War in the late 1970s, waves of “boat people” migrants settled in the various Chinatowns revitalising the neighbourhoods as pan-Asian business districts and residential neighbourhoods.
Most Chinatowns will have both authentic and touristic Chinese restaurants. Previously, restaurants mainly served authentic Chinese dishes to immigrant customers and have not had to modify their food, but now increased awareness of regional Chinese cuisine, such as Hakka, Szechuan, and Shanghai cuisines, have made the traditional restaurants highly-rated dining destinations. Some Chinatowns, such as Singapore and Lima, developed a localised style of Chinese cuisine that this has evolved with time to become distinctive and equally as popular as traditional cuisine. And while Chinatowns are renown as Chinese food destinations, other Asian cuisines such as Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, and Malaysian are often equally as well represented.
At Chinese New Year time, you’ll find dragon and lion dances are a feature of Chinatowns around the world. These colourful displays are performed to scare off evil spirits and bring good fortune to the community. Often these dances, which were continually practiced by overseas Chinese, are regarded as more authentic in the foreign Chinatowns than in China itself, because they were restricted during he Qing Dynasty, and they almost vanished in recent times.
Today you can travel the world and never be far from Chinese culture as presented in dozens of world Chinatowns. Browse the destinations listed on this site to learn more about their history and get practical information that will help you plan your next Chinatown holiday.