When most Americans think about how or why the first Chinatowns appeared in California in the mid-1800s, most assume that it was because the Chinese immigrants who came to the U.S. instinctively wanted to live among each other and 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 basically forced to live in their own secluded neighborhoods and had no other choice.
You see, as after the end of the Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, White workers increasingly saw Chinese immigrants as economic threats who would someday take over their jobs. Based on these paranoid and racist sentiments, an anti-Chinese movement emerged that eventually culminated in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first time in U.S. history that one ethnic group was singled out and forbidden from coming to the U.S., and for those already here, forbidden 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 was not a matter of the Chinese not wanting to assimilate into mainstream American society — in fact, they weren’t even given the option of even attempting to do so.
Therefore, in the face of this overwhelming hostility, for their physical and economic survival, 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, taught them small business ownership skills, and as some scholars argued, ultimately promoted greater ethnic solidarity among the Chinese.
In the eyes of most Americans, these Chinatowns were at best, seen as curious outposts where visitors could experience a “taste of the exotic” and at its worst, as filthy ghettos overrun by subhuman heathens from a mysterious and faraway land. Based on these popular stereotypes, for much of their existence, Americans basically left these Chinatowns alone — until now.
Starting in the 1970s, many Chinatowns around the country began to flourish and expand (most notably in New York City and San Francisco) as large numbers of Chinese immigrants began arriving as a result of the 1965 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:
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 in a 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, usually with few skills and no English.
Once a fixture in most major US cities, many Chinatowns have ceased to exist as 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 enclaves in the 10 largest cities – in 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?” asks Mr. [Peter] Kwong, the author.
Are Chinatowns like the one in Boston destined to fade away into the pages of Americans history as the article implies? To be honest, the picture is not encouraging. As history shows, much like how the spread of capitalism around the world has fundamentally transformed many societies and economies, the march of gentrification and urban/suburban development has been almost overwhelming and has leveled historic neighborhood after historic neighborhood. Therefore, on that front, the prognosis is not encouraging.
At the same time, the other component of this trend lies with the Asian American population itself and the paradoxes of its successes. That is, as Asian Americans have increasingly achieved socioeconomic parity with the majority White population — and in some instances, have surpassed them — many Asian Americans feel uninhibited and unrestricted in moving into mixed or predominantly White affluent neighborhoods and other social settings.
In other words, Asian Americans are increasingly integrating themselves into the American mainstream. As a result, many may not longer have a strong attachment to traditional ethnic enclaves like Chinatowns any longer. While they may still have a strong sense of their Asian identity, they want to enjoy the products and luxuries of their hard work, many of which are likely to be located outside of traditional urban Chinatowns. In that sense, for many Asian- and Chinese Americans, there is less demand for what Chinatowns have to offer.
However, in the midst of these developments, there seems to be an interesting middle ground emerging — the development of suburban Chinatowns and ethnic enclaves. Rather than being located inside crowded urban downtown areas, many of these new ethnic enclaves are located in the suburbs and therein lies their appeal — Chinese and other Asian American residents get to enjoy the amenities associated with their affluence that only suburbs can provide while at the same time, 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 — 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 they continue to flourish and attract even more residents, they stand as perhaps a new model of assimilation in contemporary American society.
That is, as the world in general but American society in particular continue 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, its culture, and its economy.
Ultimately, we may not know what will become of the traditional urban Chinatowns that are increasingly becoming gentrified. However, the evidence that does exist suggests that while the form and location of these ethnic enclaves may change, their vibrancy, attraction, and value to American culture remains as strong as ever.