Scrapbook created by Hattie Pinckard, a school-teacher from Springfield, Illinois, during her vacation to Los Angeles, California, in 1906. While portrayals of Chinatowns in the West were mostly negative, many of today’s Chinatowns have become tourist attractions and valued examples of cultural diversity. BEINECKE RARE BOOK AND MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY, YALE UNIVERSITY.

Chinatowns developed worldwide as Chinese immigrants settled to seek new lives abroad. Once considered ghettos for the poor, today’s Chinatowns are symbols of welcome cultural diversity.

A Chinatown is a segregated community of Chinese immigrants. Chinatowns are located in many countries worldwide. The oldest are Japan’s Shinchimachi in Nagasaki, an enclave settled by Chinese traders as early as the seventeenth century, and Thailand’s two-century-old Chinatown in the area surrounding Yaowarat Road in Bangkok. Many Chinatowns originated during the mid-nineteenth century as Chinese fled the poverty and chaos of the late Qing dynasty (1644–1912) and sought to improve their lives abroad.

Chinatowns differ from segregated settlements or ghettos inhabited by Europeans living in Western countries because racial and cultural differences have made it more difficult for Chinese to assimilate. Moreover, in some countries, such as the United States, which had twenty-eight Chinatowns in 1940, Chinese were barred from citizenship and prohibited from property ownership until the mid-twentieth century. As a result, Chinatowns have continued to exist while many of their European counterparts have disappeared.

Early portrayals of Chinatowns were mostly negative, a phenomenon that often reflected tensions between Chinese and non-Chinese populations. Popular journals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries perpetuated the image of Chinatowns as repugnant. Common complaints included unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, unpleasant smells, and immoral or illegal activities. Chinatowns, especially in the West, became stereotyped as slum areas where opium smoking, gambling, prostitution, and gang activity flourished. In the United States such negative images helped fuel the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. That act barred immigration of Chinese laborers into the United States for ten years. The exclusion laws that resulted from the renewals and modifications of the original act were not repealed until World War II.

Recently the portrayals of Chinatowns have changed for the better; Chinatowns have become tourist attractions and examples of welcome cultural diversity in many countries. Sociologists have offered several explanations for the more appealing image. Since the 1960s Chinese in the United States and elsewhere have been characterized as an achievement-oriented minority group whose members have overcome discrimination and hardship to attain success. Pejorative terms such as insularity, clan-dominated, and old-fashioned have given way to positive terms such as industriousness, family pride, and self-respect. And yet a number of Chinatowns worldwide have been both victims and beneficiaries of urban renewal projects and stepped-up law enforcement: As urban property values rise and real-estate developers replace older housing with higher-priced buildings, the number of Chinese residing in these neighborhoods has decreased—while the perception of safer Chinatown neighborhoods attracts non-Chinese to patronize their businesses. Many Chinatowns, such as London’s, have become primarily commercial areas where relatively few people live.

In many cities Chinatowns have been targeted for development projects that enhance their unique cultural traits so that they may serve as tourist attractions. Since 2000 cities such as Antwerp, Boston, Sydney, and Vancouver have preserved or built traditional Chinese-style gates and other landmarks setting their Chinatowns apart from other neighborhoods. Many Chinatowns today are residential and commercial centers that also try to preserve Chinese culture.

Further Reading

Lai, David C. (1988). Chinatowns: Towns within cities in Canada.. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia Press.

Light, I., & Wong, Charles Choy. (1975). Protest or work: Dilemmas of the tourist industry in American Chinatowns. The American Journal of Sociology, 80(6), 1342–1368.

Lee, Rose Hum. (1949). The decline of Chinatowns in the United States. The American Journal of Sociology, 54(5), 422–432.

Wong, Scott. (1995). Chinatown: Conflicting images, contested terrain. MELUS, 20(1), 3–15.

Source: Grasso, June. (2009). Chinatowns. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 348–350. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

The bachelor society of San Francisco Chinatown, 1898. Most of the Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth-century were men. ARNOLD GENTHE, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

Mott Street, in Chinatown, Manhattan, 2004. As many cities recognize the potential for tourism, Chinatowns have been targeted for development projects that enhance their unique cultural traits. PHOTO BY DEREK JENSEN.

A prostitute in San Francisco Chinatown, circa 1896–1906. There was a shortage of Chinese women in early American Chinatowns, causing brothels to flourish. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

Chinatowns (Tángrénji? ???)|Tángrénji? ??? (Chinatowns)

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