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AANHPI Month: An Appreciation for Chinatowns

For more than a century, Chinatowns have been welcoming cultural hubs in major cities throughout the U.S. These neighborhoods have a rich and complex history, reflecting broader patterns of immigration, racial segregation, and cultural adaptation. A visitor to Chinatown is likely to find cultural and historical landmarks, culinary and retail establishments, artistic and cultural venues, and more.

Today, these important urban outlets are struggling, put at risk by everything from an explosion of post-Covid Asian hate crimes to gentrification.

The concept of “Chinatowns” can be traced to the first significant wave of Chinese immigrants during the mid-19th century. The California Gold Rush and demand for railroad labor brought large Chinese populations to the West Coast, especially San Francisco, which became the site of the first and most prominent Chinatown.

Facing discrimination and exclusionary laws, Chinese immigrants formed tightly knit communities for mutual support, protection, and cultural preservation. These communities became known as Chinatowns; places serving as refuges for Chinese immigrants, where they could find employment, housing, and social services while maintaining their cultural practices and language.

Chinatowns blossomed as vibrant commercial centers, with restaurants, herbal medicine shops, laundries, import-export enterprises, and more. They also offered cultural touchstones such as traditional festivals, opera houses, temples, and newspapers in Chinese languages.

The Covid-19 pandemic—and subsequent spike in Asian American hate crimes—have also adversely affected Chinatowns. According to the Pew Research Center, hate crimes against Asians erupted during the pandemic, reducing the safety and economic viability of Asian-American neighborhoods.

Even before Covid, Chinatowns faced declining populations. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, some of America's most prominent Chinatowns experienced declines in their Asian populations between 1990 and 2020. New York's lost 24%; Washington, D.C.'s lost 41%; Philadelphia's lost 15%; and San Francisco's lost 6%. This decline could be due to a host of modern challenges, including gentrification, urban renewal projects, and competition from suburban Chinese communities.

Despite these challenges, Chinatowns remain symbols of cultural heritage and community strength. Efforts to preserve these neighborhoods are important, as they continue to serve as cultural sanctuaries and hubs of economic activity for generations of Americans and Chinese Americans. Next time you find yourself in a major city like Boston, San Francisco, or New York, stop by their Chinatowns, support local businesses, and participate in cultural events there. Outside of that, never stop advocating against discrimination; when we do these things, we can help ensure that Chinatowns continue to thrive for generations to come.


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