Chinatowns Around the World

Chinese Ethnic Enclaves Exist in Urban Areas Around the World as Chinatowns

Chinatown Liverpool
Arch at Chinatown in Liverpool, England. Liverpool is the oldest Chinatown in the United Kingdom. Allan Baxter/Getty Images

An ethnic enclave is a neighborhood in a large city that is home to many members of a city's minority ethnic group. Some examples of ethnic enclaves are "Little Italy's," "Little India's," and "Japantowns." The most well-known type of ethnic enclave is likely "Chinatown."

Chinatowns are home to many people born in China or of Chinese ancestry that now reside in a foreign country. Chinatowns exist on every continent except Antarctica.

For the last few centuries, millions of Chinese people have left China to pursue better economic opportunities abroad. Upon arrival in their strange new cities, they resided in the same neighborhood and felt secure from any cultural and language barriers they faced. They opened businesses that often became very successful. Chinatowns are now frequently visited destinations that are a fascinating example of migratory geography, culture preservation, and assimilation.

Reasons for Chinese Migration

The most common reason for leaving China has been to find work. Sadly, hundreds of years ago, many Chinese people were viewed as an inexpensive source of labor and many were mistreated due to poor working conditions. In their new countries, many Chinese people worked in agricultural fields and grew numerous crops such as coffee, tea, and sugar. Many Chinese helped build the cross-country railroads in the United States and Canada.
Some worked in mining, fishing, or as deckhands on foreign ships. Others worked in the shipping and trading of goods such as silk. Some Chinese people left China due to natural disasters or war. Unfortunately, Chinese migrants were often subjected to prejudice and discrimination. Multiple times in the 19th and 20th centuries, the United States banned Chinese immigration or set strict quotas on the number of Chinese people allowed to enter the country.
When these laws were lifted, more Chinatowns in the United States were established and quickly grew.

Life in Chinatowns

Life in a Chinatown often greatly resembles life in China. Residents speak Mandarin or Cantonese and their new country's language. Street signs and school classes are in both languages. Many people practice traditional Chinese religions. Buildings prominently demonstrate Chinese architecture. Chinatowns are home to hundreds of businesses such as restaurants and stores that sell clothing, jewelry, newspapers, books, handicrafts, tea, and traditional medicinal remedies. Many tourists visit Chinatowns every year to sample Chinese food, observe Chinese music and art, and attend numerous festivals like the Chinese New Year celebration.

Locations of Chinatowns

Located across the Pacific Ocean from China, two cities in the United States have particularly well-known Chinatowns.

New York City Chinatown

The Chinatown is New York City is the largest in the United States. For approximately 150 years, millions of people of Chinese ancestry have resided in this neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The Museum of Chinese in America displays the history of Chinese settlers in the most multiethnic city in the United States.

San Francisco Chinatown

The oldest Chinatown in the United States is located in San Francisco, California, near Grant Avenue and Bush Street.
San Francisco's Chinatown was established in the 1840s when many Chinese people came searching for gold. The district was rebuilt after it suffered severe damage in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The neighborhood is now a very popular tourist attraction.

Additional Chinatowns Worldwide

Chinatowns exist in many more cities around the world. Some of the largest include:

Additional North American Chinatowns

  • Boston, Massachusetts
  • Chicago, Illinois
  • Honolulu, Hawaii
  • Los Angeles, California
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • San Diego, California
  • Seattle, Washington
  • Toronto, Canada
  • Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada - The largest Chinatown in Canada
  • Victoria, British Columbia, Canada - The oldest Chinatown in Canada
  • Washington, DC

Asian Chinatowns (Outside China)

  • Bangkok, Thailand
  • Calcutta, India
  • Jakarta, Indonesia
  • Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
  • Manila, Philippines
  • Singapore
  • Yokohama, Japan

European Chinatowns

  • Liverpool, United Kingdom (the oldest Chinatown in Britain)
  • London, United Kingdom
  • Manchester, United Kingdom
  • Paris, France

Latin American Chinatowns

  • Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • Havana, Cuba
  • Lima, Peru
  • Mexicali, Mexico

Australian Chinatowns

  • Melbourne
  • Sydney

African Chinatown

  • Johannesburg, South Africa
As the most common example of an ethnic enclave, Chinatown districts display cultural and linguistic diversity in large cities that are primarily non-Chinese. The descendants of the original Chinese settlers continue to live and work in the neighborhoods that their hard-working, nostalgic ancestors established. Even though they now live thousands of miles from home, residents of Chinatowns retain ancient Chinese traditions and also adapt the culture and customs of their new country. Chinatowns have become very prosperous and attract many visitors. In the age of globalization and technology, Chinese people will continue to migrate for educational and professional opportunities, and China's intriguing culture will be spread to even more distant corners of the globe.