Chinatowns were initially formed as a place where Chinese immigrants could celebrate their culture, as well as live and work in their communities without discrimination or language barriers. The first one popped up in the U.S. in San Francisco in 1848 and has since become a huge part of the tourism industry in several other cities across the country. The many festivals, colorful shops, and authentic food attract droves of visitors hoping to get a taste of the orient without shipping off to the mainland. With the Chinese New Year just around the corner (February 10), we decided to take a tour of our favorite Chinatowns around the U.S. where the masses will surely be found ringing in the Year of the Snake.
Photo courtesy of Seattle Chinatown-International District
As the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the oldest in the U.S., Chinatown San Francisco is home to thousands of locals and brings in a plethora of tourists every year. The neighborhood contains numerous herbal shops for traditional Chinese medicine remedies and is strewn with the classic pagoda roofs and architecture that make you feel like you have really stepped into another world. Chinatown San Francisco puts on a number of festivals and fairs—especially during the New Year month—including the Chinese New Year Flower Fair and the Miss Chinatown USA Pageant. These and many other events make this area one of the city's top attractions.
Insider Tip: Avoid driving into this part of town as parking can be extremely difficult.
Can't Miss Bite: The highly raved about egg tarts at Golden Gate Bakery (1029 Grant Ave. between Jackson St & Pacific Ave).
Photo courtesy of San Francisco Chinatown
New York City
Set in one of Manhattan’s oldest neighborhoods, New York City Chinatown was settled in the 1800s by Irish, Jewish, Italian, and Chinese immigrants, eventually becoming a booming microcosm of Chinese culture and society. The streets of New York City’s Chinatown are riddled with traditional restaurants, groceries, fish and vegetable markets. At the center of Chinatown, the former entertainment center, Chatham Square, now houses the Kim Lau Memorial Arch, a monument to Chinese-American WWII veterans. The neighborhood offers a number of community activities including summer camps, festivals, and walking tours, as well as New Year’s Celebrations like the Lunar New Year Parade and Festival.
Can't Miss Bite: An "original" egg roll from the first dim sum parlor in NYC, Nam Wah Tea Shop (13 Doyers St between Bowery & Chatham Sq). Be aware that it's not a traditional egg roll as we know it, but a fun taste of NYC Chinatown nonetheless.
Photo courtesy of Chinatown Partnership LDC
Vancouver Chinatown started taking shape from 1890-1920 around what was then known as Canton Alley and Shanghai Alley. The vibrant streets were constantly filled with Chinese opera and music. Eventually a 500-seat Chinese theater was built in 1898, it became a main gathering place for the neighborhood’s residents to enjoy activities and live entertainment. As one of the earliest communities in British Columbia, there are several historical attractions to take in today, including Sam Kee, the world’s narrowest building; the Chinese Zodiac Mosaic in the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park Courtyard; and the Chinese Winds of Change Mural depicting over 100 years of Chinese establishment in Canada. There is even a shrine to Jimi Hendrix at the site of a restaurant his grandmother once owned and the legendary musician would frequent as a child. For the new year, the city’s annual Chinese New Year Parade will roll through town complete with multi-cultural dances, marching bands, martial arts performances, and the largest collection of lion dance teams in Canada.
Insider Tip: If you’re in the area from May through September, check out the Vancouver Chinatown Night Market (Keefer St./Main St. between Main & Columbia St.). This outdoor festival features vendors selling everything from toys to food to jewelry, with performers and music in the streets. It is not as expansive as the Richmond Night Market, but less crowded and overwhelming to stroll through.
Photo courtesy of The Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver
Los Angeles Chinatown was originally created as one of the nation’s first malls in 1938. The notable restaurants and shops were moved from Old Chinatown, which had served as socioeconomic haven for many Chinese immigrants who were not allowed to attain citizenship; being barred from owning land, they often took to renting shops for themselves. Old Chinatown became a thriving area for trades such as laundering and agricultural markets. Since Chinatown was moved to Central Plaza, it has served as a hub for immigrants during the 1900s. Today, the population of New Chinatown is 15,000 and its main draws are its location in downtown LA, celebrity sightings, Chinese restaurants, and a unique dragon sculpture archway that welcomes visitors to the neighborhood. Los Angeles Chinatown will ring in the New Year at midnight on February 10 at the Midnight Temple Ceremony, where incense, firecrackers, Taoist Monks, and lion dancers will help to ensure that the coming year is filled with good fortune.
Insider Tip: Most shops close in the early evening, leaving only restaurants open at night. So if you want to do some shopping, come between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Can't Miss Bite: The house special shrimp from Chinese Friends (984 N Broadway). These lightly battered and fried shrimp that are covered in a sweet and spicy sauce have become a favorite around town.
Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Chinatown
Chicago Chinatown was founded by Chinese immigrants who had helped to finish the transcontinental railroad. As riots and xenophobia caused them to flee many large western cities, a few found refuge in a more lax treatment of immigrants in Chicago. As the Chinese population grew however, and the Great Depression burdened the nation, even Chicago turned against the Asian population, and many were forced from their jobs and homes. Much has changed over the years and today, Chinatown Chicago is highly visited and famed for traditional Asian cuisine, affordable gifts, fresh herbs and teas, and tours of the scenic routes through the neighborhood. Chinatown Chicago puts on Temple Street Market Festival every weekend for tourists, and residents alike, to enjoy affordable produce and exposure to Chinese customs. When attending the Lunar New Year Parade, it is suggested you wear red in keeping with the belief of the good luck it brings.
Insider Tip: If you have time and are looking to experience more of the city, take a water taxi there. Just know it is still about a half mile from the dock to Chicago Chinatown.
Can't Miss Bite: Dim sum from Phoenix Restaurant (2131 S Archer Ave between Wentworth Ave & 21st St). It gets very busy on the weekends, so it's best to come during the week to avoid the crowds.
Photo courtesy of Chicago Chinatown/Daniel Schwen
Seattle’s Chinatown-International District is located on the west side of the city and is home to mini Japanese, Vietnamese, and of course Chinese communities. Chinese immigrants flocked to the Pacific Northwest in the 1880s, often to work as industrial laborers. As their population grew, and the American economy receded, Seattle became a less welcoming place and many immigrants were forced from their homes, which were cleared out to make room for road expansions. A new Chinatown was reestablished in its current place, with many of the historic buildings being filled with modern business and organizations. The streets of Seattle’s current Chinatown are bustling with restaurant goers, specialty-store shoppers, and families utilizing the International Children’s Park and Community Center that are set in the neighborhood. The district celebrates the New Year with such offerings as a Lunar New Year Food Walk which allows visitors to taste the culinary delights of China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia with a $2 tasting menu.
Insider Tip/Can't Miss Bite: This happens to be an all-in-one experience: Uwajimaya. It's a supermarket, gift shop and food court in one, and also contains a bookstore. Keep in mind, the parking lot charges by how much you spend inside—spend $7 and the first hour is free; spend $15 and the second hour is free.
Photo courtesy of Seattle Chinatown-International District
Toronto Chinatown has seen many ups and downs in the years between 1910-1967, as once firmly established businesses in the area became devastated by the Great Depression. By the 60s however, housands of immigrants made their way from Hong Kong and Guangdong, breathing new life into this ever-changing part of town. Though construction of the City Hall of Toronto forced most to relocate just west of the original location, today it is buzzing, lined with authentic restaurants, shops, monuments and people celebrating Chinese culture and traditions. The Toronto Chinatown Festival takes place in September, welcoming over 100,000 people to the community to shop, eat and join in on the fun and games. Chinese New Year brings parades, foodie walking tours, acrobat performances, magic shows, street vendors, and lots of locals and tourists donning red for good luck.
Can’t Miss Bite: The soups at Swatow Restaurant (309 Spadina Ave) have people going back again and again, particularly the Shrimp Dumpling Soup and the Won Ton Soup.