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Chinatowns in the United States


Welcome again to As It Is, your daily magazine show from VOA Learning English.

Today, we take a cultural turn. We learn about the many Chinatowns in the United States. Chinese immigrants have lived and worked in America since the 1800s. As we will hear, Chinatowns can be population centers of people of Chinese ancestry, or they may be tourism centers. Today, many cities have their own Chinatowns, including Washington, DC.

People from China have been in the United States since the middle of the 1800s. Today, Asians are America’s fastest growing minority. Steve Ember has this story.

Almost every major city in the country has an area called “Chinatown.”

They call it Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California, USA

Looks down from Chinatown, over a foggy bay…

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote a Broadway musical in the late 1950s called “Flower Drum Song.” It was about generational conflict in Chinese-American families in San Francisco’s Chinatown. In “Grant Avenue,” Pat Suzuki joyfully sang of the attractions that brought visitors to the downtown Chinese community.

A western street with eastern manners

Tall pagodas with golden banners

Throw their shadows through a lantern glow

You can shop for precious jade or teakwood tables…

A mid-century postcard for tourists shows New York City's Chinatown.
From San Francisco to New York, people visit Chinatown for restaurants, grocery stores, herbal cures, and other businesses. But many Chinese have moved out of traditional Chinatown neighborhoods and now live in suburbs just outside the inner city. For example, one of the largest mainly Chinese suburbs is just outside Los Angeles, California. But such areas are very different from the old Chinatown.

Steve Wong is acting director of the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. He says Chinatowns in major American cities are now mainly for tourists.

“If you walk around Chinatown today in Los Angeles and many other big cities, you have these facades of Chinese-ness, which sometimes is real. Sometimes it’s not. And so you have gift shops, you have Chinese food which is catering towards American tastes. I don’t even call it Chinese food. I think it’s very American.”

But at one time, Chinatown was the only place where Chinese immigrants could live. The first Chinese immigrants arrived from southern China in the 1800s as laborers. Many worked on building America’s first railroads. Then, in 1882, the United States banned Chinese immigration. Hostility toward the Chinese led to the creation of Chinatowns. Steve Wong tells about how the neighborhoods developed.

“Without being able to bring in families and women, they (Chinese men) weren’t able to develop their communities. So they had to turn to the outside and create an economy based on tourism.”

Min Zhou is a professor at the University of Southern California Los Angeles. In the past thirty years, Chinese immigrants from Taiwan, and then China, came to America as students – and then stayed in the United States. She describes their arrival.

“A lot of them are from middle class, they want to buy or rent houses rather than live in apartments and they also want to find good school districts. So Chinatown is not attractive to them.”

I’m Steve Ember.

Thank you for listening to As It Is today. You can read and download our programs at Follow us on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Email us at And join us at the beginning of the hour Universal Time for the latest news.