Why My Favorite American Cities Have a Chinatown

(Photo: Bruce Fingerhood)

Relatives from South Africa were visiting and we got to talking about which cities to visit in America. I shared my list: San Francisco, New York, Boston, Washington, DC, Seattle, and Philadelphia. Each city has a Chinatown. Coincidence? Or maybe the connection is just that I like Chinese food. Indeed, our family has been going to a favorite dim-sum restaurant most every week since moving to Boston seven years ago.

Then the larger connection came to me. Chinatowns were made by Chinese laborers building the railroads (when the laborers had finished this vast public-works program, the Chinese Exclusion Act barred most Chinese from emigration to or citizenship of the United States). Having a Chinatown marks a city as of the railroad era, built up before the wide deployment of the automobile. As Lewis Mumford said, “The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle is actually the right to destroy the city.” Cities with Chinatowns had enough roots to escape carmageddon.

Does the exception prove the rule? One exception might be Los Angeles, where I lived for five years as a Ph.D. student. Despite the endless summer, I happily left it for the rain of England. But Los Angeles has a vibrant and historic Chinatown (under the gun of Walmart, whose externalities and rent-seeking behaviors are described by Al Norman in his Q&A with Sudhir Venkatesh).

Maybe Los Angeles disproves the conjecture that a Chinatown means a great city. However, as Jonathan Kwitny of the Wall Street Journal reported:

Though hard to believe now, Los Angeles once had a heavily used urban rail system extending from Newport Beach and Long Beach through downtown, on to Pasadena, and into the San Fernando Valley—perhaps the best system in the country. The conspirators bought and dismantled it in stages during the 1940s.

Yes, that C-word! Streetcars once climbed the San Gabriel mountains, bringing Angelenos for a day of walking and hiking. The conspiracy, led by GM, ruined a city that had been built up, and had built its Chinatown, before the automobile. The exception does prove the rule—in the original meaning of “prove” as “test” (which survives in “proofing the yeast”). And the rule passes. (For fun, try it out on Canadian cities.)

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  1. YX says:

    You have good taste in Chinese food. China pearl is probably best dim-sum in Boston. Though their dining experience is lacking.

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  2. interested reader says:

    An interesting point of reference might be cities that formerly had a Chinatown.

    http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/13/remnants-of-anti-chinese-violence/

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  3. James says:

    Now why would anyone visiting the US want to spend time in cities? If I were to visit South Africa, I certainly wouldn’t expect to see much of anything in Cape Town or Johannesburg that I couldn’t find in a US city of similar size, and wouldn’t spend longer there than it took to get away from the airport. Show them the Grand Canyon, the redwoods, Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Blue Ridge, or even (since you’re in Boston) Cape Cod or Acadia.

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    • Sanj says:

      Point taken. Though they were already doing what you suggest (and probably have seen more of the natural wonders of America than I have).

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      • Litenarata says:

        Uh, because cities are awesome? Visitors to the U.S. generally want to hang out in cities, not national parks. Places like the Grand Canyon and other natural features are nice to see, and even awesome, but the pulse and cultural feel of a nation is not in its parks with the trees.

        I’ve been to a lot of cities, including most of the ones mentioned in this article (and Johannesburg) and prefer them over seeing animals and mountains. (though I do that too, because I also like it) The human race is an urban species now. You can’t truly experience a country if you flee its cities, where most people live, for Yellowstone and Cape Cod-like places.

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      • James says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

        Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 10
      • Patricia says:

        There is a lot that’s different in cities. Yes, there are many similarities, such as chain stores, but every city has a unique culture. The way people interact, the architecture, the history, the subcultures…

        I think urban culture differs from country to country just as much as nature does.

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  4. YP says:

    Chicago fits the bill as well, being a city that has a good sized Chinatown and came up as a result of being a railroad hub.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0
  5. DavidH says:

    Argh! Once again we have someone implicitly criticizing the common misunderstanding of the saying “the exception proves the rule” and offering what he has been told is “the original meaning,” which is arguably even further from its meaning. See http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-exc1.htm.

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    • Sanjoy Mahajan says:

      Thanks for the interesting correction. So, the wrong meaning is being attributed to “exception” rather than to “prove.”

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  6. Tylerh says:

    GM DID NOT DESTROY LOS ANGELES’ RED CARS.

    I apologize for shouting, but the recurrent historical falsehood will not die. Red Car ridership peaked in the early 20s.

    http://www.1134.org/stan/ul/GM-et-al.html
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Motors_streetcar_conspiracy

    The best place to understand why LA abandoned streetcars is at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris– a truly fabulous museum where one can peruse a substantial archive and ride restored Red Cars

    http://www.oerm.org/

    One can read news stories of heroic efforts made in the 20s to save the Red Cars, such as banning autos in the core of downtown LA. One can read the Red Car schedules and learn that one could go from Pasadena to Long Beach on a Red Car , but at the cost nearly a day’s travel time. Even the worst rush hour traffic is faster.

    Worse, the Red Cars rail lines went down the center of streets, so one had to cross traffic to get to them. Women caring for children or doing the family shopping *hated* this. Pacific Railway actually designed special cars and stations to respond to this problem, but to little avail. The Red Cars had frequent accidents due to sharing streets with cars and pedestrians. Thus, while Red Cars streetcars were capable of travelling in excess of 40 mph, safety rules generally kept them under 20 mph .

    We should celebrate the Red Cars for creating the original urban topography that defines LA to this day. But as we look to 21st century transit solutions, we need to understand what the Red Cars where, what they weren’t, and not fall for lazy but seductive conspiracy theories.

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    • Lawrence says:

      U.S. Chinatowns, while nice to look at, have become shadows of what they once were. There’s little that’s authentic about the ones that remain and many Chinese have left them in favor of ethnoburbs outside of the city centers. In San Francisco you’re likely to find more authentic Chinese food in the suburbs of the east bay, which by and large look like much L.A, which you seem to deride. In New York, Flushing, Queens has become the new Chinatown, offering a wide range regional cuisines, but its a lengthy subway ride from the bustle of Manhattan. In L.A, Chinatown has become the entry point for other immigrant Asian groups (Vietnamese), while the Chinese have setup shop in the San Gabriel Valley, which offers some of the most authentic Chinese food in the country. I like Chinatowns as much as the next person, but I know that most are nothing more than tourist traps these days.

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      • Sbard says:

        Houston’s Chinatown is anything but touristy, though it does have a substantial Vietnamese presence as well.

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    • frankenduf says:

      is this a joke?- GM was convicted of monopoly abuse, both from buying up and destroying electric transit infrastructure and from bus supply exclusivity- you need to understand what GM and the fraudulent holding companies did, what they didn’t do, and not fall for lazy but seductive labelling of historical facts

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  7. Some Random Economist says:

    I can’t imagine anyone mentioning DC’s Chinatown along with some of those other cities. It’s only a block or two, and the metro area’s best Chinese restaurants are located elsewhere.

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  8. Bill says:

    I believe that if you look, you will see those great china towns were created in the chinese migration during the rail road era, as you stated. If you look, every city has a chinese area, more related to personal preference that to the building of railroads or any other project..

    Every city has a china town, mexican town, japanese town, etc.. This is simply the comfort of known customs and mores..

    Whole article is just vacous puke..

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    • anonymous says:

      Really? Every city has a “Little (fill in the ethnic blank)? The only Chinatown WE have is the handful of restaurant workers who gather at the dollar store to catch the midnight bus to NYC. Otherwise, we have a handful of streets populated by immigrant families. And, of course, Hoodie-ville.

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