In an article for The Atlantic, Bonnie Tsui argues that the American Chinatown is disappearing:
In the past five years, the number of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. has been on the decline, from a peak of 87,307 in 2006 to 70,863 in 2010. Because Chinatowns are where working-class immigrants have traditionally gathered for support, the rise of China—and the slowing of immigrant flows—all but ensures the end of Chinatowns.
To that, I say: not so fast. It all depends on how you define “Chinatown.” Tsui’s Chinatown is a dense, heavily working-class center city ethnic enclave, where Chinese residents and businesses catering to them share a small and sharply delineated space in the urban fabric. I take “Chinatown” to mean any ethnic enclave where Chinese residents and businesses catering to them share any amount of space in any type of settlement. Thus, I would argue that Chinatown is not in decline. No matter what immigration flows from “China” (another point I’ll pick later) look like, there are still millions of people in Chinese descent in the US and a significant portion of them (mainly first and second generation Chinese Americans) may like to live, work, and play in areas of dense Chinese settlement.
The ethnoburb (suburban ethnic enclave) is the new Chinatown. Chinatown in the sense of an ethnic enclave community is not disappearing; it has simply moved out into the suburbs. Tsui concedes to this development:
The exodus from Chinatown is happening partly because the working class is getting priced out of this traditional community and heading to the “ethnoburbs”; development continues to push residents out of the neighborhood and into other, secondary enclaves like Flushing, Queens, in New York.
Considering its extremely dense urban nature, I think Flushing hardly qualifies as an ethnoburb, but she has a point. If you visit the San Gabriel Valley ethnoburbs outside of Los Angeles, you could hardly say that Chinatown is in decline. Au contraire, this new suburban Chinatown is enormous and growing ever larger. The same trend toward suburbanization appears to be happening in Canada, and possibly in Australia as well. (I remember stepping off the bus in Markham, Ontario, near Toronto, thinking it looked just like an alternate universe San Gabriel Valley where palm trees don’t grow.)
Another point of contention I have with Tsui’s article is that she focuses exclusively on immigration from Mainland China. Chinese people come from all over the world, and though Mainlanders might be going back home in larger numbers because of economic growth there, Chinese people from other places are still emigrating to the West to rejoin family and/or to seek better opportunities. For example, the urban Chinatown in Los Angeles seems to attract a lot of Chinese from Vietnam and Cambodia. Another group of Chinese migrants I’d be interested in looking into are secondary migrants from Latin America. Many Chinese use Latin America as a stepping stone to developed countries; for example, when I was doing field work in the Chinatown in Buenos Aires, I found that many Chinese immigrated to Argentina to get Argentine passports that they could use to move more easily to the US.
So if Chinese Americans are increasingly moving to suburban enclaves, what will the urban Chinatowns look like? Perhaps they will start modeling themselves after Koreatown in Los Angeles. Much like the Chinese, immigration from South Korea has declined because of Korea’s rapid economic development, and Koreans in the US are moving out into the suburbs. Koreatown remains, however, as a hub for businesses and community organizations that serve the Korean community. Another, related possibility is that urban Chinatowns will start looking like the Chinatown in Buenos Aires or Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, neighborhoods full of shops and restaurants that cater to the cosmopolitan tastes of middle-class/affluent visitors who are not Chinese or Japanese.
Photo: Chinatown, San Francisco.