10 of the Best Chinatowns in the U.S.

Chinatown district in a big city

 <a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-108632495/stock-photo-new-york-city-may-pell-st-in-chinatown-may-in-new-york-ny-it-is-the-largest-and.html">Sean Pavone</a>/Shutterstock

Chinatowns have long been a part of America's largest cities. Some, such as the ones in San Francisco and New York City, date back more than 150 years. Though a few Chinatowns are still ethnic enclaves in the traditional sense, many have become tourist attractions and shopping destinations. Even though the descendants of these neighborhoods' founding residents have moved on, they often return to shop or gather to celebrate Chinese holidays.

America's Chinatowns have developed in ways that are very different from China's development. Some cultural traits that have long since disappeared in the "motherland" are an integral part of life in Chinatowns, while other practices and traditions were actually started by immigrants and have no real connection to China (or Hong Kong and Taiwan) at all.

Here are 10 examples of how Chinatowns have developed and changed in the U.S.

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San Francisco

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San Francisco's Chinatown, around Grant Avenue, is often touted as the "oldest" and "largest" East Asian district in the U.S. The original Chinese residents in San Francisco gravitated to this area to work for, or do business with, other Chinese people. General discrimination and even official "exclusion" laws made it difficult for 19th and early 20th century immigrants to do anything besides work as laborers on railroads or in mines.

San Francisco drew different Cantonese-speaking groups. Waves of immigrants came from what is now Guangdong province and from Hong Kong. In the 1970s, Cantonese-speaking refugees from Vietnam's Chinatowns chose this area to settle as well. Though many of the descendants of the original Chinatown residents have left San Francisco and moved to the suburbs, they return during festival times such as the Lunar New Year.

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Manhattan

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The Chinatown in Lower Manhattan is the largest of nine Chinatowns in New York City. To many people, it is simply known as THE New York Chinatown. By most measures, this is the largest and oldest Chinatown in the Western Hemisphere (a distinction that San Francisco's Chinatown also claims). The population of the entire neighborhood is estimated at around 100,000. Like many Chinatowns, Manhattan’s began when Cantonese immigrants moved to the area to set up businesses. The district grew throughout the later half of the 19th century, with more and more immigrants drawn to the area because they faced discrimination and had difficulty finding work elsewhere in the city.

This Chinatown has a classic streetscape, with neon and layers of signage covering the narrow roadways. The demographics and culture have changed drastically. After the 1970s, non-Cantonese dialect groups started immigrating to New York. Though Cantonese can still be heard, Mandarin, the official language of the People's Republic of China and Taiwan, is now, more or less, the lingua franca in this Chinatown.

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Chicago

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Located in Chicago's South Side, this Chinatown was one of the first non-coastal Asian enclaves in the U.S. Chinese from the coasts (mostly from California) moved here in the late 19th and early 20th century to find work and escape discrimination. Even here early Chinese residents who wanted to set up businesses or own property had to secure their holdings through intermediaries.

The Chinatown district is a mixture of old and new. Some of the original stores and restaurants are still in operation, as they have been since the 1920s. In the 1990s, a new development called Chinatown Square was built on the edge of the current district. A greenspace, Ping Tom Memorial Park, was also developed during that decade. These additions have brought more residents to Chinatown, but also made it more of a tourist destination as well.

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Locke, California

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The term "Chinatown" usually brings to mind a dense urban neighborhood. That is the polar opposite of the kind of landscape found in Locke, California. Today designated as a historic district, Locke is one of the rare examples of a small town Chinatown. Located in the Sacramento River Valley, Locke was a nondescript hamlet until Chinese businessmen established a hotel and retail spaces there. More people, most of them from the Taishanese dialect group, began relocating, usually because they wanted to escape discrimination in the area's larger cities.

Locke's namesake, George Locke, owned most of the land in and around the town. Because laws forbade immigrants from owning farm land, Locke leased the land to local residents. This swelled the town's population even further. In the 1940s, 600 people lived in town, and the population more than doubled during harvest seasons. Locke is no longer an active Chinatown, but it is on the National Register of Historic Places and functions as a tourist destination. Many of the buildings that housed the original Chinese businesses are still standing today.

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Flushing

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A neighborhood in the Flushing area of Queens is an example of a newer brand of American Chinatowns. Unlike most historic Chinatowns, which were founded by Cantonese-speaking immigrants who came to the U.S. as laborers, Flushing's district was founded by people from Taiwan. Mandarin and Taiwanese-speaking immigrants from China and Taiwan chose this area instead of the already-established Chinatowns, which were dominated by Cantonese speakers (who they could not understand and generally did not trust).

Later waves of mainland Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants began settling in the Flushing Chinatown. Even today, many Chinese residents are from different dialect groups, but they are all able to speak Mandarin, the language of both mainland China and Taiwan. The growth of Queens Chinatown has been rapid, with other satellite communities springing up in the borough. Today over 200,000 Chinese Americans reside in Queens, more than any other borough in New York.

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Boston

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Boston's Chinatown had a unique beginning. Chinese immigrants were brought all the way from California to help break up a strike at a local factory. Many of these West Coast transplants remained, opening businesses, including laundries and restaurants. Despite occasional troubles, they found life and business easier in Boston than in California.

Though a majority of today's residents are still of East Asian descent, mainly Chinese and Vietnamese, Boston's Chinatown is also gaining popularity among other groups. Gentrification is widespread, with new condo developments springing up and growing in demand thanks to the central location and the "hip" vibe. Chinese community organizations are involved in development projects to renovate or build housing for lower- and middle-class residents who want to stay in the area.

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Honolulu

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Hawaii's historic Chinatown is located on the edge of Honolulu's Financial District. Though the first Chinese immigrants came to Hawaii in the 18th century, it wasn't until about 1870 that the term "Chinatown" was used to describe the Honolulu community where Chinese residents settled. During its first decades, Chinatown had to be rebuilt twice after being destroyed by fire. By the time Hawaii became a state, however, the district was flourishing and the descendants of the original immigrants were playing a major part in the economy of the islands. Because of this, there was not as much of a need for an ethnic enclave in Hawaii as in mainland cities.

After statehood, Chinatown actually went into decline. It became a red light district and a home for unlicensed casinos. After non-profit groups got the neighborhood a historic designation, its fortunes changed. Today the area is an arts and theater district that is popular with tourists. There are still many Chinese-owned businesses — tailors, restaurants and traditional medicine herbalists — and you can still find remnants of the "bad old days" in massage parlors and pool halls.

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Los Angeles

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LA's original Chinatown was established in the 19th century. Overrun by opium houses and brothels, it was condemned and eventually demolished to make room for the city's Union Station. "New Chinatown" was established in the 1930s. It remains a largely Chinese area to this day, though it is quite a bit more diverse than many of the other U.S. Chinatowns. Of all the neighborhoods in Los Angeles, New Chinatown has the highest immigrant population (based on the percentage of residents who were born outside the U.S.). A vast majority of the population is made up of Asian (not necessarily Chinese) and Latin American people.

Many of the descendants of the original Chinatown residents have moved on. Second- and third-generation Chinese Americans relocated en masse to more-suburban enclaves. Interestingly, some of these suburbs have as many Chinese-run businesses as Chinatown.

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Monterey Park

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The first suburban Chinatown was created in Monterey Park. Half of the population of the city, in the San Gabriel Valley to the east of Los Angeles, is of Chinese descent. Another quarter of the residents claim another East Asian ethnicity (Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai and Filipino).

When the first Chinese Americans moved to Monterey in the 1970s, the city actually tried to pass an ordinance requiring businesses to only use English signage. This effort eventually failed, and Monterey drew more and more Chinese residents. Today, the town is sometimes called Little Taipei or, more affectionately, Chinese Beverly Hills.

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Cleveland Asiatown

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Cleveland did not see many Chinese immigrants until the end of World War II. (An 1890 census listed only 38 people of Chinese descent). However, once exclusion laws were repealed, the community grew, supported by clan organizations and business groups.

The area is now called Asiatown to include local Vietnamese and Korean people, who came and opened up businesses in the neighborhood in the 1960s and '70s. This is a characteristic of Chinatowns in smaller cities: the neighborhoods are not quite as divided along ethnic or linguistic lines as they are in larger cities. Another characteristic is that local workers and students (many of non-Asian descent) come to shop and eat in the neighborhood.