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History of Chinatown in New York

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The meaning of home may vary from person to person. Some may say that home is where we grow up, and some may say that home is the home of a family. However, in an unfamiliar country, our family is far away from us. In order to find a suitable place to belong, and feel safe and protected, people with similar cultures have formed a new ‘home’. New York is a melting pot for diversity, which welcomed and encouraged communities from all around the world to immigrate here. In a big city like New York, finding the right place to live and to feel that you belong can be a daunting challenge. New York City is known to be the center of world commerce. With buildings and architects scraping the sky and mecca for arts and entertainment, this city was built by the hands and dreams and determination of diverse people including Asia, Africa and Europe from all over the world. Chinese immigrants started their journey in New York City in the late 1840s and 1850s, but the development of their own community, Chinatown, was not formed until later in the 1870s. This article aims to study the deployment of Chinatown in New York City and how Chinatown can improve the lives of Chinese immigrants in terms of cultural aspects and job opportunities.

The forming of Chinatown in New York City

Due to the discrimination and racist mentality of urban white residents, Chinese immigrants needed to support themselves on unfamiliar land. Therefore, they isolated themselves and formed their own community. The Chinese immigrants then created a little ‘China’ in the middle of New York called Chinatown and have received strong support from their own people.

Chinatown not only supports and welcomes new immigrants, but also created a structure that included their own association of governing, which supports the community and businesses, and provided residents with essential needs for living, such as food and jobs. As mentioned above, Chinatown was formed in the 1870s. However, the rapid development of the enclave economy and the emerging social problems related to the influx of new immigrants have made the formation of Chinatown more complicated (Li, 2015). The segregated of the neighbourhood were also the result of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first immigration law targeted at a particular race and class (Li, 2012) that completely halted the possibility of the immigration of Chinese to the United States (Fisher,P and Fisher, S., 2001). The transformation of Chinatown in New York represents a case of post-war transformation related to both domestic urban economical structural adjustment and global geopolitical changes. Chinese immigrants in the United States can be divided into three categories: wealthy entrepreneurs and highly educated professionals; those who have escaped poverty and political turmoil in their hometowns; and undocumented immigrants smuggled through their networks of connections (Santos and Yan, 2008). Through class dynamics, wealthy and educated immigrants were able to better integrate into society, but the poor and undocumented immigrants who lack economic resources and have lower education levels had a harder time ‘getting alone’ with the city. Therefore, Chinese immigrants from the lower classes settled in Chinatown.

Work opportunities

Job opportunities for the Chinese population in the City of New York have increased with the establishment of Chinatown. Chinese immigrants in the City have traditionally settled along Mott Street and around Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1970s, and majority of the Chinese population then worked in laundry in metropolitan areas (Li, 2015). With the development of the garment, construction, and restaurant industries, Chinatown not only has maintained vitality, but also provided jobs for low-wage, low-skilled labor, especially in the informal economy (Guest, 2011). Although these are low-paid jobs, Chinese immigrants were able to find more jobs in restaurants and garment factories. By the early 1980s, Guest (2011) reported that garment stores in Chinatown employed over 20,000 workers. A few years later, according to Martin’s (1998) report, More and more Chinese immigrants are becoming more financially stable and have slowly become businessmen. While Chinese immigrants has gradually been accepted by the City of New York, Chinese businessmen still urged the others to put up English signs everywhere to seem more neighborly to the rest of the city.

Chinatown is considered the social and political center of Chinese immigrants. The gathering of homes, commercial facilities and regional association headquarters are all rooted in Chinatown. In the second half of 1950, the core area of New York’s Chinatown was surrounded by Canal Street, Worth Street, Bory Street, and Baxter Street, which according to Lin (2015), contained about 4,000 Chinese immigrants (Figure 1).

Cultural Aspects

Chinatown in the United States has become an important part of the multicultural agenda. The American middle class, highly educated people, attracted by the ideal of multiculturalism, frequents Chinese restaurants and participates in the celebration of multicultural festivals. As more and more people are attracted to Chinese culture including food and commercial goods, Chinatown has been playing the role of a “Gourmet Republic” (Santos and Yan, 2008). Chinese culture is formed by a long history. Therefore, Chinatown also represents China’s national characteristics. In other words, Chinatown is the crystallization of the Chinese as a unified cultural entity (Santos and Yan, 2008).

The original footage of New York City’s Chinatown in 1986 provided insight into Chinatown’s daily life several years after the development of Chinatown. Listening to the natural sounds, admiring the architecture and decoration, understanding the way Chinese immigrants dressed in the past, and seeing the overall culture of Chinatown, all show the cultural heritage of Chinese in New York. The video shows how the lives of Chinese in New York City have changed, from being discriminated by the city to living in a home-like community. The Chinese culture can be observed through many aspects shown in the video. For examples, Chinese signs and posters are everywhere, whether on buildings, cars or on the street; Restaurant windows hang traditional Chinese food such as barbecue ducks; and the only language used between Chinatown residents and workers is Chinese. These lower-class immigrants gradually found their place in the city. Their daily life was constantly developing and surrounded by people with the same cultural background.


Many immigrants are scattered around the world, and people often choose to emigrate to other countries where social, environmental and economic stability is developing. Many immigrants, including Chinese, did not know anyone when they first entered a new country and were discriminated against by locals. Finding people with the same cultural background in an unfamiliar country can provide these new immigrants with the opportunity to take root and receive support and protection.

Chinese immigrants met obstacles from a society that was slow to accept, but through overcoming many barriers of acceptance, the Chinese have become one of the most successful immigrants’ groups in the United States. Looking at the history of Chinatown, the development of Chinatown has not only improved the lives of the Chinese immigrants, but also has impacted the economy of New York City. When people come to the City of New York, Chinatown has become one of the places where people want to visit and experience the cultural differences.   

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History of Chinatown in New York. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 27, 2022, from
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