Chinatown: Home or Tourist Destination?


Name some Chinatowns that you’ve been to.  Have you been to New York’s? How about San Francisco’s? Maybe even D.C’s? Can you name something that they all have in common?  And no I’m not talking about the population having a Chinese majority.  What they all have in common is that they’re slowly becoming tourist destinations for some, while others are pretty much already a shell of what they once were. 

San Francisco's Chinatown is full of these stores that sell tchotchkes tourists love to buy
Chinatowns throughout America (and other countries) formed for many reasons.  The biggest two reasons were one, many did not want to live with the Chinese that were immigrating into their homes, brought on by fear mongering and disdain for those who were different.  Secondly, a close-knit community was able to benefit from each other’s help in a new environment and so they gathered in one neighborhood.  Of course if a homogenous group of people gather in a community, restaurants that specifically cater to their diet will pop up as well.  So it makes sense that Chinese restaurants populated the different Chinatowns, something I’ll get back to later.

As I mentioned in a previous post, because Chinatowns were cast off communities that preexisting citizens did not want to associate with, they weren’t always the safest of areas.  Like Boston’s Chinatown, many have been cleaned up and are nothing like they used to be.  The newfound safety led to curious outsiders that were interested in the many food establishments that they couldn’t necessarily get in their own neighborhoods.  For example, you can’t really go to Jamaica Plain or the North End for some dim sum although this is changing (see: Malden/Medford area).  Being “adventurous” and trying new “exotic” foods continued to drive more and more outsiders into the Chinatowns. 

Slowly, visitors that try these Chinese joints brought their friends.  As many realized how safe and quaint the Chinatowns were with their markets and restaurants along with their close proximities to other large parts of the city (Downtowns, Financial Districts, etc.) they started to buy up the dirt cheap property.  The property that used to be so dirt cheap because no one but immigrants wanted to live suddenly saw an increase in property value continuing until many residents were forced to relocate from the astronomical home and rent prices.  This is what everyone in the community so lovingly calls gentrification.  It’s something that is talked about over and over …and over again.  But it’s only because it’s a very real and big problem. 

If everyone in the community left, it would stop becoming that welcoming home and slowly become a caricature of that past community.  By caricature, I mean the type of community that Washington D.C’s Chinatown is now.  Apart from a few scattered restaurants, the only thing Chinese about that Chinatown are the various random stores that have signs with their Chinese name like Verizon or Chipotle.  No longer is D.C’s Chinatown the hub of the Chinese community that stop for groceries or breakfast or meet to talk to friends.  It becomes just a bunch of bubble tea shops (I’m looking at you Boston) and restaurants that cater to an ever growing foodie population.  On a side note, I don’t know if I’m going crazy or not, but I swear that every time a bubble tea shop opens, one of the small markets close. 
The list of bubble tea shop goes even deeper...
What has become of D.C’s Chinatown is something that Boston needs to be aware of and hopefully avoids.  Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s not as clear cut as: safer neighborhood = restaurants & bubble tea shops = loss of Chinatown forever.  But if Boston’s Chinatown eventually heads in the direction of D.C’s it’ll truly be a shame.  We need to make sure that we appreciate the culture and history of our little neighborhood and remember why and how it came to be.  We can’t let forget the residents that live there and the difficulties they face in stopping their home from becoming just another tourist destination.



For further reading regarding D.C's Chinatown situation with residents' accounts press HERE
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