Chinatowns in the U.S. Struggling to Retain Their Identities

Immigrants often straddle two different worlds when they arrive in the United States to pursue their dreams. As they embrace an uncertain future, in a place that is foreign to them, with a different language and strange customs, they may find comfort in small communities that offer the comfort of everyday life back home. Access to the foods of one’s childhood and the opportunity to converse with neighbors in one’s mother tongue can be a source of strength and comfort to immigrants who have constant waves of change and transition crashing over them as they make adjustments to life in America.

Ethnic enclaves, known as Chinatown, began to spring up in cities across the country during the mid-1800s, and have been a bastion of support for Chinese immigrants building a new life on U.S. shores. Historically, they have provided a strong sense of fellowship for Chinese residents who banded together in tight-knit districts for solace from xenophobia and racism. But now many of these communities are being subjected to gentrification from wealthy residents and developers – and many Chinese residents are finding themselves pushed out of their longtime safe havens.

A recent article in The Atlantic details changing demographics in cities like Los Angeles, where its once sleepy Chinatown district, which offered affordable rents to tenants, has become a premier destination for affluent young people and families. While longtime Chinese immigrant residents, such as Li Zhong Huang, initially welcomed the influx of new upscale shops, restaurants, and residential buildings, he quickly realized he was being priced out of his own neighborhood when his landlord raised his rent by thousands of dollars. With rents in L.A.’s Chinatown now approaching $2,400 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, Huang and other denizens who imbued the area with a sense of history and cultural significance for decades now have no choice but to find housing elsewhere.

Rapid gentrification of cultural neighborhoods hasn’t been limited to the West Coast. Chinatowns across America are undergoing rapid transformation as investors target the relatively underdeveloped areas for large-scale construction. As hip boutiques, upscale grocery stores, and gourmet restaurants spring up, prosperous renters and homeowners move in – and the concentrated immigrant population is slowly pushed out as landlords raise rents to renovate spaces that will attract the waiting influx of moneyed residents. Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood was one of the city’s most rapidly expanding areas in 2017, and New York City is currently erecting a billion-dollar condominium tower in Chinatown, featuring amenities like a swimming pool and tea pavilion.

While some cities, including Los Angeles, are offering subsidies to Chinatown developers who retain a percentage of “affordable” rental units for longtime residents, these ostensibly economical apartments often are still beyond the means of many who live in the neighborhood. “We have folks who are making under $30,000 and are too poor for affordable housing,” lamented Sissy Trinh, the executive director of Southeast Asian Community Alliance, to The Atlantic. While Trinh and other community organizers in Chinatowns across America have had some success in preserving elements of their neighborhoods from gentrification, activism on a grander scale has remained elusive. This is due in part to immigrant residents who are unfamiliar with tenant rights, or simply due to apprehensions about the tenuousness of their legal residency status. But speaking out in China when many of the older residents would have fled there had dire consequences, so understanding what a group has left behind explains a lot about their need to cling together.

Despite mounting pressure to abandon their communities and seek out more affordable housing, many Chinatown residents surveyed in The Atlantic article were reluctant to leave the neighborhoods that they helped to build while pursuing the American dream. They still view Chinatown as a source of familiar comfort in the face of a larger world that oftentimes focuses solely on how quickly immigrants can shed their native customs and integrate in a manner that is perceived to be sufficiently “American.” Yet, these same forces frequently fail to recognize just how quintessentially American such ethnic neighborhoods truly are, and how fundamentally they have shaped the urban landscape around them.

[See The End of the American Chinatown by Alana Semuels, The Atlantic, Feb.2019.]


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