America is a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures. Most major American cities have neighborhoods settled by the people who crossed oceans and began an unpredictable journey to America to provide a better life for their children, escaping poverty and war in their homeland. Little Italy, Germantown and of course, Chinatown are all staples of America’s cities, their residents establishing their identities in America while holding onto their native cultures. Among the oldest of these miniature ethnic pockets are the Chinatowns that dot the U.S., from Seattle to Boston, San Francisco to New York City. Here are the 10 best you’ll find in America.
10. Washington D.C.
Though one of the smallest Chinatowns on this list, Washington D.C.’s Chinese neighborhood benefits from a great location-walking distance to many other landmarks and neighborhoods-and a more calm atmosphere than others. Only about a fifth of the neighborhood’s 3,000 residents are actually Chinese, as recent college grads have moved to the area in recent years, attracted to the affordable housing. This does not take away from the authentic Chinese atmosphere, however. Like many Chinatowns, there is a classically styled archway over H Street and 7th Street, just a few blocks down from the Verizon Center, where the hometown Wizards (NBA) and Capitals (NHL) compete. You’ll find a handful of shops selling pastries and little knickknacks, as well as some great restaurants, such as Tony Cheng’s Seafood and Pho DC -one of the best bowls of Pho in the D.C. area.
Not to be confused with the city’s “Old Chinatown” neighborhood, the current community of Chinese residents, shops and restaurants can be found in the southwestern part of town. Unlike most Chinatowns, which usually occupy a number of dense city blocks, the Houston Chinatown is a widely dispersed set of strip malls over 6 square miles. It’s probably the most automobile friendly Chinatown on this list, so if you’re a tourist without a rental car this one would be a tough draw. Chinese food is not the only kind you’ll find here. Filipinos, Indonesians, Japanese, Koreans and more have populated the area, and have brought the cuisine of their home countries with them. Some people are hesitant to even refer to this part of the city as Chinatown, since there are so many other Asian influences present.
Boston, a city more known for its Irish heritage as seen in films like Good Will Hunting and The Town, is also home to a stellar Chinatown, the only one in all of New England. 70% of the population is Chinese, though there is a strong Vietnamese influence as well, which can be felt in the number of Vietnamese restaurants and food stalls. Located near Boston’s theater district and Tufts Medical Center, Chinatown is a convenient place to stop for an authentic Chinese dinner before a night around town, but its also got enough to keep your attention for a full day. There are some great hot pot (a Chinese fondue of sorts) restaurants, as well as dim sum and some hole in the walls with cheaper options but still quality eats.
The Philadelphia Chinatown traces its roots all the way back to the mid 19th century, when Cantonese immigrants opened restaurants and laundries in the city center. In the late 1990s, an influx of immigrants from other Asian countries including Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, began moving into Philly’s Chinatown. Like many other Chinatowns in America, there is a Friendship Gate (an archway) that’s built in the colorful style of the Ming and Qing dynasties, which acts as symbol of connection between Philadelphia and its sister city of Tianjin. It’s a beautiful landmark, and well worth a picture or two. Hong Kong style eateries can be found on 10th Street and Race Street, where restaurants serving other Asian fare-Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese-can also be enjoyed.
6. Los Angeles
Forever immortalized by the 1974 film Chinatown, and also featured in the buddy-cop classic Rush Hour, L.A.’s Chinatown is vast, full of things to see and do (and of course, eat). When the Central Pacific Railroad Co. began work on the country’s first transcontinental rail in the 1860s, they started to recruit laborers from China, who then moved here and settled in what is now known as Chinatown. Among the highlights: a statue of Bruce Lee and Sun Yat-sen (father of modern China); a beautiful Wishing Well, a dragon mural and a main plaza strung with red lanterns. There are restaurants with glass displays of roast duck and pigs, but some of the more popular eateries include an Italian place called Little Joe’s and a French deli called Philippe’s.
Hawaii might be well known for its East Asian influence already, particularly its Japanese roots, but did you know that Honolulu has one of the best Chinatowns in America? Chinese laborers from the area’s sugar plantations settled here in the 19th century, only to have the entire neighborhood burned down in the Great Honolulu Chinatown Fire of 1900. It has since been rebuilt, a bustling, open space full of fruit stands and restaurants. Given Hawaii’s tropical climate, the Honolulu Chinatown feels like a small city in the south of China. The famed Wo Fat restaurant, known as the namesake for a character in Hawaii Five-O-is now out of service, but its historic façade is still worth a visit.
America’s Pacific Coast has long been concentrated with immigrants from East Asia, and while officially named “Chinatown”, this Seattle neighborhood is more Little East Asia. The bulk of this Chinatown is on King Street, though just off the main thoroughfare is Japantown, which as you can imagine is modeled after a Japanese city. There is a vibrant and lively Chinese New Year celebration with lion dancers and fireworks, and the China Gate restaurant has a beautiful gate modeled after the walls of the ancient Chinese capital Peking (now Beijing). Hing Hay Park is an idyllic outdoor spot with a traditional Chinese Pagoda and chess tables. The Nippon Kan Theatre and the Wing Luke Asian Museum are also must see attractions.
Located on the Red Line, Chicago’s Chinatown provides great views of the city skyline as well as a variety of restaurants and landmarks to check out on a fine summer day in Chicago. The Nine-Dragon Wall is a beautiful jade and yellow colored monument built in the style typical of imperial China. Chinatown Square, decorated with statues of the 12 Chinese Zodiac animals, is full of shops; tea shops, traditional medicine shops and massage parlors that have the feel of the dense hutongs (alleyways) of Old Beijing. Lao Beijing and Lao Szechwan are local staples, serving traditional cuisine from those cities, and Hing Kee is a great noodle spot that makes their noodles by hand. Get a foot massage at one of the area’s massage parlors, and visit a Buddhist temple, which can be easy to miss among the abundance of grocery stores, restaurants and gift shops. Make sure to stop by the shop that specializes in swords! The Bruce Lee poster in the front display is hard to miss.
Manhattan’s Chinatown is huge, so huge that it can almost be considered its own mini-city, and it has the second largest population density of Chinese in the entire Western Hemisphere. There are 9 Chinatowns scattered across all of New York City, but Manhattan’s is the largest and the oldest, and it’s easy to forget that you’re still in America, not a metropolis of China. There are fish markets and fruit markets, theaters and museums. There’s a Little Hong Kong, a Little Fuzhou, a Little Guangdong. It’s almost like a Chinatown within a Chinatown within a Chinatown. Between 90,000 and 100,000 people live in Manhattan’s Chinatown, and its easy to get put off by the density and activity, but if you’d like to experience what life in a modern Chinese city is like, and are willing to have an open mind while doing so, then dive right in and take in all it has to offer.
1. San Francisco
The oldest in the country, San Francisco’s Chinatown sees more tourists every year than the Golden Gate Bridge. Every September, the neighborhood hosts the Autumn Moon Festival, a Chinese tradition that celebrates the summer harvest, and it’s a must-attend event for those who’d like to experience a traditional Chinese holiday other than the New Year. Boasting two hospitals, a post office, schools, libraries, parks, restaurants and grocery stores, San Francisco’s Chinatown is essentially an autonomous enclave, and is also home to the highest Chinese population outside of Asia. For the most authentic taste of China outside of Asia, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the #1 place to visit.