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Constructing New York's Chinatown: The Urban Development of a Neighbourhood

Stephen Hui
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada


Copyright 2002 Stephen Hui. All rights reserved.

Suggested citation:
Hui, Stephen. (2002, November 20). Constructing New York's Chinatown: The urban development of a neighbourhood. Retrieved from http://www.aquapulse.net/knowledge/chinatown


The creation of Chinatown in New York City was very much a consequence of migration and racism. These phenomena, however, do not completely explain Chinatown's history or its present condition. This paper traces the urban development of Chinatown since its beginnings around 1870. It strives to uncover the social, political, and economic foundations of the neighbourhood in order to construct a complex understanding of Chinatown.

Table of Contents


This paper explores the urban development of Chinatown in New York City since the neighbourhood was established around the year 1870. New York's Chinatown -- a well-known ethnic enclave in a cosmopolitan, global city -- began as an immigrant ghetto. When one thinks of a Chinatown, one often thinks of the food, the cultural richness, the hustle and bustle of the markets, or perhaps a neighbourhood plagued by social vices. The public tends to view Chinatowns as simply ethnic and cultural districts. However, what is hidden by our images of Chinatown? The creation of New York's Chinatown, and that of Chinatowns across North America, was very much the result of immigration and racist attitudes and legislation. These phenomena, however, do not explain Chinatown's extraordinary perseverance. This paper studies and analyses the urban development of New York's Chinatown over the past century and places it in the interconnected contexts of economy, politics, social relations, and culture.

Site and Situation

Chinatown is located in Manhattan's Lower East Side, an inner city district that has historically been home to a variety of minority groups. The neighbourhood covers approximately two square miles in area. Statistics show that Chinatown was home to about 240,000 people in 1990 (Lin, 1998), although census figures likely represent a much smaller population than is actually present due to uncooperative residents and large numbers of illegal migrants (see Kuo, 1977; Zhou, 2001). The core area of Chinatown includes eight city blocks encircled by Canal, Baxter, Worth, Park, and Bowery streets, but the neighbourhood can be seen as covering a much larger area. The neighbourhood is the largest Chinatown in the United States and Western Hemisphere.

Immigration and Expansion

Early Chinatown occupied a core area on three streets: Mott, Park, and Doyer. In 1870, it had a population of 200 (Wong, 1982). The neighbourhood slowly, but steadily, expanded in population and area over the years. Immigrants thought of the U.S. as a temporary home; they intended to earn enough money to finance a leisurely retirement back in China (Wong, 1988). Racist immigration laws maintained Chinatowns as bachelor societies of non-citizens for several decades (Lin, 1998). New York's Chinatown was a major destination for Chinese migrants because in the racist climate of the times, New York City fulfilled a few favourable conditions: It was already an ethnically diverse city and was far away from the burning anti-Asian climate of California (Chen, 1992). The especially multiethnic character of the Lower East Side would have been a much easier place for early Chinese immigrants to set up residence than elsewhere in the city.

The 1965 introduction of new immigration laws marked a major shift in the development of New York's Chinatown. Before 1945, women were rare in Chinatown, but since 1965, the gender ratio has become significantly more even. Immigration dramatically increased and so did the population of Chinatown. Now, legal and illegal immigrants came to New York with the intention of becoming permanent residents and citizens. This has enlarged the boundaries of Chinatown even further and the neighbourhood has expanded into surrounding areas, including Little Italy and nearby Jewish neighbourhoods. Such a process does not occur without conflict. These ethnic enclaves, however, are diminishing due to the assimilation and dispersion of their residents. Nevertheless, these processes have not caused a similar decline in Chinatown.

Urban Forms

Chinatown is well known for its aging and crowded residential tenements, many of which are in deteriorating condition. It is one of the oldest housing districts in the country, with 90 per cent of its residential units dating from the nineteenth century (Wong, 1988). Eighty per cent of Chinatown's residents live in private tenement buildings (Lin, 1998). Immigrants, for which Chinatown is a stepping stone to better living conditions, tolerate what may be seen as deplorable living conditions in the neighbourhood's declining tenements. The fact that most residents of the neighbourhood are recent arrivals to the country or older persons attests that many are successfully able to move out of Chinatown (Zhou, 2001). Zhou observes that very few second-generation families raise their children in Chinatown. The neighbourhood is a zone of transition for many Chinese immigrants.

Chinatown's commercial core is characterised by crowded streets and sidewalks lined with store and restaurant fronts that serve as the base for several levels of apartment housing. It seems as if this basic building formula has persisted since the early days of Chinatown before the turn of the century (see American Gateways Project, n.d.). (Having visited New York's Chinatown a few times -- even though those visits were several years ago -- I remember always being struck by the incredible density of the place. It was busy and crowded, both in terms of people and buildings.) Taller, uniform apartment buildings are observed in areas with less commercial activity. Although this density may have been result of socio-spatial marginalization, perhaps the Chinatown economy thrives on such a high concentration of residents and workers.

Social Organisation

New York's Chinatown, much like other American Chinatowns, has a hierarchical community structure. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association is at the top of this traditional social pyramid. The association represents an informal governing organisation in Chinatown. New Yorkers outside of Chinatown even refer to the president of the association as the "unofficial mayor of Chinatown" (Wong, 1982). This form of organisation evolved from the community's need for protection from racist outsiders and its need to provide for itself. Younger leaders, however, are increasingly contesting its dominance.

Kinship is a major basis of social organisation in Chinatown. Kinship associations in Chinatown bring together members bearing the same surname. This is based on traditional modes of social organisation in China. In New York, however, members of a family name association might just share the same surname, but not a common lineage. According to Wong (1982), these associations were formed in response to earlier immigrants' lack of family life and need for mutual protection. Other associations were organised according to shared regional origins or professions. These were ways of adapting forms of social organisation in China to the overseas urban environment.

'Race' and Racism

The role of 'race' relations in the formation of Chinatowns cannot be discounted. From the arrival of the first Chinese migrant in the U.S. onward, Chinese people have been the targets of racism. After 1890, Chinese people in the U.S. gradually moved into industries that would not require competition with or provoke violence from white people. Such industries included restaurants and laundries, which still constitute the most important businesses in Chinatown (Wong, 1988). Chinatowns became closed societies resistant to assimilation because of American racism (Kinkead, 1992). Racism forced Chinese people into certain spatial and economic zones to avoid competition with and violence from white Americans.

In 1882, the U.S. government approved the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese people from practicing certain occupations and denied them the right to gain citizenship. After the act was passed, anti-Chinese sentiments forced many Chinese migrants leave their locations of employment and converge in the Chinatowns of the large cities (Kuo, 1977). Other legislation passed by the federal government, and in certain states, made it illegal for Asians to purchase land, prohibited Chinese immigration and forbade marriage between Asians and white persons. The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until World War II, during which the U.S. and China were allies against Japan. A surge of immigration occurred during the next decades. In 1965, immigration laws were amended to end a system of quotas based on nationality, and therefore, legal discrimination against Chinese immigrants was abolished.


Chinatown has many functions. It is a place of residence, a marketplace for goods and services, a tourist destination and the (both real and imagined) centre of an ethnic and cultural community. Economic income is derived primarily from real estate, manufacturing, tourism, food services, and wholesale distribution for Chinese shops and services throughout the New York metropolitan area (Kuo, 1977). A continuous stream of new immigrants and foreign capital make Chinatown a place with relatively easy access to employment and services for immigrants (Zhou, 2001).

Many people are drawn or restricted to life in Chinatown for cultural as well as economic reasons. Those lacking English language proficiency and social contacts may be limited to Chinatown because they would encounter substantial difficulties elsewhere in the city (Kuo, 1977). Wong (1982) asserts, "Many Chinese-Americans need Chinatowns to survive."

Satellite Chinatowns

New Chinatowns in New York City's other boroughs have also formed as the city's Chinese population has grown. The largest satellite Chinatowns have popped up in Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn. These neighbourhoods are conveniently, but not coincidentally, located along major public transit lines (Lin, 1998). These satellites provide services closer to residents in the boroughs and create new spaces of competition for entrepreneurs. Satellite Chinatowns tend to cater to residents that are more affluent. Their status as Chinatowns is not without contestation as they are markedly more ethnically diverse in composition than Manhattan's Chinatown (Zhou, 2001). Zhou (1992) suggests that these satellites are needed because the immigrant economy is tied to the ethnic enclaves, which therefore should now be more appropriately considered economic enclaves rather than residential enclaves.


The establishment and development of New York City's Chinatown was largely due to the spatial implications of widespread and legislated racism on Chinese migrants in the U.S. The neighbourhood was also important as a space for cultural unity and gathering. However, the real engine behind Chinatown's growth and strength as a community is its economy and persistent supply of immigrants. These are all interconnected aspects of Chinatown; the neighbourhood's unique economy perhaps even flourishes on the immigrants' cultural displacement and the racism that often goes along with that in the U.S.

Chinatown seems to have sprung up and grown steadily without much of any central planning, especially in terms of interference from outside agencies. Its existence is unexplainable without examining it within the context of a complex web of social relations set in several spatial scales. Chinatown's distinct social organisation, extending even into informal governance, coupled with a lack of understanding from the outside, lent the neighbourhood some autonomy from the rest of the city. Chinatown speaks to the complexity and unpredictability of the urban milieu.

Large cities like New York are increasingly tied to global rather than local economic patterns. Chinatown, for sure, has always been dependent on the international flow of people and financial capital even as domestic social relations controlled these flows and restricted the neighbourhood's geography. These links can only be increasing with today's globalised world. It will interesting to see how New York's Chinatown and Chinatowns in other places continue to grow and evolve in this new era.


American Gateways Project. (n.d.). Coming to New York: Chinatown's history in photos. Retrieved November 19, 2002, from http://www.nycenet.edu/csd1/museums/chinatown/

Chen, Hsiang-shui. (1992). Chinatown no more: Taiwan immigrants in contemporary New York. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kinkead, Gwen. (1992). Chinatown: A portrait of a closed society. New York: HarperCollins.

Kuo, Chia-ling. (1977). Social and political change in New York's Chinatown: The role of voluntary associations. New York: Praeger.

Lin, Jan. (1998). Reconstructing Chinatown: Ethnic enclave, global change. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wong, Bernard P. (1982). Chinatown: Economic adaptation and ethnic identity of the Chinese. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Wong, Bernard P. (1988). Patronage, brokerage, entrepreneurship, and the Chinese community of New York. New York: AMS Press.

Zhou, Min. (1992). Chinatown: The socioeconomic potential of an urban enclave. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Zhou, Min. (2001). Chinese: Divergent destinies in immigrant New York. In Nancy Foner (Ed.), New immigrants in New York (Rev. ed., pp. 141-172). New York: Columbia University Press.

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