Chinatowns are areas in cities outside of mainland China that are home to large numbers of Chinese people.
Cultural and arts organizations in Chinatowns across North America have worked for years to bring greater awareness to these communities. But Asian communities have recently faced two major problems –pandemic-related shutdowns and a rise in racist anti-Asian attacks.
But those painful experiences are important to the return of Chinatowns as places of community and culture.
There has also been an increased interest in business and events from cities, companies and younger Asians from outside the Chinese community. Wells Fargo Bank recently partnered with the Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative on the “heroes” mural in San Francisco, which includes 12 Asian American and Pacific Islanders important to the local community.
Everyone wanted to “really address anti-Asian hate and to uplift Asian American voices,” said Jenny Leung, executive director of the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.
“The way that Chinatown looks is imported as a tourist kind of attraction and fantasy for visitors to see,” Leung said. “It’s never really about celebrating the community’s perspective and voice.”
In New York, the first of five summer night markets start next month in the city’s Chinatown. It will be the biggest event so far for Think!Chinatown. The nonprofit group, which opened five years ago, has done projects like artists-in-residency programs and oral histories. But there was a collective feeling of “we just need to be together,” said Yin Kong, director of Think!Chinatown.
In the Chinatown of Vancouver, British Columbia, the pandemic worsened ongoing problems of vandalism, graffiti and other crimes. But within the last year, the city was able to start cultural projects planned before COVID-19.
Last month, the Chinatown Mural Project displayed several murals painted by a local artist. In November, the Chinatown Storytelling Centre opened.
“We would have done this anyway (regardless of the pandemic),” said Carol Lee, head of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, which oversees the Centre. “But you know, in some ways, it makes you feel like you have more purpose because it’s more necessary.”
There are fewer than 50 Chinatowns across the U.S. Some are more active than others. Many Chinatowns were created in the 19th century as Chinese workers arrived. The workers often lived there because of discrimination in other places.
The workers lived in single-room-housing units, or SROs, with shared kitchens and bathrooms, said Harvey Dong. He is a professor in ethnic studies and Asian American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Many older Chinese Americans and immigrants in Chinatown still live in those units.
There has also been a lot of development in Chinatowns. For example, SROs have been sold in San Francisco and a train line expansion has shrunk the Chinatown in Seattle. Chinatowns in other places are now very small or have disappeared because of gentrification. Gentrification is the process of changing a place by making it more appealing to wealthier people.
But arts and culture supporters continue to move forward on projects in Chinatowns.
Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative in San Francisco is designing Edge on the Square, a $26.5-million media and arts center that is set to open in 2025. In New York, Think!Chinatown plans to open a space with a kitchen for art shows and cooking classes.
The hope is to keep Asian Americans inside and outside of Chinatown connected.
"What draws them to Chinatown is that cultural connection," Kong said. “(It’s) really the soul of Chinatown. And we need to keep protecting it and make sure it can grow.”
I’m Dan Novak.
Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.
Words in This Story
awareness — n. knowledge and awareness of your own personality or character
mural —n. a usually large painting that is done directly on the surface of a wall
tourist — n. a person who travels to a place for pleasure
fantasy — n. something that is produced by the imagination
perspective — n. a way of thinking about and understanding something
residency — n. the state or fact of living in a place
vandalism — n. the act of deliberately destroying or damaging property
graffiti — n. pictures or words painted or drawn on a wall, building, etc.
display — v. to put something where people can see it
regardless — n. in spite of difficulty, trouble, etc