Last Updated on December 7, 2023
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
By Jim Ferri
Ask people to name the top Chinatowns in North America and be prepared to get into an argument.
Years ago it wouldn’t have been such an issue, since back then the word had just meant an area where a great number of Chinese lived, and which retained the aura and culture of China through its architecture, language, signage, etc.
It’s quite different now, however, as younger generations have left these Chinatowns and dispersed themselves all over the U.S. and Canada. In fact, right now some estimates say the USA has scores of Chinatowns and Canada many, as well. Some cities, such as Los Angeles, have several “Chinatown” areas in the same city. There are even Chinatowns in Mexico City and Mexicali, Mexico.
Despite the proliferation of Chinatowns in North America, those in this article are the largest and most authentic. They are unique ethnic neighborhoods that architecturally and culturally retain the “old ways.” They may also, in some respects, have been diluted with the arrival of other Asian nationalities. But they still retain their character and wouldn’t look out of place if they were transported back to China.
Visit these Chinatowns and you’ll feel like you’re in another country. Just be sure to bring your camera and your appetite.
Chinatown, New York
While in several cities in America Chinatowns exist more or less for the benefit of tourists, in New York you get the real thing. Today it continues to be a living, thriving neighborhood on the lower east side of Manhattan where the Chinese way of life and culture still flourishes. Here you’ll find an ethnic enclave of about 100,000 people with their own newspapers and shops, as well as an incredible number of restaurants, temples and galleries.
Like the rest of the city, New York’s Chinatown is densely populated and can be a bit overwhelming for the traveler. And since it’s an old part of New York City, it may appear a little seedy to some out-of-towners. But overall it’s as safe as any other part of the city and is as popular with New Yorkers as it is with tourists.
San Francisco’s Chinatown
Aficionados of both San Francisco and New York are always in a pitched battle as to which Chinatown in America is the oldest and which is larger. The truth is that they’re very different and unique, so don’t listen to all the hype, just go and enjoy.
While in America New York’s Chinatown may be part of the old tenement areas of old New York, San Francisco’s Chinatown is a colorful charming place with pagoda-style architecture, vegetable and herb markets and dragons on the lampposts. It has become a mega-tourist attraction and one of the faces of the city. It’s is a colorful crowd-pleaser that’s a joy to tour. And if you want to get a real understanding of the place, take a tour with a Chinese guide who can give you insights into this fabulous part of the city.
Vancouver – Third Largest in North America
Vancouver’s Chinatown, the third largest in North America, traces its roots to the late 1800s when immigrants came to work on Canada’s railways and in her mines. Its streets, like that of most Chinatowns in North America, is filled with markets and ethnic restaurants, temples and businesses.
Located on the eastern side of downtown Vancouver, the area has gone from a ghetto to the cultural center of the Chinese community. Today though, it has diminished in size and is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, as trendy bars and restaurants gravitate to the area.
Toronto’s Chinatown resembles New York’s more than San Francisco’s Chinatown. Here you don’t find an abundance of colorful ethnic architecture, not even a traditional arch at the entrance way to the area. But you still find the shops and markets filled with exotic fruits and vegetables and plenty of other places with elegant Chinese characters on storefronts, as well as street signs, which transports you to the culture of Asia. Of course, you shouldn’t miss a lunchtime visit to one of its many restaurants.
As much of the Chinese population has become dispersed about the city, other Asian immigrants have moved in giving the North America Chinatown more of an Asian feel, rather than strictly a Chinese one. Today you’ll find Thai, Japanese and Vietnamese restaurants interspersed with the traditional Chinese, making the area a great source for a wide variety of authentic Asian cuisine.
If you go:
NYC Information Center
810 Seventh Avenue
New York NY 10019
Tel: (212) 484-1222
San Francisco Travel
900 Market Street
San Francisco, CA 94102-2804
Tel: (415) 391-2000
Toronto Convention & Visitors Association
P.O. Box 126, 207 Queens Quay West
M5J 1A7 Canada
Tel: (800) 499-2514