The Best Chinatowns in North America

The Best Chinatowns in North America

For Sinophiles who don’t have time to hop across the Pacific, here are some options for appreciating Chinese culture closer to home By: Molly Montgomery
The gate of Los Angeles Chinatown // © 2013 Jose Gill / Thinkstock
The gate of Los Angeles Chinatown // © 2013 Jose Gill / Thinkstock

North Americans looking to experience Chinese culture need not book a long flight across the Pacific. There are plenty of opportunities to discover authentic Chinese culture closer to home via the many historic enclaves of Chinese immigrants scattered across North America. While these communities may not give visitors a taste of modern China, with its looming skyscrapers and megacities, Chinatowns do offer a chance to step back into the past and to see Chinese cultural traditions that have been preserved and shaped by immigrants since the mid-1800s. 

If you’re planning on visiting a Chinatown during the upcoming Autumn Moon Festival, which takes place in mid through late September, be sure to check out dragon and lion dances performed by trained dance troupes. These dances, which were mostly lost from mainland China during the 20th century, survived in their preserved form through immigrants who carried on ancient traditions. These dances are meant to ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune to the community.

Autumn Moon Festival Celebrations

San Francisco Chinatown
September 14-15, 11am - 6 pm
Grant Ave, between California and Broadway Streets

Los Angeles Chinatown
Saturday, September 21, 2013, 5pm - 11pm
Central & West Plaza
943-951 N. Broadway

Here are some of the best Chinatowns in North America, each distinguished by its unique history and its continuing relevance as a flourishing cultural center.

San Francisco

This is the oldest Chinatown in North America, established in the 1850s in the wake of the California Gold Rush. The chance of finding gold brought immigrants from all over the world, but especially from China, to San Francisco’s port. This neighborhood continues to bustle with a mix of locals and tourists. Known for its distinctive Oriental-style architecture (devised as a way of luring tourists after the original neighborhood burnt down in the 1906 earthquake and fire), this Chinatown offers a breadth of Chinese restaurants, bakeries, and tourist shops.

San Francisco is considered the birthplace of several American Chinese food traditions including Chop Suey and Fortune Cookies.

The best way to go beyond the tourist traps and see the real side of San Francisco’s Chinatown is a walking tour through the hills. There are numerous tours that will take visitors through alleys, highlighting the historical significance of the neighborhood to San Francisco and to the Chinese-American population as a whole. All will offer the opportunity to sample pieces of Chinese culture, from a fortune cookie factory to sampling herbal tea. After a hike through San Francisco’s hills, visitors can cool off with a popular Asian drink, bubble tea, which consists of flavored iced tea poured over chewy tapioca balls.

Great Eateries in San Francisco Chinatown

Eastern Bakery
720 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 433-7973
www.easternbakery.com

This traditional Chinese bakery serves delicious mooncakes during the Autumn Moon Festival and year-round.

R&G Lounge
631 Kearny St, San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 982-7877
www.rnglounge.com

This restaurant’s specialty is its salt and pepper Dungeness crab, but it’s also known for its other Chinese seafood dishes.

Empress of China
838 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA 94108
(415) 434-1345
www.empressofchinasf.com

A great option for gourmet Chinese cuisine, this restaurant has a rooftop garden that offers fantastic views of the city.

New York

Chinatown in Manhattan is known for containing the largest population of ethnic Chinese in the New World. It is also the largest of the seven Chinatowns scattered throughout New York City. Located next to Little Italy, Manhattan’s Chinatown offers great Chinese cuisine, and also contains several cultural highlights, including the Museum of Chinese in America, the Chen Dance Center, and the Music From China ensemble. Walking tours are a great way to experience the community, and there are several tours offered that focus on history, food or even martial arts.

Visitors will also find a variety of other types of Asian food here since other immigrants have arrived in the area and diversified the cuisine. Vietnamese, Malaysian, Thai food and Asian fusion are among the many types of ethnic cuisine to be found in the area.

One landmark not to be missed is the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. According to legend, ice cream was invented in China during the Tang Dynasty. The ice cream makers at this shop follow this legacy, offering both traditional flavors and flavors with an Asian twist, including lychee, black sesame and almond cookie. 

Manhattan Chinatown’s Highlights

Museum of Chinese in America
www.mocanyc.org

Chen Dance Center
www.chendancecenter.org

Music From China
www.musicfromchina.org

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory
65 Bayard Street, New York NY 10013
(212) 608-4170
www.chinatownicecreamfactory.com

Vancouver

The largest Chinatown in Canada is in Vancouver, and its claim to fame is that it’s one of the cleanest Chinatowns in North America, according to the neighborhood’s website. The best way to explore Vancouver’s Chinatown is by wandering through its streets, whether on a guided tour or just a leisurely stroll. 

Some of Vancouver Chinatown’s unique sights are its public monuments, artwork, and gardens. Its China Gate was donated by the People’s Republic of China after it was displayed in the 1986 World Exposition hosted by Vancouver. The Century’s Winds of Change mural displays the story of the Chinese in Canada since their initial immigration in the 1850s. An abacus sculpture on the edge of Chinatown depicts this ancient Chinese tool still used by some in place of a calculator. Visitors can relax in the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, which is modeled after Ming Dynasty gardens, and is the first of its kind to be built outside of China. Odder attractions include the Sam Kee building, known for being the world’s narrowest building at only six feet wide, and the Jimi Hendrix Shrine, formerly a restaurant owned by the famous musician’s grandmother, whom he visited as a child.

Attending the Chinatown Night Market is a great way to experience Chinese food and culture. The market is open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays during May through September. Visitors will find food vendors, souvenirs, outdoor movie screenings and ping pong tournaments at the event.

Vancouver Chinatown’s Attractions

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden
www.vancouverchinesegarden.com

Jimi Hendrix Shrine
www.tourismvancouver.com/

Vancouver Chinatown Night Market
www.vancouverchinatownnightmarket.com

Los Angeles

Los Angeles Chinatown is actually the city’s second incarnation of the neighborhood. The original Chinatown, founded in the late 1800s, was paved over in the 1930s to make way for Union Station, and the residents and businesses relocated to its current site. Although small in comparison to Los Angeles Koreatown, this Chinatown is still noteworthy for its numerous appearances in Hollywood films, including “Rush Hour,” “Anchorman,” “Freaky Friday” and, of course, “Chinatown.” Some of Los Angeles Chinatown’s most famous past residents include Bruce Lee and actor Haing S. Ngor, who won an Oscar for his performance in the film “Killing Fields.”

Some of Los Angeles Chinatown’s unique landmarks include the Thien Hau Temple, dedicated to a Taoist goddess of Southern China called Mazu, and Hop Louie’s Pagoda, a restaurant and bar located in Central Plaza, where many celebrations of Chinese festivals take place, including the Lunar New Year Festival and the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.

Like many Chinatowns, traditional arched gateways flank the entrance to the neighborhood. One of its gateways is not an arch but a sculpture of two twin dragons mounted on steel pillars. Visitors can take walking tours of Chinatown and also check out its restaurants and bakeries, some of which have been open since New Chinatown was created in 1938, including the Phoenix Bakery.

Los Angeles Chinatown Landmarks

Thien Hau Temple
750-756 N Yale St
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Hop Louie Pagoda
950 Mei Ling Way
(213) 628-4244
Los Angeles, CA 90012
www.hoplouiela.com

Phoenix Bakery
969 N. Broadway
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 628-4642
www.phoenixbakeryinc.com

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