Chinatowns are cities within cities: adventurous, bustling, full of distinctive signage, street vendors selling unusual items, specialty shops, a noted lack of big chains, a variety of dialects being spoken, and multitudes of unique and exciting food choices. From the country's oldest Chinatown in hilly San Francisco to the smaller but just-as-bustling Chinatown in Philadelphia, visitors have the opportunity for instant cultural immersion, and we've identified the ten best Chinatowns in America.
The Chinese have been established in the United States since the mid-19th century, when laborers were needed for gold mining and railroad work, but the immigrant population also grew during the 1990s and 2000s; in fact, more than one-third of the Chinese immigrants now living in the U.S. arrived in 2000 or later. Currently, there are more than 3 million Chinese in America, according to the 2008 census report. Whether leaving China for issues ranging from poverty, famine or political reasons, across the decades, the Chinese have built strong communities that keep their ethnic heritage and shared identity; this maintained and rich culture is a defining reason that Chinatowns endure and why they're so appealing for residents and tourists alike.
Around the globe, there are Chinatowns in many major cities, from London (Europe's largest) to Vancouver (Canada's largest), Melbourne to Manila; and fortunately for us, there are many within the United States. Many of these districts share their community with other immigrant cultures, making the sights, sounds, and eating choices that much more exotic. Some Chinatowns are more robust than others; rising property costs in some downtown areas have unfortunately led to a decline as city dwellers move to the suburbs. But for those communities able to maintain their identity and vitality, the sensory experience — from the bright colors and unique architecture, the intriguing music and enticing smells of cooking — makes any visit an adventure. In a neighborhood where English is not the primary language, a visitor can feel as though they've left the U.S. altogether — and now they are the foreigner, a tourist in their own city. And that can be incredibly exciting.
In some open-air markets, like those in New York's Chinatown, the produce is stunning and artistically arranged. Some live markets, with everything from eels and frogs, can be jarring to those not expecting them; the roast duck and pork hanging in shop windows can take some getting used to. But there is endless interest in the green grocers, fishmongers and locals picking up ingredients for their evening meal — a sense that even if you were to go back one hundred years, shopping there wouldn't be so very different. With a little legwork, an out-of-towner can seek out the more authentic areas of a Chinatown versus the touristy ones. As always, the best spot, of course, is where the locals shop and eat.
So what exactly makes a Chinatown great? In order to compile our list, we took a look at every Chinatown in America, and ranked them according to the following criteria: quality of authentic dining options, size, cultural experiences available, and whether a visitor will feel like they've left the United States as they explore the neighborhood.
The culinary aspect of a Chinatown is undoubtedly its biggest attraction for visitors; the chance to try an exotic new ingredient or to go back for a dish that can never quite be replicated at home. From dim sum palaces to hole-in-the-wall joints, one can find any Chinese food they're looking for, and (given the enormous menus at some restaurants) many more they're not. So after perusing our slideshow to learn about some of the best Chinatowns across the U.S., put on your walking shoes, because there's much to be explored!