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Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Decline (and Fall?) of Chinatown in the US

Ethnic enclaves have traditionally served as local gateways for new immigrants, allowing them to learn enough about the new environment so that they can successfully negotiate their new life. Some immigrant groups have been more obvious about this than others over time--think of Little Italy and Chinatown. With time, however, immigrants become part of the mainstream--at least if the host society allows that to occur (which doesn't happen all over the globe), and those places lose their principal function. A story in the Washington Post (and Washington DC has a famous Chinatown) suggests that as Asians join everyone else heading for the suburbs, Chinatowns are losing their importance.

“The traditional Chinatown is changing, and in most cities it is no longer the residential, political and cultural center of Asian-American life that it once was,” said Wei Li, an Arizona State University professor [of Geography] who chairs the Census Bureau’s advisory committee on the Asian population.
She explained that urban Chinatowns continue to serve a role for newly arrived immigrants with less education or lower skills who seek entry-level work, as well as for elderly residents with poor English skills who can’t drive. But middle-class families are almost nowhere to be found, and in many cities, rising downtown property costs and urban gentrification threaten their traditional existence.
“Some have become functional as tourist attractions,” Li said.
Of course, there are new ethnic attractions in the 'burbs:
Signs of Chinatown decline can be seen in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, home to the nation’s largest Asian-American population at 1.9 million. There, Monterey Park, deemed part of an “ethnoburb” outside Los Angeles after it became majority Asian-American in the 1990s, has long been a first stopping point for newly arrived Chinese seeking bigger houses away from downtown Los Angeles.
Due to fast growth, the Asian-American suburban population has spread to other areas of California’s San Gabriel Valley and more recently to Irvine, where their share of the population jumped from 30 to 39 percent over the last decade.
“Irvine is one of the new wave of Asian communities, but it is not overtly Chinatown,” said Ralph Lee, 28, of Irvine. Lee, whose immigrant parents reared him in the affluent seaside community of Newport Beach, Calif., has never been to the Los Angeles Chinatown.
My own experience of Irvine contradicts that latter view, if truth be known. My daughter and son-in-law live in that area and we have been to strip shopping malls where every sign was only in Chinese (or some other Asian language).

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