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China Town:an Archway and a Cultural Legacy

严之俊 Fraser Yan 2016-01-10 11:59

What we call “Tang Ren Street” (Chinatown) is also called “ Hua Qu”. However, the name “Tang Ren Street” existed a few centuries before the name Chinatown. A term mostly heard in East Asia and South East Asia describing areas where Chinese people lived. The English name, Chinatown appeared when Chinese people gathered as a local minority group when migrating to Western countries. This was a landmark in the history of Chinese immigration. 


Because of the huge impact of the Tang dynasty, people from South East Asia started to call China “Tang”. Even during the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties, people from many countries still referred to anything China-related as “Tang”. “Tang” was the name for the country, China, and the people of China were known as “Tang Ren”. 

Even earlier, Tang Ren Street was called Da Tang Street. In 1673, Nalanxingde wrote in Lu Shui Ting Za Shi: “People started trading with Japan in the Tang Dynasty. People who stayed in Japan called their street Da Tang Street which was over ten miles long.” Later on, more Chinese immigrants went to South East Asia. Soon, they developed their own culture and trading circle. The earliest recorded Chinese community in the West was in Liverpool around 1830 when a direct trading route opened and tons of silk and tea were being exported from China. Around 1860, the Qing Dynasty government signed “The Convention of Peking”. It opened up the borders and sped up migration, especially from the Guangdong and Fujian areas, near the Pacific Ocean. 


The earl iest “Chinatowns” were written about in Europe and the USA around 1875, as seen in the book Trip Around the West by Deyi Zhang. During that time in the USA, Chinese immigrants were being marginalised; it was extremely hard for them to live outside of Chinatown. They couldn’t leave even if they wanted to. So, the term Chinatown stems from racial segregation. From the end of the 19th century up to the 1950s, the USA set up a whole system of Chinese exclusion, which was reflected in law, society and minds. The ratio of men to women was extremely unbalanced because the law restricted travel. Local media once called Chinatown “a disgusting place full of prostitutes, gamblers and opium addicts”. This image still exists in some minds. 


So much bitter history was made amongst the streets of Chinatown. Chinatown has changed, but many choose to stay, creating their own space in a different world. Chinatown reflects a culture of transition and the archways have witnessed it all. 

Cultural Impact 

About the effects of one culture on another, opinions vary. But, Chinese culture has had a huge impact on Western culture for centuries now, and Chinatowns in whichever city contributed greatly to this. The effects of the Korean and Japanese cultures, which have been exaggerated, happened much later on. 

The archway is probably the most recognisable symbol of Chinatown. Almost every Chinatown, in every city, in every country has its own archway. The archways announce that this is a Chinese area. The archways are also called “Pai Lou”. First seen about the middle of the Chun Qiu dynasty, they developed through the Ming and Qing dynasties. Archways are built mainly for four reasons: praising someone’s merit, announcing someone’s moral integrity, educating people and showing direction. With its typical Chinese architectural characteristics and its practical raison d’etre, the archway has become a landmark for Chinese people to unite together and express their national homesickness. The Canadian postal service even issued a set of eight Chinatown archway themed memorial stamps in 2013 to commemorate the contribution of Chinatowns. 


Another cultural impact comes from Chinese food, Chinatown is full of Cantonese restaurants. They serve a variety of Cantonese seafood, barbecue and dim-sum dishes. Nowadays, if you want to find all five Chinese cuisines it wouldn’t be a problem at all in any decent sized Chinatown. Not only Chinese people come to have Chinese food here, but also many local non-Chinese have fallen in love with Chinese food. However, Chinese food has changed a lot since the first Chinese people settled in their Chinatowns, for example, now there are fortune cookies, crab rangoon and special Kongpao Chicken. There is a rumour, that this year when St. Francis, the Roman Catholic Pope came to visit the USA, he refused the invitation from the white house for lunch and went to Chinatown in Washington, looking for one simple dish - Kong Pao Chicken. It is said, that over twenty years ago, the then Pope went to the USA and was invited by a Chinese priest to a Chinese restaurant and had a wonderful meal of Kong Pao Chicken. 


According to The Encyclopedia Americana, from the 1848 Gold Rush until 1862 when American railroad workers went on strike, hundreds of Chinese workers most ly Cantonese, went to the USA. By the end of the 19th century, registered Chinese workers in San Francisco numbered over 60,000. The first migrant generation brought not only their Chinese architecture and life-style, but also their uniquely Chinese food. Most current Chinese food in Chinatown has developed from the original Chinese food, but adapted for local American tastes. It’s convenient, nutritious and affordable; closer to fast food compared with real Chinese food. They use chicken, pork, beef and shrimp as the main ingredient, adding broccoli, peas, shredded bamboo shoots, fermented black beans, and Suan rong. These basic ingredients have made-up the whole of Chinese cuisine in all the big cities of America for many years and have become a popular part of most American’s lives.


Nowadays, Chinatowns are still busy places, but most of the new generation of American born Chinese choose not to stay there anymore. For one reason the mix of people in Chinatown has changed and is more diverse, and the second reason is that the new generation, who were born and grew up there, don’t need to stay in a group to help each other anymore. Many Chinatowns have disappeared, but a lot of them have lasted. They have either become places for immigrants to gather, a tourist spot, or an empty city area. 


Chinese people are in every corner in the world, not just in Chinatowns. Even though there are still many Chinatowns, and some sizable ones. 

The USA is where Chinatowns flourished. But, each of these Chinatowns tells its own bitter history of the Chinese railroad workers. Chinatowns are found in every city where the railroad went, even if the railroad disappeared years ago. Starting in San Francisco, then Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago, Detroit, then to the East Coast, to Washington, Boston, Philadelphia and New York. Chinatowns are literally all over the USA. 


On the West Coast, San Francisco’s Chinatown has a way longer history than Los Angeles. It began around 1850’s and was the biggest Chinatown in the whole of the USA. At that time, Chinese workers came to develop the West Coast during the Gold Rush. They couldn’t speak the language and didn’t know the city. All they could do was gather together and help each other. They opened little teashops, small food stands catering to the workers, then they had Tofu stalls and laundries which together make-up the rudiments of a Chinatown. Later on, Westerners arrived out of curiosity and called it “China Zhen”. After a while, it began to sell more items like silk and antiques and became a popular area for Chinese wares. The area started to have clubs and theatres and became a special place in which to experience the exotic Chinese atmosphere. When it comes to the Spring and Mid-Autumn festivals, you can still find real Chinese traditions played our here. 

When it comes to the Mid-West, Chicago has the most notable Chinatown. Currently, Chinatown in Chicago is divided into two parts. One is the old town and the other is New Chinatown. It ‘s much smaller than the Chinatown on the West Coast and New York City, but it is clean and you can find all kinds of Chinese cuisine here. 


Coming to the East Coast, you will find New York City’s Chinatown. In the late 19th century, the first group of Chinese immigrants came to NYC from the West Coast. They arrived at the Lower East Side. In the 1980s, it grew to be the biggest Chinatown outside Asia. Chinatown, New York, has a prime location at the southern tip of Manhattan. The centre is Mott street, but includes Canal Street, Bayard Street and Rafi Pieter street. It is very close to the City Hall, the famous Wall Street, and Broadway, the world performing arts center. Chinatown has significant status in NYC because of its geographic position. 

The history of Chinatown in Europe doesn’t include much slavery or wars. It started with the Chinese traders and boat crews that came to Liverpool. A really sizeable Chinatown emerged in late 19th Century London which was also a combination of boatman and businessmen. Chinatown Paris, however, started with labourers who came from the Zhejiang area. After so many years, you can pretty much find Chinese communities in all the major cities in Europe, either within a clearly divided zone or without one. 


Chinatown London was located around the dock area, mainly for the convenience of trading. Around the 1950s, it moved downtown to Soho. Together with the West End, this has became a centre of London nightlife. Right now, London’s Chinatown is one main street with several small roads, centrally located, near to Buckingham place, No.10 Downing Street (the Prime Minister’s city residence) and Trafalgar square. Here, you can buy the ingredients to make real Chinese food and even South East Asian food which are not available generally in supermarkets in the UK. I have heard that there is no clear-cut border to London’s Chinatown. 

Chinatown Paris is found in the 13th district, which is also centrally located and another of the biggest in Europe. Compared to other cities, it’s interesting that there seem to be more and more Chinese communities in Paris. For example, “Wen Zhou Jie” in the 3rd and 4th districts, “Mei Li Cheng” in the 19th district. When it comes to Chinese New Year, of course all the Chinese communities are celebrating, so you can feel a real sense of Chinese energy all across the city. For tourists here, there are many places to spend Chinese New Year and many choices for tasting authentic Chinese food. Needless to say, “Lao Gan Ma” is always a bestseller in those Chinese markets. 


Other than those two big Chinatowns, there are some other famous ones too. For instance, Chinatown Madrid. It used to be an old street called Usera. Only a little over a decade ago, Chinese people decided to develop this street and it has prospered. Now, it is a Chinatown that doesn’t have a distinct boundary. There is also one in Athens. Chinese immigrants in Greece are mainly trading clothes, hats and shoes. There are over 200 Chinese clothing companies centrally located in Athens. In 2005, they built an area mainly for the clothing wholesalers. It started to have restaurants, markets, barber shops, etc. which in turn formed a Chinatown. 

Of course there are many other Chinatowns all over the world in addition to what’s mentioned here. It would be a very long list if we actually made one. Nowadays, many Chinatowns have changed in character and become historical tourist attractions all over the world. In North Carolina, they intentionally built a new Chinatown to attract tourists. It developed to its current scale exerting a physical significance in the city, a sign that the population of Chinese people, far from home, is rising, and a sign that Chinese culture has rooted and sprouted in yet another place. 

Films About Chinatown

Chinatown (1974) 


Directed by Roman Polanski withthe actor Jack Nicholson. A film ofcrime and plotting, withastereotypical old Chinatown. A great director, good script and wonderful actors.

Year of the Dragon(1985)


This film is written by Oliver Stone, starring John Lone and Mickey Locke. The story is more ofthe traditional gangster genre. 

China Girl(1987)


By director Abel Ferrara. His movies are most dark and violent, but not in this one. 

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