The End of Chinatowns?

In this month’s issue of the Atlantic, Bonnie Tsui asks whether the rise of China spells the end of Chinatowns.  According to 2010 Census data, Chinatowns in New York and San Francisco have recently begun depopulating.  Whether this is mainly due to decreasing immigration from China, or high rents pushing working-class Asians out of the city and into the “ethnoburbs,” the trend seems significant.  In the last 10 years, Manhattan’s Chinatown lost 9 percent of its residents—including 14 percent of its Asian ones.

What this means for food in Chinatowns is an open question, and the answers may prove to be counterintuitive.  Since there’s no reason not to, consider Philadelphia as a bellwether.

One possibility is that Chinese restaurateurs will follow the flow of Chinatown residents toward the ‘burbs.  Han Chiang, who opened Han Dynasty in Exton, could be considered one such.  But Chiang’s second location, in Old City—hardly an “ethnoburb”—provides a variation on that theme: that as Chinatowns hollow out, restaurateurs will simply cater more to non-Chinese eaters.  It seems like this sort of thing would work best for restaurateurs who simultaneously move away from Cantonese food in favor of other Chinese cuisines—like Sichuan, in Han Dynasty’s case.

Another possibility is that as Chinatowns lose their residential vitality, they will come under pressure to amp up the vitality of their service sectors, and that this will drive diversification of cuisines within Chinatown neighborhoods.  Perhaps we’ve already begun to see this in Philly in the last ten years or so, with places like Yakitori Boy and Penang.  Or maybe we’re on the cusp of a postmodern menu moment in Chinatown, judging by Hop Sing Laundromat’s plans to bring in the “five best things” from any number of neighboring restaurants, in lieu of doing food prep itself.  Indeed, those two trends might dovetail nicely.

For the moment, Philadelphia’s Chinatown doesn’t seem to be under quite the same pressures as those in San Francisco, New York, or Washington DC—cities where downtown rents are way higher than they are here.  But there are reasons to wonder what’s in store for the neighborhood beyond the Friendship Arch on Tenth Street—especially given this fall’s Food Trust Night Market in Chinatown, which was awkward in telling ways.

Among city foodies—and anyone with a nostalgia for night markets in Asia—there was a huge, pent-up enthusiasm for the event.  But there was something undeniably odd about a throng showing up in such numbers … to eat (mostly) tacos, hot dogs, cupcakes, and meatball hoagies.  (The sight of shop windows plastered with posters against bike lanes seemed to echo this low-level cultural disconnect.)

One of the things I’ve always liked about Philadelphia’s Chinatown is that it’s not a theme park—like, say, Washington D.C.’s.  Which made it especially strange to see it halfway converted into one on that evening.  Only not the sort of theme park we’ve come to expect.  And maybe that’s a testament to the strength of our Chinatown–that the only way it was going to undergo Extreme Makeover: Foodie Edition was at the hands (or wheels) of food trucks serving, for the most part, completely unrelated cuisines.  But it could also be a sign of ebbing vitality and influence, that the only way to lure all those hungry bodies to Tenth Street was via a lineup of food vendors in which non-Asian offerings outnumbered Asian ones by more than four-to-one.

I’m no oracle.  But I would like to read other people’s takes in the Comments section.

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  • eldondre

    I’d wager a lot of people would have liked to see a bit more authentic night market with asian food rather than the same old group of food trucks. the chinatown night market was cool since some new food trucks came out, but aside from that, it seemed more like an excuse to drink for young people. I definitely think chinatown is trying amp up its drawing power, not just to non-chinese, but chinese who don’t live in the city….much in the same way it’s difficult to find concentrations of good food of any kind outside the city. my parents have a chinese neighbor who stops by every time she goes to atlantic city (twice a month)…not for han dynasty but for hand drawn noodles and off the menu items that are impossible to find where she that sense, it’s location next to vine st and off the train lines might mean it can be commercially viable. DC’s chinatown was dead before they plopped the hockey arena there.

  • Lord Chesterfield

    It has to do mostly with rent and property values, right? I don’t think that the “awkwardness” of the night market really says anything about our Chinatown or about the rest of the city’s interaction with it. I do get the sense that Chinatown here is very much by and for its residents.. I can’t think of many chain restaurants nearby and almost every business seems to cater to locals. At least it seems that way, but I guess I don’t know for sure since I can’t read what the signs in the windows say anyway!

    I do wish more of Philadelphia was like Chinatown. Its a real neighborhood and there’s just so much action because of all the food stuff going on there, whether its restaurants open late, noodle and other factories churning out the goods, or the many and varied markets selling mostly “whole” foods at all times to a consuming public that cooks and eats what seems like would make for a lot of relatively healthy and tasty stuff. Don’t you wish you lived in a neighborhood like that? I really do.

    Another unique element of Chinatown is it sort of seems like a melting pot for people of all kinds to pass through and enjoy. Sit at a table at Davids some night and there will be one of every type of person in Philly represented at some point; every social, economic, and ethnic demographic seems represented. I may be painting with kind of a broad brush here, but you don’t get that kind of diversity experience many other places in the city, and it usually seems relatively harmonious, at least in my experience.

    Will it change? It’ll have to eventually, but for now with real estate the way it is, I can’t imagine a whole lot of high-rise, high-rent property being built so lets all continue to enjoy it for what it is!

  • Beulah215

    First, a disclaimer: I did not attend the Night Market, though I wanted to, as I live so close to Chinatown it was silly to skip it. Alas, I had other plans. So I can’t comment on the Anglo-ization of that singular event.

    What I can comment on, as someone who grew up in these parts and has watched Chinatown change for the better, I’m in agreement with Lord Chesty. There’s no question populations of Asians of all nationalities and ethnicities have been moving into Philadelphia, be it Cambodian, Vietnamese, Laotian, Malaysian, and so on. The seeming upside to some kind of shift in population dynamics over the past 15 years or so has been that Chinatown in Philly is better than ever. More community-minded than ever. Serving its own community better, while also serving the rest of us. Hell, the streets are cleaner than most neighborhoods in this City. The sense of community among residents in Chinatown is strong. It is entrepreneurial. It’s with thoughtfulness towards their kids and towards each other.

    I don’t subscribe to the idea that Chinatowns will go away. Quite the contrary. Their demographics may subtly shift over time. But we must not forget the huge focus on multi-generational values and businesses and homesteads among many Chinatown families. That alone will help ensure the long-lasting vibrant community development that the rest of us are lucky to take advantage of in whatever way we choose. That’s not to say a mom and pop pizza shop won’t pass their business on to their kids. They may well; it’s just a different way of viewing things in Eastern Asian cultures when it comes to family and the ties that bind.

    Then again, maybe I’m just sentimental because I’m in Chinatown nearly every day of the week for something or other (dried chilies, rice noodles, bahn mi, gadgets, and tea). I just know it’s not like anywhere else in town– and for the better. Maybe real estate will win out. I just think families may put up an awfully good fight.

  • barryg

    Chinatown here, oddly, has a lot of political influence. They are really dug in and holding out, successfully, in the face of market rate developers. They are about to build a new 9 story building of affordable housing so do not expect the neighborhood to be swallowed up by gentrification any time soon, though many are trying (see: Reading Viaduct NID).

    I also appreciate the authenticity of Philly’s Chinatown, but in many ways that authenticity is the same kind of pandering to the poor politics that held back Philly neighborhoods for generations. I love a bowl of cheap noodles, but do we really want to prevent condos and market rate apartments from being built so close to the City Center? Chinatown is full of surface parking lots because they don’t let anyone develop on them.

  • Bob

    I am not an expert on the Chinatowns in NYC/SF, but I seem to recall many years ago being told that the Manhattan Chinatown has been mostly continued for historical/tourist reasons. There are other Chinatowns in the five boroughs, but the one in Flushing is now where more Asian people are living. Perhaps because of the high rents in the Manhattan Chinatown. I think it’s perfectly reasonable in a city the size of NYC to have more than one region for something like that. There was a newspaper article in either the Inquirer or NY Times related to this I think.

  • Alex

    Wait, have you been to the area north of Vine lately? A decaying, post-industrial area has been turned into a lot of very nice housing developments inhabited mostly by Chinese; not to mention a handful of new businesses. It’s still in a period of transition but there’s a lot of development going on there. So I’d say, If anything, Philly’s Chinatown would seem to be growing.

  • These comments are really long winded for your average Foobooz post… I live north of Vine near Chinatown and find myself knee deep in misinformation and BS about what is “happening” in the area. Watch out for smoke and mirrors here people.