LOS ANGELES — Asians are the fastest growing minority group in the United States, and people of Chinese heritage have been in the United States since the mid-1800s. Almost every major U.S. city has a “Chinatown.” But many Chinese Americans have assimilated and actually live in the suburbs.
From San Francisco to New York, visitors flock to Chinatown for food and souvenirs. But the Chinatowns in major U.S. cities these days are mainly for the tourists, says the acting director of the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles, Steve Wong.
“If you walk around Chinatown today in Los Angeles and many other big cities, you have these facades of Chinese-ness, which sometimes is real, sometimes it's not. And so you have gift shops, you have Chinese food which is catering to American tastes. I don’t even call it Chinese food. I think it’s very American,” Wong said.
But at one time, Chinatown was the only place where Chinese immigrants could live. The first Chinese immigrants arrived from southern China in the mid-1800s as laborers. Then in 1882, the U.S. banned Chinese immigration. Hostility toward the Chinese led to the creation of Chinatowns. Again, Steve Wong.
“Without being able to bring in families and women, they weren’t able to develop their communities, so they had to turn to the outside and create an economy based on tourism,” Wong said.
Fred Wong, 73, lived and worked in the Los Angeles Chinatown for 15 years. He came to the U.S. when he was 10, after the immigration ban was lifted. He did not come with his biological parents.
“We were six of us and it was very hard for my parents, so she sold one and I was the second son she sold,” Wong said.
He says elderly Chinese and Latino immigrants now live in L.A.’s Chinatown. The majority of the Chinese immigrants live in the suburbs. In the last three decades, Chinese immigrants from Taiwan and then Mainland China arrived as students, who then stayed in the U.S., says University of Southern California Los Angeles professor Min Zhou.
“A lot of them are from middle class, they want to buy or rent houses rather than live in apartments and they also want to find good school districts so Chinatown is not attractive to them,” Zhou said.
In some major cities such as Houston and Los Angeles, Chinese are forming communities outside of the traditional Chinatown. These neighborhoods are filled with strip malls, parking lots and banks that cater to the Chinese community.
Guo Wen Huang from Xian, China used to work in a factory back home. Now he owns a restaurant in a Chinese suburb east of Los Angeles. Like many of the immigrants here, he bought a house with a two-car garage.
He says that in China, skyscrapers are everywhere. The United States doesn’t have that many skyscrapers. There are more single family homes here. His first impression is that there are fewer people here, the air quality is better, and he can see blue skies.
While many Chinese immigrants are finding success in the United States, Steve Wong says as many as 750,000 undocumented Chinese immigrants also live here. They are waiting to see if Congress will reform immigration laws.
Min Zhou says the immigration problem in the United States will continue because immigrants will continue to want a better life for themselves and their children.