Chinatowns in U.S.

The travel is perfect, except the food. I am sorry but I still cannot enjoy the food in America. I tried different types of foods according to the recommendation from local listing, but I cannot find a good one for me. After eating American food for two days, I am feeling like I eat the food on the airplane everyday. You may imagine the feeling – hungry but don’t want to eat, eat but still feel hungry. I tried to stay at American restaurant at the beginning. Since I am here, I should do things like locals do. Food should be an important part of a journey, isn’t it.

I finally gave up and started to eat my favorite Chinese food at Chinatowns. In Washington D.C. we went to the Chinatown Express for three times. In Boston, we went to the Yan Jing Restaurant at the Harvard Square (just on the other side of the Harvard Widener Library). The second time, we took the red line directly from our hotel to that restaurant to have lunch before we start our tour that day.


I have visited the Chinatown in Washington D.C., in Boston, Chicago and New York. What amazed me most is that I saw so many people there who cannot speak or read English. Chinatown seems to be their jails that they can never step out. There are Chinese newspapers, Chinese signs and small businesses serving the local Chinese community. I saw many famous business names were translated into Chinese which I even didn’t see in China.

Meanwhile, I feel sad when I visit some local residents in the Chinatowns. The area in the big city seems to be a replica of old China’s streets – small shops, simple and cheap restaurants. The shops are good at lower the price for their service/good by decreasing the cost. Often, they decrease it at the cost of quality. It is for sure that any people who think China Town is a window for the current China will be misled. Of cause, for big countries like America and China, it is always risky to conclude situation in one sentence. I heard the conversation in Chinatown that went like this:

A: “It is cold, isn’t it?”

B: “Yes. In China, they still wear t-shirts”

The second person must forget China’s territery is large enough to cover the hot and the cold. It is the same to conclude on the economic or culture side.

Chinatown Buses

I had very high expectation on the Chinatown buses, but I was disappointed this time. Taking the Chinatown buses running between Boston and New York as an example, they are cheap (15 USD per trip) because they don’t accept credit card; there are no waiting room for passengers; they don’t run advertisement; they don’t have automatic ticket vendering machine (so don’t need to hire anyone to design the system); there is no customer service; they stops at cities in the middle without telling the customer about it; they don’t need to print flyers; and don’t need to rent a terminal at the Port Authority Bus Terminal – they use streets. I am not comfortable to see the Chinese bus owners do business like there. Finally, I was disappointed with the Chinese bus although I took the motivation to try it and help to promopt it after that.

28 thoughts on “Chinatowns in U.S.

  1. interesting observations. but what the CURRENT CHINA looks like?

    maybe like this:

    or more like this:

    i think chinatown DOES reveal a part of the image of CURRENT china, although it’s misleading to generalize …

    well, seems you will celebrate the new year in the states. lao wang, i am wishing you a happy and lucky new year!

    do you have any plan for your blog in the coming year?

  2. “The area in the big city seems to be a replica of old China’s streets – small shops, simple and cheap restaurants.”

    old China’s streets? I have to say, more than 80% of China will love to have those streets.. I am surprised Jianshuo that you have travelled so much within China yet you make it sound like everywhere in China is like Shanghai…

  3. Just to make it clear if it was not that what I emphasize here is the deversity of perspectives on large countries like China. Not all places are like Chinatown and meanwhile there are still a lot of places in China are similar and even more places are worse. It is for sure. Deversity is always true while any claim that a country looks like a fixed pattern is wrong. I hope I made myself clearer this time.

  4. Regarding Chinatown, yes, it’s dirty, crowded and noisy. But it’s also a cultural center that many Chinese Americans like myself are grateful exist. It as a unique charm and energy that doesn’t exist elsewhere, not even in Shanghai. I have warm feelings when I think of NYC’s chinatown. Do you feel “warmth” anywhere in Shanghai?

    Chinatowns offer a link to identity and culture that would otherwise not be available. Most people who actually live in chinatown are the older generation and new immigrants. Second gen chinese move out to the suburbs, but still frequent it for it’s food, services, social and cultural ties. Regarding old and small streets, many chinatowns are part of historic districts.

    Despite it’s superficial appearances, I’d dare say most people in US Chinatowns live better than 98 or 99% of chinese citizens. WJS, I think you have to realize that you are living in the top 2 or 3 percent of mainland chinese society. Life for the average chinese mainlander is indeed, to paraphrase a philosopher, short, hard and brutal.

  5. Chinatowns certainly mean different things to different people. But I have to agree with JSW on that they don’t really reflect today’s China. For last 10 years or so China has experienced tremendous change. How much change have we seen in those Chinatowns in US?

  6. Sorry Jianshuo, I had thought your microsoft collegues had already directed you to some fine Chinese restaurants in Bellevue. And you shouldn’t have missed out an amazing seafood eatery by the Pike Market (close to the aquarium): people use hammer to knock off crab shell! Just like in Suzhou or Shanghai.

    The best (if authenticity is index) Chinese restaurant can be found in southern California. But you don’t even come close to silicon valley! Happy New Year

  7. To AST: Just to offer an observation, most non-Cantonese Chinese do not feel warmth or emotional affiliation in Chinatown. Changing the name to Caotontown would serve the reality better. The cultural gap is there, but I guess few Anglo-Americans can understand that. Like Italiano, Chinese people are often subject to their tribal experiences at home.

  8. Jianshuo: I totally agree with you, I am not alone. Just one catch with your ‘old China’ analogy: they are not even close to the treelined streets in colonial Shanghai, a splendid old China.

    I never doubt the value of American diversity and never could have resisted the aroma of latte in Little Italy, or hotpot in Szechuan restaurant. But the melting pot does fail to achieve its full expectation in a few blocks, regrettably.

  9. Agree with “Chinese”, I was brought up in a small Southern Chinese town, I still remember those elegant slate paved streets and old wonderful biuldings made with wood, white wall and black bricks. They are replaced by ugly concrete streets and houses since mid-70’s, and thanks God, during my last visit, the local government decided to revive the town by restoring the old style, now the streets and biuldings are appearing as sort of Renaissance, for tourism purpose.

  10. My first and last visit to NYC so far was in 2001. I did not go to China town, but take the tour bus in Freshing (Forget the real spelling, but it was called in Chinese as Fa La Sheng). My only thought about that area is that if I have no choice but to live there, I will never come to USA. That place is not my dream of life.

    I agree with most opinions of WJS about China town. If we are always feel comfortable about the low standard of our live, then we may never have motivation to make progress.

    We need to have the courage to admit our shortcomings, to have the courage to change for better.

  11. i just travelled to new york and boston. i took the same fung hua bus operating between the two cities.

    i dont like chinatown. the most important reason is that it’s a cantonese town. it’s a total misrepresentation to westerners about the chinese culture. if you are a chinese and happen to be non-cantonese, you understand what i mean.

    js, i personally dont think the bus business is mismanaged. not every business needs to advertise or have a smart, polished external image. the bus company acquires cost advantage exactly through these savings. for a regular passenger who just wants cheap transport between cities, flyers/advertisement/vendor machines are just hassles. it’s a different business mode altogether.

  12. Jian shuo,

    Your opinion on US Chinatowns are typical from those whose just stepped out of airplane and tried to compared them to Shanghai in every aspects. The reality is most Chinese work work in professional fields and had some education don’t live in Chinatown. They live in vast suburban area around cities like Washington DC, for instance, Fairfax county or Montgomery county or Howard county. They rarely travel to Chinatown because certain section of suburban areas have become unofficial “Chinatown” where countless Chinese businesses reside. Chinatown in downtown is increasingly becoming irrelevant as days go on because most new investment from immigrants are into the new sections. For example, if you have a chance to visit LA, you will find new style Chinatown in Monterey ParK which wouldn’t remind you anything of old China. Also, if you have a chance to visit San Francisco Bay area, you will pretty much find that the whole bay area has become a literal Chinatown. In Fremont, in Cupertino, you will find miles and miles of Chinese business district which may remind you of Taipei rather than old Cantonese town. Wealthy Chinese don’t really live in traditional Chinatowns in NYC, DC or SF. I travelled a lot in the US, if you have chance next time, email me, I will put up a list of “NEW” Chinatowns for you to visit. :-)

  13. If you know where to go, you will find some of the best Chinese foods in places like NYC, Flushing, Monterey Park, San Francisco Bay. The qualities are by no means much less than that in China. But you definitely need people to guide you. If you make your conclusion only after finding a Chinese restuarant across the street from your hotel, you are likely to be premature.

  14. I understand where Jian Shuo came from when he made about US China Chinese buses. If I didn’t stay in the US for couple of years, I would have made the same comments. Due to high expenses in doing businesses in the US, I think the way Chinese buses are run is perfectly suitable to the environment locally. They don’t have all the unnecessary overhead to make them financially uncompetitive. They are one of the best and efficiently run Chinese businesses in the US. All of the savings from avoiding overhead costs make them able to offer us incredible price of $15-20 per trip.

  15. NYC can never compare to Shanghai for its modern look and feel. Afterall, Shanghai’s construction boom started only about 20 years ago. But NYC had been gradually built more than a hundred years. You can argue Shanghai’s the same case but Shanghai was frozen after 1949 all the way till the 80s. Everything simply changed almost over night during the last 20 years. But can way conclude that NYC is not as good as Shanghai that new comers from Shanghai tend to think? I don’t think so. The infrastructure of NYC, the people and cultural qualities are by far one of the best in the world. That’s why it can recover so quickly after 911.

  16. Using Wall street as an example, many new comers went to WS and found it so narrow and small. But we need to realize that US financial machines are not entirely run from this street. This street has long become a symbol rather than actual functionality. Underlying financial operations are spread over a diverse areas of NYC and East coast cities. Fall out of WTC only caused limited damages to the infrastructure because US financial systems is one of the most fail safe systems in the world. Literally, Wall Street today may be able to run without Wall Street altogether.

  17. There is something about NYC still remains in my mind: I took a taxi from JFK airport to Manhattan, so when the taxi was on the bridge cross the tiny strait to downtown NY, the landscape of NYC suddenly poped up to my view, my response was, “wahooo… that is the real Ameeeeticaaaa!”, the cab driver even slowed down the car when he saw me grabbing my camera to shoot the gorgeous front views.

    Rest of the things are more or the less the same everywhere around the world, in big cities.

  18. Either the New York Times or the Boston Globe (two major American newspapers) did an article about the Chinatown buses about how they have cut their ticket prices so much to compete that they are now almost totally unable to make a profit on their businesses. Personally, I think riding on the Chinatown buses is fun and more convenient than going to the unpleasant Boston and NYC bus stations. But try to see some small towns in America while you’re there — they are as different from NYC and Boston as villages in China are from Shanghai and Beijing!

  19. My friends in Austin, TX suggested the same thing – to try some small towns since they are typical American towns while New York is more internationalized.

  20. I am so fascinated about Chinatowns in the U.S. and wonder when and how did the Chinatowns come into being?

  21. I live in NYC Chinatown right now. I’m from Thailand and don’t know Chinese at all. It is kind of tough. Somehow I feel alienated and often get rib off but believe it or not I kind of like it since the apartment is in a quieter area of Chinatown at Henry st. where I can walk to the Hudson river to see the spectacular view, also I can walk to Little Italy, South Street Seaport, Lower East Side and SOHO. I love the food here but yes, it is so dirty here. I hate when people spit on the street. Sadly, I think I will move away to avoid language barrier and to be in a clean place.

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