Changing demographics have heavily impacted where and how overseas Chinese in America choose to live.
When I was growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, the ethnic Chinese population was heavily concentrated in Chicago’s Chinatown. There were a handful of Chinese and other Asians in the suburbs, but not many.
The same was true in most large North American cities, where the streets of Chinatown were filled with people mostly speaking Zhongshan, Taishan and other Southern dialects, rather than Putonghua or English.
There are many reasons why Chinatown remained a magnet for new arrivals, but language ability, cultural affinity, and close family ties of new immigrants were all factors, not to mention economic opportunity.
During the past 20 years, the demographic diversity of immigrants from Greater China to North America has expanded dramatically, including a wider range of regional origins within China, higher level of education and professional experience, and language abilities.
Newer arrivals don’t need or want to be immersed in the old Chinatowns. As a result, Chinatown is no longer the center of cultural, political and economic life for North America’s overseas Chinese; and that trend appears to be permanent.
A parallel trend is evident among other immigrants from Asian countries, who are also dispersing to new satellite communities and the suburbs.
In the U.S., Asian Americans number 4.4 million, tied with Americans of Hispanic origin as the fastest growing ethnic group. Nationwide, some 62% of Asian Americans — including Chinese, Koreans, and Indians — now live in the suburbs, up from 54% in 1990.
Suburban living has been closely associated with the post WWII American dream, which has been clearly embraced by Asian immigrants. The draw of better schools in the suburbs is also a driver.
Chinatowns and other traditional urban ethnic neighborhoods remain a magnet for immigrants with lower education, skill and language levels who can more easily find entry-level work there. Some are also developing as local tourism destinations.
It’s long been a complaint among Chinese friends who visit North America that the quality of Chinese restaurant food available there is generally awful. If you ask the restaurateurs, their excuse is that non-Chinese customers don’t appreciate genuine Chinese cooking, so they have changed the menu to suit local tastes.
To the extent that you could find good Chinese food in North America, it was traditionally in Chinatowns, although even then it was mainly Cantonese cuisine. The main exceptions were New York, Toronto, San Francisco, and Vancouver — offering a bigger and more diverse range of Chinese cuisines.
With the gradual demise of Chinatowns, finding good Chinese food has become more of a challenge. Not because it isn’t available, but because good Chinese restaurants are dispersed across a very wide range of urban and suburban neighborhoods.
As Chinatowns develop more income from tourism, let’s hope more smart entrepreneurs will seize the opportunity to offer genuine Chinese regional cuisines. Speaking as a convert, I am confident non-Chinese will accept and enjoy the real thing if given the chance.
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