A pedestrian-friendly street in Manhattan’s Chinatown in New York.

photo by: Mo Daoud

Preservation Magazine, Spring 2024

How Chinatowns Nationwide Are Finding Ways to Thrive Into the Future

When you walked into Ting’s, whose bright red storefront at the corner of Pell and Doyers streets in New York City is impossible to miss, you entered a time capsule. The small shop was filled with tin wind-up airplanes, toy wooden alligators, playing cards with photographs of historic Hong Kong, wood-and-bone mahjong sets, silk brocade coats, and other first-hand vintage goods produced in the 1950s and ’60s.

Opened in 1958 by a Chinese immigrant couple, Tam Ting and Yu Hong Ting, the store became a fixture of New York’s Chinatown. It catered to those looking for something special and served as the Tings’ sole source of income for many years. After they both died, their daughter Eleanor, who grew up playing with the toys in the shop as a form of quality control, kept the business going. As of press time, she planned to close the storefront in March. “I would like to continue running it, but I’m looking every month at numbers in the red,” says Eleanor Ting, age 66.

Small mom-and-pop businesses like Ting’s are an inextricable part of the community, and their endangerment threatens the complex ecosystems of Chinatowns. These ethnic enclaves are also under the pressure of gentrification, and many have already disappeared, making the remaining communities even more precious. Philadelphia Chinatown and Seattle Chinatown-International District both landed on the National Trust’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2023 as they battled displacement and the prospect of new, large-scale development projects.

Also in 2023, the National Trust launched America’s Chinatowns, an initiative to work with partners and communities to research, elevate, and build coalitions that sustain and support historic Chinatowns across the United States. “It is long past due to ask what more the national preservation community can do to amplify existing grassroots action to support Chinatowns now and in the future,” says Di Gao, senior director of research and development at the National Trust and the leader of the America’s Chinatowns initiative.

Housing and retail are key pieces of the puzzle. “In the last 10 years, Chinatowns across the country have been really struggling to maintain their residential base, since they are [often] next to downtown and are in markets with higher housing prices,” says Roy Chan, director of neighborhood and place-based strategies at the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD).

First-hand vintage Chinese goods at Ting’s. The shop may continue to operate online.

photo by: Welcome to Chinatown

First-hand vintage Chinese goods at Ting’s. The shop may continue to operate online.

“They also took a hit during the pandemic, because workers are not coming back downtown.”

Historically, Chinatowns have been a source of jobs, affordable housing, and community for new immigrants, and some continue to serve that role. When the Tings opened their shop, there were still official quotas for Asian immigrants on the books, an indirect legacy of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinatowns offered a measure of protection from animosity and prejudice against Asian people—an ever-present specter that intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. This historical context is one reason why Chinatowns have persisted in the face of gentrification.

“Chinatowns are examples of the American Dream,” says University of Colorado Boulder Professor of History William Wei, who is working to help reclaim the legacy of Denver’s long-vanished Chinatown. “They are a significant part of America’s immigrant experience and affirm our contributions to the development of the United States.”

Yet these living examples of cultural diversity are under threat. It’s a complicated problem, but many smart minds are working to figure out how Chinatowns can remain vibrant communities well into the future.

A building at Ping Yuen, a San Francisco housing complex owned by Chinatown Community Development Center.

photo by: Drew Kelly

A building at Ping Yuen, a San Francisco housing complex owned by Chinatown Community Development Center.

Affordable housing, a concern for so many communities throughout the United States, is a major issue for Chinatowns. San Francisco’s Chinatown, the oldest in the country, is one of the most densely populated neighborhoods on the West Coast; it also has one of the lowest median incomes out of the city’s roughly 38 neighborhoods.

On a Saturday in November, Portsmouth Square, the area’s main park, is packed with elderly people playing card games and chess. Two Chinese-opera singers and a substantial orchestra of musicians playing Chinese stringed instruments put on a lengthy performance. The park is also the meeting location for Chinatown Alleyway Tours, in which local youth guide visitors through a few of the neighborhood’s historic streets, where parts of the street grid date to the late 1800s. “Portsmouth Square’s nickname is ‘the living room of Chinatown,’” says Phoebe Fong, a tour guide with the program. “Many residents live in SROs [single-room-occupancy buildings], which are really small spaces that can only fit a bed and a fold-up table.”

The alleyway tours program was developed by San Francisco’s Chinatown Community Development Center (CDC), a nonprofit with origins in 1977, when five grassroots groups united around the goal of sustaining Chinatown as an immigrant gateway. In the late 1980s, Chinatown CDC helped to pass a rezoning plan that capped building heights, along with other limitations. The plan made the area unattractive for high-rise office development and in turn preserved its SROs. In addition to building new affordable housing, Chinatown CDC has also purchased some of these privately owned SROs to prevent the displacement of residents. It’s important to note that the organization’s roughly 3,600 units of affordable housing in Chinatown as well as other San Francisco neighborhoods are open to all who meet the income requirements. “We are dedicated to maintaining Chinatown’s original function as a launching pad into the American society and economy,” says Malcolm Yeung, Chinatown CDC’s executive director.

The importance of having a built-in economic base of residents for Chinatown’s long-term sustainability became apparent during the pandemic, when the city’s tourist economy evaporated—a fatal blow to many businesses. Meanwhile, grocery stores serving local residents were able to soldier on. The main tourist thoroughfare of Grant Avenue was empty, while nearby Stockton Street, which is more locally oriented, continued to have lots of foot traffic.

Malcolm Yeung, executive director of San Francisco’s Chinatown Community Development Center.

photo by: Drew Kelly

Malcolm Yeung, executive director of San Francisco’s Chinatown Community Development Center.

A sense of the residential community becomes quickly apparent on the alleyway tours. The persistent clattering sound of mahjong tiles being shuffled emerges from behind metal-grille doors; drying clothes hang on balconies overhead. “Our Chinatowns and other ethnic communities play an important part by providing connection and belonging,” says Erika Gee, associate director of community and cultural resilience at National CAPACD. “You go there because you can buy bok choy, but for seniors you go there to hang out with your friends, run into people on the street, and chat with the hairdresser. There’s all this cultural capital in these communities. If they didn’t exist, it could be very isolating for many people.”

“Chinatowns are examples of the American Dream. They are a significant part of America's immigrant experience and affirm our contributions to the development of the United States.”

William Wei

In New York’s Chinatown in Manhattan, which is the largest Chinatown in the United States, many retail stores and restaurants, including the venerable dim-sum spot Hop Shing, closed permanently during the first year of the pandemic. Moved by this plight, friends Vic Lee and Jennifer Tam, who are in their 30s, looked for ways to help. Their initial plan was to set restaurants up to offer electronic gift cards, but they quickly realized a number of the businesses in Chinatown were cash-only. Lee and Tam also ran into a language barrier, since their Cantonese-language skills are limited. “We needed to build trust,” says Lee, who grew up visiting her grandmother in Chinatown every Sunday and lives there now.

The two pivoted and raised money via GoFundMe, purchased meals directly from restaurants, and donated them to essential workers during the pandemic lockdown. “Our work is centered in uplifting small-business owners and entrepreneurs and advocating for economic recovery and stabilization of the neighborhood,” says Lee, who subsequently cofounded the nonprofit Welcome to Chinatown with Tam.

Businesses on East Broadway are part of New York’s Chinatown in Lower Manhattan, the largest Chinatown in the nation.

photo by: Mo Daoud

Storefronts in Manhattan’s Chinatown in New York. A pedestrian friendly street in Manhattan's Chinatown is shown at the top of this story.

The organization launched its Longevity Fund in mid-2020 and has since given more than half a million dollars to 76 grantees (the average grant is $7,000). Among the recipients is Soft Swerve, an ice-cream shop owned by two 30-somethings who grew up in Chinatown. The business was able to upgrade its website and acquire a dipping cabinet so it could offer scoopable ice cream, often in Asian-inspired flavors such as Vietnamese coffee, Hong Kong milk tea, and vegan ube.

Welcome to Chinatown staff members are also working with legacy businesses like Ting’s on succession planning. “It’s humbling to know how the store came to be and see all these beautiful pieces tucked away in a corner,” says Harry Trinh, head of creative at Welcome to Chinatown. He is helping Eleanor Ting digitalize her inventory so that she can potentially continue operating the store online.

“Our work is centered in uplifting small-business owners and entrepreneurs and advocating for economic recovery and stabilization of the neighborhood.”

Vic Lee

Half a mile away from Ting’s, Pearl River Mart is technically in SoHo now instead of Chinatown proper, but it is still firmly part of the community where it got its start in 1971. The well-known emporium of AAPI-made and imported Asian goods is now under second-generation ownership: In 2016, Joanne Kwong took over as president from the founders, who are also her mother- and father-in-law and continue to be involved in running the business. Long before she became part of the family, Kwong recalls visiting the store as a child. “Chinatown was always the center of our family life, and Pearl River Mart was such an important institution. We’d never seen a store where our experience was centered like that,” she says.

To set the company up for the next era, she has re-imagined the retail experience. The flagship store has an art gallery on the ground floor and features its own fashion line. A spinoff in the Chelsea neighborhood focuses on Asian food, housing independent New York City businesses offering items such as boba, bao, and kimbap. “To get attention, you have to be about food and art and fashion,” says Kwong. “Chinatown doesn’t have the same gravitational pull that it once had, because there are easier ways to get things. But people are looking for connection to their families and their cultural heritage. There is still a place for Chinatowns to thrive and serve the community.”

A worker at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

photo by: Drew Kelly

A worker at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

To broaden Chinatown’s appeal beyond traditional restaurants and retail, leaders in San Francisco’s Chinatown are making a serious investment in arts and culture. With $26.5 million in state funds, as well as some additional city and federal dollars, Chinatown Media and Arts Collaborative (CMAC) purchased a former retail structure in 2021 at the prominent corner of Grant Avenue and Clay Street. Now called Edge on the Square, the existing 2,400-square-foot building will eventually be replaced by a purpose-built facility, but for the moment it has been renovated into a space that welcomes passersby to enjoy its free exhibits. The sensibility is contemporary but approachable: Through May, when you walk through the door, you are welcomed by a large green mound, part of the Collective Futures art installation by creative collective Macro Waves. You are encouraged to take your shoes off, lie on the faux moss hill, and experience a sound bath and soothing vibrations—a novel moment of calm within the bustle of the city. A nearby screen plays an art film by Bahar Behbahani, Knead Me A Moon, about the making of traditional Chinese pastries.

Located steps away from Portsmouth Square, the future center will be a multi-use space for community events, exhibitions, and the arts, as well as a gathering place to welcome residents and visitors to Chinatown. “We’re looking to preserve cultural assets and preserve space for use by the community,” says Edge on the Square Executive Director Joanne Lee. “I think we’re starting to see the intersection of arts and culture with health and well-being.”

“There's all this cultural capital in these communities. If they didn't exist, it could be very isolating for many people.”

Erika Gee

In the past, white mobs deliberately destroyed some Chinatowns. In 1885, for example, a group in Tacoma, Washington, forced about 200 residents of Little Canton to leave their homes and businesses at gunpoint and then destroyed the neighborhood. More recently, urban redevelopment projects have significantly damaged Chinatowns. With the 1997 arrival of a sports arena in downtown Washington, D.C., for example, the city’s Chinatown experienced gentrification as real estate prices skyrocketed.

But as cities and mindsets evolve, opportunities are arising to create a new vision of Chinatown. Portland, Oregon, has an Old Town Chinatown, but much of the Chinese American community has long since decamped to the suburbs, and newer immigrants—Asian and otherwise—have gravitated to Southeast Portland’s more affordable Jade District, created through the city’s Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative, which launched in 2011.

“It’s a neighborhood boxed in by freeways and high-crash corridors, a classic example of underinvestment and environmental injustice,” says Duncan Hwang, community development director at APANO, one of Oregon’s most prominent advocacy organizations for AAPI communities. APANO recently purchased Canton Grill, a Chinese restaurant that closed during the pandemic. The building occupies a one-acre site in the Jade District. While the project is still in the planning stage, APANO’s vision is to build an affordable housing development that could potentially retain part of Canton Grill’s facade and memorialize the disappearing Chinese restaurants in the area. “We want to make the Jade District the most transit-rich, affordable, climate-resilient neighborhood in Portland,” says Hwang.

Another building at Ping Yuen housing, which was rehabilitated in 2019.

photo by: Drew Kelly

Another building at Ping Yuen housing, which was rehabilitated in 2019.

And Chinatowns that were once lost to history are being remembered. In 1870, the Colorado Territorial Legislature adopted a resolution calling for Chinese immigrants to come, noting that they could help the development of Colorado “by supplying the demands of cheap labor.” Denver became home to the largest Chinatown in the interior West, but by the eve of World War II, it had disappeared.

Sixty-plus years later, William Wei brought the past to light. In a 2002 piece for Colorado Heritage magazine, he described how the only memorial to Denver’s Chinatown was an obscure plaque labeled “Hop Alley/Chinese Riot of 1880.” This title made it sound like Chinese residents instigated the riot. In reality, a group of white men started the riot and lynched a Chinese man named Look Young. They also destroyed businesses and property.

Wei and other community activists spurred by Chinatown’s erasure launched an organization, Colorado Asian Pacific United (CAPU), that works “to unearth, celebrate, and memorialize local Asian American Pacific Islander histories,” according to its website. In 2022, after working with CAPU and others, former Denver Mayor Michael Hancock issued an apology for the city’s failure to protect Chinese residents during the riot or punish those responsible for the lynching. The city also removed the plaque.

Telling the Full American Story: Explore America's Chinatowns

Learn more about advocates, and institutions working to support and sustain Chinatowns in this innovative storytelling hub developed in partnership with Google Arts & Culture.

Last year, CAPU unveiled a colorful mural and three Chinatown-related historical markers in downtown Denver, as well as a second mural on the Auraria Campus, home to two universities and a community college. CAPU also received a grant to survey the area where Chinatown once stood in order to define its boundaries and find buildings of historical significance to the Chinese American community. This work could be the basis for eventually designating the original Chinatown as a historic district, says Wei. “We can’t re-create the original Chinatown, but we can create a center for Chinese businesses and a mecca for people to learn about the Asian Pacific community in the West,” he adds.

Chinatown Alleyway Tours guide Phoebe Fong in action.

photo by: Drew Kelly

Chinatown Alleyway Tours guide Phoebe Fong in action.

As part of the America’s Chinatowns initiative, the National Trust hosted a roundtable in Los Angeles in February 2023 that gathered more than 30 preservationists, planners, community activists, elected officials, and others to discuss the best ways to sustain Chinatowns. “We learned that while every Chinatown is unique, there is value in creating a well-connected peer network of Chinatowns to share effective solutions, tackle common challenges, and avoid reinventing the wheel,” Di Gao says. The plan is to hold more gatherings in the future. National Trust funding—such as a 2022 grant to Think!Chinatown, a New York nonprofit, from the Telling the Full History Preservation Fund supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities—is another aspect of the initiative, as is further documentation of past and present Chinatowns.

Gao and other advocates know that history comes alive when the living can connect with it. Wenyi Su learned more about San Francisco’s Chinatown when she signed up to be a guide at Chinatown Alleyway Tours, which doubles as Chinatown CDC’s youth leadership development program. “When you’re a visitor, you only know so much—you know it as a place with grocery stores, as a place where people speak Chinese,” says Su, who immigrated to the U.S. with her family from China’s Guangdong Province around 2010 and is currently a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley. “But there’s a huge amount of effort that goes into keeping Chinatown alive and as a support system for immigrants. I think it’s very important to keep the leadership and activism going, so all the residents can stay healthy and happy. When you know all this stuff, you’re like, ‘Damn. This is not just a tourist place.’”

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Lydia Lee is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area who specializes in architecture and design. Her work has appeared in Architectural Record, Dwell, Metropolis, and The New York Times.

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