Chinatown, USA

Explore the history, ubiquity, and allure of American Chinatowns—from their beginnings as immigrant havens to the new crop of restaurants that celebrate their legacies.
By Chris Ying
January 01, 2018

In nearly every major city in the world, you will find a Chinatown. Strictly speaking, any place with a preponderance of ethnically Chinese people could be considered a Chinatown.

It can be a street or a neighborhood or its own municipality, so long as the residents, the business owners, and the cultural touchstones—the people and things that make the place go—are Chinese. There are usually visual cues— architectural and decorative flourishes—that tell you that Chinese people live there, or used to, or once were required to by law. Shoppers know to go to Chinatown for the freshest (and cheapest) produce in town—herbaceous Asian greens, ginormous winter melons, tangy-sweet mangosteens, and electric-pink dragon fruit, as well as your workaday bananas and iceberg lettuce. Some Chinatowns are more ornamental than functional. Others draw in visitors by the millions.

Credit: Paola + Murray

In the U.S., the oldest and largest Chinatown is in San Francisco. Its quasi-official entrance is at the intersection of Bush Street and Grant Avenue, where a conspicuous jade-green gate is ranked by lions and topped with serpentine dragons. Since the middle of the 19th century, San Francisco has been the port of entry for thousands of Chinese immigrants, and for many of them, their first stop was Chinatown. When my mother came to the States from Taiwan in 1965, she was surprised by many things. (Salad, for instance—she just couldn’t wrap her head around why people were happily eating bowls of uncooked leaves.) Chinatown, in particular, struck her as odd. She was startled to find the Chinese people in America congregating in cloistered parts of this inconceivably vast country. And the sloping ceramic eaves atop the buildings—modeled after pagodas from the previous millennium—looked straight out of a history book.

That Chinatowns tend to bear little resemblance to China itself won’t come as a surprise to anyone. But what’s compelling about the one in San Francisco—as well as those in New York, Toronto, London, Melbourne, and elsewhere—is the balance it strikes between tourist destination and functional cultural harbor for new immigrants. Wandering the streets of certain Chinatowns can evoke the strange sensation of being at Disneyland and coming across a working blacksmith among the faux log cabins of Frontierland. That uncanny duality is as old as Chinatowns themselves. And it’s as potent today as it ever was, reflected in a new crop of ambitious restaurants operated by young Chinese- and Taiwanese- Americans in Chinatowns across the country—places like Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco and Nom Wah Tea Parlor and Mimi Cheng’s Dumplings in New York City.

Wilson Tang's generous helping of shrimp turns a side dish into an unmissable menu item.

Get the Recipe: Egg Fried Rice

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On the one hand, there’s the made-to-order narrative: entrepreneurial sons and daughters of immigrant families lifting up the old neighborhoods, bringing a new kind of relevance to urban areas that have remained relatively impervious to change. But then there’s the more functional truth: Chinatowns are where the opportunity lies. These places were stepping stones for previous generations, and they are being used by the current generation in a similar way. The restaurants they’ve built play on our collective fascination with Chinatown and funnel it into dining experiences that feel both familiar and wholly unexpected.

When you walk into the dining room of Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco, you’re confronted immediately by the history of the space. The chandeliers of the previous tenant, the storied Four Seas restaurant, still light up the room. Mister Jiu’s menu riffs on a number of Chinatown classics. The archetypal baked pork bun comes gilded with a mottled crust of sugar and rice flour, in the style of the Bay Area’s preferred sandwich roll, the Dutch Crunch. Sea urchin and Meyer lemon elevate and brighten a plate of stir-fried pea tendrils. Wontons are stained black with squid ink and nestled among rings of chewy squid, curls of microgreens, and slivers of green onion. There’s also egg drop soup and mapo tofu and roast duck—things you might expect from a Chinatown restaurant, yet each miles removed in terms of preparation and presentation.

Credit: Paola + Murray

The restaurant seems at first glance to be completely out of place among the no-frills dives that populate the rest of the neighborhood. But that’s not exactly true, says the restaurant’s chef and owner, Brandon Jew. “When the Four Seas opened in 1960, it was a progressive restaurant,” he says. Jew describes the Four Seas as a “showpiece” where San Franciscans—Asian and otherwise—brought guests and clients they wanted to impress. “Having that understanding of what Chinatown used to be makes it feel a little more natural to have a restaurant that’s different than what people might expect.”

Jew grew up in San Francisco. His grandfather lived in Chinatown when he first arrived in the States, but by the time Brandon was born, his family had long ago left the neighborhood behind. Jew recalls going to Chinatown only to shop for groceries and the occasional special event. Among the few times he visited the Four Seas was when his uncle got married in the upstairs banquet hall.

Instead of using standard egg roll wrappers, Wu bundles the filling in egg “crêpes,” then dips them in batter before frying.

Get the Recipe: Original Egg Rolls

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Chinatowns may be gateways for Chinese immigrants, but most of those immigrants aspire to leave someday. When Mister Jiu’s first opened, Jew assumed that one of the benefits of the location would be that he would have access to enthusiastic young cooks who understood the context of his food. But once again, the reality proved different. “The parents of the kids in Chinatown are like, ‘No way you can go work for a Chinatown restaurant. You’re studying hard so you can get us out of here,’” Jew says with a laugh.

Nom Wah Tea Parlor’s Wilson Tang had that exact experience as a kid growing up in New York. When Tang was younger, his uncle owned Nom Wah, the almost century-old dim sum house on Doyers Street. “My parents really wanted to get me the hell out of the restaurant,” Tang says. “Chinatown just wasn’t a place to hang out as a kid. There was all that riffraff , the gangs, the extortion.”

Here’s the secret to craveable Chinese vegetables: boil them in a mix of water, soy sauce, and oil, then drizzle with sauce.

Get the Recipe: Chinese Greens with Oyster Sauce

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After dutifully working a job in finance for a few years, Tang eventually defied his parents and took the reins of Nom Wah from his uncle. He resisted the urge to modernize the restaurant too much, choosing instead to lean into the existing aesthetic and lived-in charm that other restaurateurs might pour money into recreating. He gave the dim sum menu a subtle punch up—egg rolls enveloped in thin homemade crêpes rather than store-bought wrappers and delicate dumplings cradling sweet shrimp and bright snow pea leaves. Tang’s lightly updated Nom Wah grew into a runaway success. He went on to open three more locations that have spread as far as Philadelphia, and he eventually teamed up with Chinese-American chef Jonathan Wu. “You want to start here, do something, and then move on to something else,” says Tang. “I always say I made my first pot of gold in Chinatown. But in order to really be successful, you have to have other things in other parts of the city.”

Credit: Paola + Murray

Hannah Cheng and her sister Marian opened their first restaurant, Mimi Cheng’s Dumplings, in New York’s East Village, filling tasty little pot stickers (their mother’s recipe) with upmarket ingredients like pasture-raised pork, organic cabbage, and free-range eggs. The second location, opened last year on Broome Street, is only a few blocks from the Museum of Chinese in America. “We used to go to Chinatown a lot to do grocery shopping, to get haircuts, and to get Chinese newspapers,” says Hannah, who points out that the restaurant is technically just outside of Chinatown, in Nolita. “It’s a really special neighborhood to us because it’s the intersection of Chinatown and Little Italy, which basically sums us up.”

And there’s the rub. These restaurants and the food they serve are reflections of their owners’ experiences in America, both in and outside of their respective China- towns. Tang and Jew got their start in the neighborhood; the Chengs moved closer with their second location. Thankfully, the borders of Chinatown are loosely de ned and malleable. New generations move in and out, and as they do, they change the way food is cooked in the restaurants where their parents ate, and they influence the way their children will eat as well. In doing so, they are writing the next chapter in a narrative that is alternately triumphant and tragic, peculiar and ubiquitous. It’s a Chinatown story, but it’s also a deeply American one.