Chinatowns and Other Asian-American Enclaves

As immigrants from Asia or the Pacific Islands arrived in the United States, they often joined their compatriots in established ethnic communities. Learn about these communities.
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As immigrants from Asia or the Pacific Islands arrived in the United States, they often joined their compatriots in already-established ethnic communities, where common language and culture made them feel at home. The result has been the creation of enclaves in the pattern of Chinatowns.

Often seen as exotic by others, ethnic communities often became tourist attractions, offering food and products unavailable elsewhere. Tourism generated jobs, while familiarizing other Americans about the immigrant's culture.

The Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos were the first Asians to arrive in the United States in large numbers. The Korean and Vietnam Wars, the 1965 Immigration Act, and the desire for more highly skilled workers all prompted more immigration from other Asian countries.

Today,Chinese are the largest Asian group, followed by Filipinos, Japanese, Indians, Koreans, and Vietnamese.

According to the 2000 census, there are 10 million Americans of Asian ancestry, just under 4% of the population. California has the largest Asian population, nearly 4 million people or 11%, with an additional 114,000, .3% Hawaiian or Pacific Island heritage.

Hawaii is the only state where Asians (500,000, 41%) and Pacific Islanders (114,000, 9%) equal 50% of the population.

New York State is second, with 1 million Asians representing 5.5% of the total population. Other states with large Asian populations are Texas, 562,000; 2.7%; New Jersey, 480,000, 5.7%; Illinois, 424,000, 3.4%; Washington State, 322,000, 5.5%.


The Chinese were the first Asians to arrive in the United States in large numbers, with thousands migrating to California during the gold rush of the 1850s.

At first most Chinese lived in rural areas, where they worked in mines or on farms.

San Francisco's Chinatown

By the 1850s, a Chinese neighborhood had sprung up in San Francisco's Portsmouth Square, with a formal organization soon following. By 1854 the Chinese Benevolent Association, also known as Six Companies, had been formed to help Chinese. Several years later, a Buddhist shrine, the Kong Chow Temple, was built in Chinatown.

By the end of the 1800s, two-thirds of the Chinese in California lived in cities, and nearly half lived in San Francisco.

Earthquake Forces Change

In 1900 a Chinese hospital opened in San Francisco's Chinatown.

After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed much of the neighborhood, Chinatown was rebuilt with some Chinese architecture in an effort to make it a tourist attraction. A Chinese YMCA and a branch of the public library soon followed, indicating widespread recognition that Chinatown is an established community.

Today, the largest Chinatown is in San Francisco, home to more than 14,000 people. A major tourist attraction, Chinatown has become a symbol of San Francisco.

New York

In 1858, a tiny Chinese community was recorded in New York City, around Mott Street. As anti-Chinese sentiment rose in the west, many Chinese moved to Eastern cities. New York City's Chinatown grew from fewer than 50 people in 1870 to more than 3,000 in 1890.

Smaller Chinatowns developed in Boston, Chicago, and other large cities.

Some smaller cities, including Monterey Park, California, known as "Little Taipei," are also home to many Chinese.

Some Chinatowns, such as those in Locke and Walnut Grove, California, and in various mining towns, are now largely memories, as people dispersed over the years.

Chinese Open Laundries

In the mid-1800s, many Chinese were prevented from working in mines or factories, or faced hostility from other workers fearing competition.

So, many Chinese turned to other occupations. In mining towns there were few women to cook or clean, so many Chinese men worked as domestic servants or opened laundries, tailor shops, and restaurants.

By 1900, most large American towns had a Chinese laundry, which employed 75% of all Chinese men. Laundries required minimal English and little money to open. Along with restaurants, the laundry business has remained popular with Chinese immigrants.


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