It’s easy to succumb to the stereotype that all Chinatowns have fishy smells, jam-packed streets, and exotic edibles. But to some travelers, it’s the neighborhood to indulge in authentic Chinese food, discover hidden cultural gems and to buy rock bottom priced “Made in China” souvenirs to bring home to friends and family.
Ever wondered which Chinatown you should visit? Check out these seven best Chinatowns outside of Asia:
1. San Francisco
San Francisco’s Chinatown is worth a visit. It’s the oldest Chinatown in America and the most extensive outside of Asia. Started in 1848 around Portsmouth Square with tents and adobe huts, San Francisco’s Chinatown quickly branched out and evolved into an area with 33 retails stores, 15 Chinese herbalists, and five restaurants by the 1850s, per PBS’ article, The Story of Chinatown.
Today, Portsmouth Square is known as the heart of Chinatown. The square is adorned with historical landmarks and statues. Look for the Goddess of Democracy, a landmark for the first public school in California and the Eastern Terminus of Clay Street Hill Railroad Company.
When in San Francisco’s Chinatown I recommend visiting:
- Grant Avenue – the main street of Chinatown
- Old St. Mary’s Church – the oldest church in San Francisco
- The Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory (Ross Alley)
- Waverly Place – the Street of Painted Balconies
2. New York City
America’s second oldest Chinatown was founded by Chinese workers that moved from the west coast looking for work in the east. Since the 1940s, the once small Chinatown in New York City has grown by leaps and bounds.
Located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan bordering Little Italy, New York City’s Chinatown houses hundreds of cheap hole-in-the-wall eateries and excellent restaurants.
For those looking for the uniqueness of NYC Chinatown I recommend the following:
- Pell Street – also known as Barbershop Alley. This narrow street is an architectural enthusiast and photographer’s dream place. The narrow street is lined by century-old tenement apartment buildings and small shops.
- Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Doyers Street – the first Chinese tea parlor in New York City
- Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) – showcasing exhibits of Chinese American history
Like San Francisco, the first batch of Chinese immigrants came to Victoria Australia during the gold rush era. Melbourne’s Chinatown started in the mid-1850s in Little Bourke Street, and today the community covers between Little Bourke, Lonsdale, Swanston and Spring Streets.
Look out for these five highlights of Melbourne’s Chinatown:
- Chinese Museum – see the world’s largest Chinese dragon, Dai long and the Millennium Dragon. Also, documents, displays about Chinese immigration to Australia
- Tianjin Garden – a Chinese garden
- New Gold Mountain – a bar with modern opium den-like atmosphere
- Section 8 – Melbourne’s iconic container bar
- Emporium Melbourne – shopper’s paradise
El Barrio Chino or Chinatown Lima Peru was founded in the mid-19th century. Located on Calle Capon between blocks 7 and 8 of Jiron Andahuaylas Street, Lima’s Chinatown is the largest in South America. In fact, the iconic Peruvian dish, lomo saltado is influenced by the Chinese.
The first group of immigrants that arrived in Lima were coolies, brought in to replace African slaves when slavery was abolished in the 1850s. Unlike their counterparts in North America, the early Chinese immigrants to Peru assimilated into the Peruvian culture and married the locals.
Lima’s Chinatown is not attractive but is still able to draw travelers who are adventurous and prefer to travel deeper into places that are not touristy.
Chinese workers arrived in 1788 to work at the Canadian West Coast gold mines and in the late 1800s to work for the Canadian Pacific Railway. The original Chinatown was established in the 1890s along Elizabeth Street. Today Toronto’s Chinatown is along Dundas Street West and Spadina Avenue.
The best ways to discover Chinatown is to join a food tour. Get a taste of authentic Asian cuisine (not just Chinese food), see the different types of baked goods in Chinese bakeries and learn about traditional Chinese herbal medicine.
Established in the 1950s, London’s Chinatown is part of London’s West End. It’s not too big compared to San Francisco’s Chinatown but offers an array of bars and authentic Chinese cuisine for every budget.
Don’t miss these three places when visiting London’s Chinatown:
- Stone lion statue on corner of Wardour Street and Shaftesbury Avenue
- Baozi Inn – one of the top Chinese restaurants in London
- Opium – a dim sum parlor and a bar
7. Buenos Aires
Located in Belgrano, Buenos Aires’ Chinatown or Barrio Chino is less chaotic compared to Lima’s Barrio Chino. Unlike Chinatowns in America, Australia, and Peru, Barrio Chino’s most Chinese immigrants that settled in Buenos Aires are from Taiwan. They moved there in the 20th century and opened restaurants, supermarkets and clothing stores.
Photos and article by Claudia Looi