The Best Chinatowns in North America

With so many historic and authentic Chinese communities across North America, there’s no need to cross the Pacific to get a taste of China’s cultural mosaic.  According to TravelAgeWest, here are some of the best Chinatowns in North America …. and I tend to agree. 

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Los Angeles

Los Angeles Chinatown is actually the city’s second incarnation of the neighborhood. The original Chinatown, founded in the late 1800s, was paved over in the 1930s to make way for Union Station, and the residents and businesses relocated to its current site.

Although small in comparison to Los Angeles Koreatown, this Chinatown is still noteworthy for its numerous appearances in Hollywood films, including “Rush Hour,” “Anchorman,” “Freaky Friday” and, of course, “Chinatown.” Famous past residents include Bruce Lee and actor Haing S. Ngor, who won an Oscar for his performance in the film “Killing Fields.”

Unique landmarks include the Thien Hau Temple, dedicated to a Taoist goddess of Southern China called Mazu, and Hop Louie’s Pagoda, a restaurant and bar located in Central Plaza, where many celebrations of Chinese festivals take place, including the Lunar New Year Festival and the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.

Like many Chinatowns, traditional arched gateways flank the entrance to the neighborhood. One of its gateways is not an arch but a sculpture of two twin dragons mounted on steel pillars. Visitors can take walking tours of Chinatown and also check out its restaurants and bakeries, some of which have been open since New Chinatown was created in 1938, including the Phoenix Bakery.

Los Angeles Chinatown Landmarks

Thien Hau Temple
 750-756 N Yale Street


Hop Louie Pagoda
 950 Mei Ling Way 
(
www.hoplouiela.com)

Phoenix Bakery
 969 N. Broadway
 (
www.phoenixbakeryinc.com)

 
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New York

Manhattan contains the largest population of ethnic Chinese in the New World. It is also the largest of the seven Chinatowns scattered throughout New York City. Located next to Little Italy, Manhattan’s Chinatown offers great Chinese cuisine, and also contains several cultural highlights, including the Museum of Chinese in America, the Chen Dance Center, and the Music From China ensemble. Walking tours are a great way to experience the community, and there are several tours offered that focus on history, food or even martial arts.

Don’t miss the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. According to legend, ice cream was invented in China during the Tang Dynasty. The ice cream makers at this shop follow this legacy, offering both traditional flavors and flavors with an Asian twist, including lychee, black sesame and almond cookie. 

Manhattan Chinatown’s Highlights

Museum of Chinese in America
 (www.mocanyc.org)

Chen Dance Center (www.chendancecenter.org)

Music From China
 (www.musicfromchina.org)

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory
 65 Bayard Street (www.chinatownicecreamfactory.com)


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San Francisco

This is the oldest Chinatown in North America and is still advertised as the largest outside of China.  Vancouver’s Chinese community might dispute that claim.

It was established in the 1850s in the wake of the California Gold Rush. The chance of finding gold brought immigrants from all over the world, but especially from China, to San Francisco’s port. This neighborhood continues to bustle with a mix of locals and tourists. Known for its distinctive Oriental-style architecture (devised as a way of luring tourists after the original neighborhood burnt down in the 1906 earthquake and fire), this Chinatown offers a breadth of Chinese restaurants, bakeries, and tourist shops.

San Francisco is considered the birthplace of several American Chinese food traditions including Chop Suey and Fortune Cookies.

Great Eateries in San Francisco Chinatown

Eastern Bakery
 720 Grant Avenue (
www.easternbakery.com) – A traditional Chinese bakery that serves delicious mooncakes year-round.

R&G Lounge
 631 Kearny Street (
www.rnglounge.com) – salt and pepper Dungeness crab is the house specialty alongside other Chinese seafood dishes.

Empress of China
 838 Grant Avenue (
www.empressofchinasf.com) – Gourmet Chinese cuisine plus a rooftop garden that offers fantastic views of the city.

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Vancouver

Vancouver has not only the largest Chinatown in Canada, it is also one of the cleanest in North America. The best way to explore Vancouver’s Chinatown is by wandering through its streets, whether on a guided tour or just a leisurely stroll. 

Some of Vancouver Chinatown’s unique sights are its public monuments, artwork, and gardens. Its China Gate was donated by the People’s Republic of China after it was displayed in the 1986 World Exposition hosted by Vancouver. The Century’s Winds of Change mural displays the story of the Chinese in Canada since their initial immigration in the 1850s. An abacus sculpture on the edge of Chinatown depicts this ancient Chinese tool still used by some in place of a calculator. A must-visit includes Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, which is modeled after Ming Dynasty gardens, and is the first of its kind to be built outside of China. Odder attractions include the Sam Kee building, known for being the world’s narrowest building at only six feet wide, and the Jimi Hendrix Shrine, formerly a restaurant owned by the famous musician’s grandmother, whom he visited as a child.

Attending the Chinatown Night Market is a great way to experience Chinese food and culture. Better still, take the SkyTrain out to Richmond (a 15-minute ride) and choose to attend one or both of the region’s gi-normous Night Markets, widely considered to be the best in the world outside of China.

Vancouver Chinatown’s Attractions

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden (www.vancouverchinesegarden.com)

Vancouver Chinatown Night Market (www.vancouverchinatownnightmarket.com)

Richmond Chinatown Night Markets (www.richmondnightmarket.com; www.summernightmarket.com)

 

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About Chris McBeath

Travel writer Chris McBeath has worked aboard cruise ships, opened hotels, managed convention centers, marketed spas and spa resorts, and written guide books and travel articles on nearly every aspect of travel.
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