A Brief and Incomplete History of Chinatowns Across America

(Image credit: Flickr user Thomas Hawk)


Back in the 1930s, Chinatowns had acquired a reputation for drugs, prostitution, and gang violence that was largely undeserved. Tired of trying to fight for their good name, many residents decided to play into the stereotypes and make some money. In San Francisco, Chinatown tour guides spun tales of underground tunnels filled with opium dens and sex slaves. They even set up a few fake dens and leper colonies. Meanwhile, tour guides in New York went so far as to hire locals to put on knife fights between opium-crazed men over ownership of prostitutes. Suddenly, visitors who had "seen it firsthand" were spreading legends about Chinatowns' debauchery. Ironically, violence and crime rates were on the decline in Chinatowns during this same period.


In the early days of San Francisco, wealthy residents would ship their dirty laundry to Hawaii because there were no cleaning services in California. But that changed in 1851, when a Chinatown resident named Wah Lee opened the first Chinese laundry in the United States. It flourished, and so did the many others like it that followed. In fact, the success of Chinese laundries allowed immigrants to move east, establishing new Chinatowns across America.


(Image credit: Flickr user loop oh)

Traditional Chinese culture, dominated by the teachings of Confucious, valued scholars and intellectuals above all other members of society. In fact, the pursuit of financial gain was seen as a lowly one. That's why so many Chinese entrepreneurs and tradesmen flocked to the United States, where the dollar was king.


Although Chinatowns exist all over the world, none is more puzzling than the Chinatown in Shanghai. You'd think a Chinese city wouldn't need a Chinatown, but Shanghai is relatively young, and much of the architecture is modern. So city officials have set aside an area to pay tribute to their heritage-a quaint section of town with traditional buildings and services.


One of the most popular dishes on Chinese menus wasn't inspired by a chef in China, but rather by a garbage bin in the United States. According to legend, a bunch of drunk white miners stumbled into a Chinese diner just as the restaurant was about to close. Undaunted, the men demanded service. The owner, hoping to avoid trouble, ordered his cook to quickly gather table scraps of vegetables, meat, and gravy and stir-fry them. The men loved it, and soon patrons were clamoring for more "Chop Suey". (Image credit: Flickr user joshuaseye)


The above article was written by Eric Alt. It is reprinted with permission from the Scatterbrained section of the May/June 2009 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' entertaining website and blog for more fun stuff!

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Is this what you mean by "Chinatown in Shanghai"?


It's just a section of old buildings that have been preserved as a tourist district. The idea of having an "Old Town" district isn't exactly unique.

There's also some kind of burlesque club that shows up on Google but I'm pretty sure that's not what you meant.
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