PHILADELPHIA--A standard feature of any trip to New York, San Francisco or Philadelphia is a stop in Chinatown for dim sum or bubble tea. These cities’ famous ethnic neighborhoods have long drawn tourists as well as working-class Chinese immigrants searching for a home in their new country.
But as China’s economic booms propels more high-skilled, affluent immigrants to the United States, American Chinatowns are starting to fade. Census data shows that many Chinese immigrants are bypassing these traditional gateway communities and moving straight to the suburbs. Many say they want the same good schools for their children and suburban conveniences that many other Americans have.
They tend to identify more with their white, American neighbors than with typical Chinatown residents.“It’s about social stratification,” says Andrew Leong, an associate professor of law, social justice, and Asian American studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “Most of those newer immigrants come from Mandarin-speaking places and they consider themselves much more educated than the country bumpkins in Chinatown.” (There, Cantonese is more commonly spoken.)
Leong says Chinatowns on the East Coast are becoming a lot less Chinese. He and a group of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania recently studied the Chinatowns of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, and found that gentrification and rising housing costs were making it hard for blue-collar immigrants to live there. Their study found that in 1990, Asian residents comprised 45 to 75 percent of the three Chinatown neighborhoods. Twenty years later, they made up 42 to 46 percent. During that time, the white population doubled in Philadelphia and Boston’s Chinatown neighborhoods.