The End of Chinatown

Does China’s rise mean the end of one of America’s most storied ethnic enclaves?

As the manager of a Chinatown career center on Kearny Street in San Francisco, Winnie Yu has watched working-class clients come and go. Most of them, like Shen Ming Fa, have the makings of the quintessential Chinese American immigrant success story. Shen, who is 39, moved to San Francisco with his family last fall, an English-speaking future in mind for his 9-year-old daughter. His first stop was Chinatown, where he found an instant community and help with job and immigration problems.

But lately, Yu has been seeing a shift; rather than coming, her clients have been going—in pursuit of what might be called the Chinese Dream.

“Now the American Dream is broken,” Shen tells me one evening at the career center, his fingers drumming restlessly on the table; he speaks mostly in Mandarin, and Yu helps me translate. Shen has mostly been unemployed, picking up part-time work when he can find it. Back in China, he worked as a veterinarian and at a school of traditional Chinese culture. “In China, people live more comfortably: in a big house, with a good job. Life is definitely better there.” On his fingers, he counts out several people he knows who have gone back since he came to the United States. When I ask him if he thinks about returning to China, he glances at his daughter, who is sitting nearby, then looks me in the eye. “My daughter is thriving,” he says, carefully. “But I think about it every day.”

Recent years have seen stories of Chinese “sea turtles”—those who are educated overseas and migrate back to China—lured by Chinese-government incentives that include financial aid, cash bonuses, tax breaks, and housing assistance. In 2008, Shi Yigong, a molecular biologist at Princeton, turned down a prestigious $10 million research grant to return to China and become the dean of life sciences at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. “My postdocs are getting great offers,” says Robert H. Austin, a physics professor at Princeton.

But unskilled laborers are going back, too. Labor shortages in China have led to both higher wages and more options in where they can work. The Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, published a paper on China’s demography through 2030 that says thinking of migration as moving in just one direction is a mistake: the flows are actually much more dynamic. “Migration, the way we understand it in the U.S., is about people coming, staying, and dying in our country. The reality is that it has never been that way,” says the institute’s president, Demetrios Papademetriou. “Historically, over 50 percent of the people who came here in the first half of the 20th century left. In the second half, the return migration slowed down to 25, 30 percent. But today, when we talk about China, what you’re actually seeing is more people going back … This may still be a trickle, in terms of our data being able to capture it—there’s always going to be a lag time of a couple of years—but with the combination of bad labor conditions in the U.S. and sustained or better conditions back in China, increasing numbers of people will go home.”

In the past five years, the number of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. has been on the decline, from a peak of 87,307 in 2006 to 70,863 in 2010. Because Chinatowns are where working-class immigrants have traditionally gathered for support, the rise of China—and the slowing of immigrant flows—all but ensures the end of Chinatowns.

Smaller Chinatowns have been fading for years—just look at Washington, D.C., where Chinatown is down to a few blocks marked by an ornate welcome gate and populated mostly by chains like Starbucks and Hooters, with signs in Chinese. But now the Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York are depopulating, becoming less residential and more service-oriented. When the initial 2010 U.S. census results were released in March, they revealed drops in core areas of San Francisco’s Chinatown. In Manhattan, the census showed a decline in Chinatown’s population for the first time in recent memory—almost 9 percent overall, and a 14 percent decline in the Asian population.

The exodus from Chinatown is happening partly because the working class is getting priced out of this traditional community and heading to the “ethnoburbs”; development continues to push residents out of the neighborhood and into other, secondary enclaves like Flushing, Queens, in New York. But the influx of migrants who need the networks that Chinatown provides is itself slowing down. Notably, the percentage of foreign-born Chinese New Yorkers fell from about 75 percent in 2000 to 69 percent in 2009.

Chinatowns almost died once before, in the first half of the 20th century, when various exclusion acts limited immigration. Philip Choy, a retired architect and historian who grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, has observed the neighborhood population of Chinese immigrants being replaced by new generations of Chinese Americans. “Chinatown might have disappeared if it weren’t for the changing immigration policies,” he told me recently. Only after the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act lifted quotas did the Chinese revive Chinatowns all across the country—especially those communities in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Of course, since the days of the Gold Rush, the Chinese always thought they were going to move back to China after earning their fortune elsewhere. As Papademetriou told me, what came before often happens again. Only now, fortune can be found at home.

This departure portends the loss of a place once so integral to Chinese America that Victor Nee and Brett de Bary Nee, in their 1973 book, Longtime Californ’, noted that “virtually every Chinese living in San Francisco has something to do with Chinatown.” Two years ago, when I was on tour for my book about Chinatowns—a kind of love letter to the neighborhood that accepted my family when it first arrived in the United States—the future of these enclaves was an open question. But if China continues to boom, Chinatowns will lose their reason for being, as vital ports of entry for working-class immigrants. These workers will have better things to do than come to America.