Art and culture

Meet the New Guardians of Chinatown

How a new generation is revitalising the Chinatowns of Manhattan, London and San Francisco

Chinatowns emerged as symbolic cultural enclaves; a way to retain identity in a hostile world. But as Chinese communities gradually assimilated, their need to seek out a cultural one-stop shop lessened. No longer a refuge from persecution, nor the seedy underbelly of society, Chinatowns settled with a somewhat unfair reputation as tired and tacky; somewhere to find cheap Chinese food or kitsch souvenirs. Floating in an identity limbo, Chinatowns have been caught between two cultures.

But more recently, Chinatowns across the world have found themselves in a simmering hotpot of change. 

The transformation is most evident in an explosion of flavour. Traditional family-run restaurants, started by first waves of mainly Cantonese immigrants, jostle against new upstarts that reflect the diversification of the Chinese diaspora. The changing flavour of Chinatown has also been impacted by numerous Mainland Chinese students and business travellers, as well as a widening appreciation for authentic, regional food. Now, foodies flock to restaurants specialising in provincial cuisines like Sichuan, Shaanxi or Hunan, as well as the food of Singapore and Malaysia, while the unstoppable influence of Korean culture has launched a thousand fried chicken shops.

In San Francisco, George Chen opened upmarket food hall China Live in 2017. ‘It’s time to get out of this “hole in the wall” syndrome that Chinese food is only good in dirty, cheap places,’ he says. His dining-retail hybrid serves nearly 1,000 guests per day – from passers-by grabbing fresh Shanghainese shengjianbao to high-end customers booking the exclusive Eight Tables private dining experience. ‘Asians are always curious about ethnic success in America. And the wealthy traveller always thinks Chinese food in America stinks – we are changing that perception,’ he says.

It’s not just new competition that challenges the old-guard restaurants. Tougher immigration policies complicate hiring skilled Cantonese chefs from Asia. Survival requires adaptation: simpler menus like hotpot, buffet or street food concepts return higher margins; restaurant investors prefer to back youth trends such as baos and bubble teas.

Then there are the forces of gentrification. As these once-seedy, undesirable areas undergo rapid redevelopment, private developers are swooping on prime real estate, edging out old residents. Witness the luxury condo developments in Vancouver, or art galleries leaving Chelsea for Manhattan’s Chinatown. Few of these newcomers are connected to the community, and that can exacerbate racial and social tensions. It’s a tricky dichotomy. Gentrification is a doubled-edged sword that provides welcome diversification for Chinatowns all around the world – but with it comes a global homogenisation that eradicates intangible heritage. In the fight for survival, a wave of next-generation Chinese residents are taking up the reins of their family businesses and driving them forward for a modern audience with a lick of art school branding, hipster decor and millennial-focused marketing.

In London, Amy Poon is the prodigal daughter taking on the mantle of Bill Poon, chef-founder of the Michelin-starred Poon’s London, which revolutionised Chinese dining in the 1970s. She sees her responsibility not so much as modernising, but as re-couching what her parents established. For her, communication is the secret ingredient – using a language acquired through a generation’s worth of social integration. ‘I think my Britishness just makes it easier for me to explain the Chinese part. I find the language of Chinese food fascinating, yet the translations are so lacking,’ she says. Amy hopes to inject Chinese food into the culinary vernacular by launching a bistro-deli concept, much like a Chinese version of Eataly, the Italian food hall.

Credit: Lerone Pieters/Unsplash.

Meanwhile in New York, Wilson Tang took over the century-old Nom Wah Tea Parlor from his uncle a decade ago and pushed the family brand into global consciousness with fast-casual concepts, signature products such as their house chilli oil and retro-chic streetwear collections. And now, Nom Wah has exported its Chinese-American take on dim sum back to China, with a new opening in Shenzhen. ‘Our restaurant is a representation of the Chinese-American taste in dim sum—and we’ve taken that aesthetic back to China. It’s wild, coming full circle like that,’ says Tang.

Credit: Patti McConville/Alamy Stock Photo

Just around the corner, multigenerational operations such as porcelain store Wing On Wo & Co (founded as a general store in 1890), and tofu manufacturers Fong On (founded 1933), escaped extinction when young family members stepped in. At Wing On Wo, the founder’s 26-year-old granddaughter Mei Lum has reimagined the antique shop as a community space for business forums, political talks and art exhibitions, while Paul Eng, the youngest grandson of the Fong On dynasty, is rebooting his family’s legacy with modern equipment and updated marketing.

Credit: Andria Lo.

Preservation is part of the revival effort, too. The histories of the world’s Chinatowns are in danger of being lost as the older generations die off. ‘The buildings drip with history, but a casual stroll around London’s Chinatown will not reveal any Chinese voices, histories or migration stories,’ says Freya Aitken-Turff, CEO of China Exchange, a London-based charity focused on archiving Chinatown’s history with a touring exhibition and anthology of stories, as well as guided walking tours.

Credit: Andria Lo.

Meanwhile, projects like Chinatown Pretty visualise history for the Instagram era. Founders Andria Lo and Valerie Luu document fashionable seniors across northern American Chinatowns, using their outfits as launchpads for their life stories. ‘Some of the magic we observe in the Chinatown style is that it’s quite effortless and unexpected. Pieces that clash or are from different eras end up having their own unique harmony,’ says Lo. ‘It weaves together a story of their immigration journey and their values.’

It’s true for the places as much as the individuals. ‘Chinatown is alive and ever-changing. It is filled with tensions and contradictions,’ says Herb Tam, curator and director of exhibitions at the Museum of Chinese in America. ‘There is no singular definition of the modern Chinese diaspora identity, or Chinese-ness.’ The new guardians of Chinatown are embracing exactly that. They’re taking Chinatowns beyond their physical postcodes, turning them into evolved expressions of the Chinese migrant story.

Go Further: 3 Chinatown Itineraries

Credit: Mandy Marks/Alamy Stock Photo.
  • Get lost in the porcelain treasure trove that is Wing On Wo & Co (26 Mott St) 
  • Order the OG Egg Roll at NYC’s oldest dim sum restaurant, Nom Wah (13 Doyers St)
  • Check out contemporary art gallery 47 Canal, curated by artist Margaret Lee (291 Grand St)
  • Snack on Fong On’s yummy tofu pudding (81 Division St)
  • Swot up on history at the Museum of Chinese in America (215 Centre St)
  • Sing the night away at legendary dive Winnie’s Karaoke Bar (58 E Broadway)
Credit: PjrTravel/Alamy Stock Photo.
  • Have breakfast at Hung’s – home to London’s best congee (27 Wardour St)
  • Join a community-led Chinatown Stories Walking Tour – free lunch included
  • Make room for the legendary roast duck at Four Seasons (12 Gerrard St)
  • Dine at 1930s-style Taiwanese teahouse XU (30 Rupert St)
  • Save room for a ‘Dessert Alley’ crawl – don’t miss out on Mamasons Dirty Ice Cream (Newport Court)
Credit: Judy Bellah/Alamy Stock Photo
  • Start the day right by queuing for Golden Gate Bakery’s legendary egg custard tarts (1029 Grant Ave)
  • Visit the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, which has been hand-making fortune cookies since 1962 (56 Ross Alley)
  • Soak in the atmosphere of picturesque Waverly Place (Waverly Pl)
  • Book ahead at Mister Jiu’s for Michelin-starred Cantonese classics with a Californian twist (28 Waverly Pl)
  • Finish the evening with Li Po Cocktail Lounge’s signature Mai Tai (916 Grant Ave)
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