China Around the World: Pimsleur’s Pick of the Best Chinatowns

Pimsleur Approach • February 8, 2013 • ChineseComments (0)

There is, claims CNNGo, a Chinatown in every major city worldwide. This is an incredible fact in itself, and draws attention to our exposure to, and love for, Chinese culture. Over time, some communities have witnessed a mass exodus, with entire districts reduced to one or two streets. In other countries, it’s as if Chinatown is just that: a town or even a country in its own right. Here, we select our favorite Chinatowns—some for their size, some for their history, some for their food, but all for their inimitable Chinese character.

Chinatown, Melbourne
Chinatown in Melbourne (Image via Wikipedia)

Melbourne

Founded during Australia’s Victorian gold rush, Chinatown, Melbourne is highly regarded by the city’s residents, and has been so since the easing of its immigration laws in 1947 (the White Australia Policy of 1901 commenced a bitter era here). The area’s 150-year-old history is explained in great detail at the Chinese Museum, which is the logical place to begin an exploration of your surroundings. Here, exhibitions are regularly refreshed—currently there’s one on the Year of the Snake—and permanent displays retrace the steps of Cantonese gold-diggers by inviting you into replica goldfields. The Asian Food Festival in September turns the air thick with the smell of Chinese, Malaysian, Korean, Thai, Japanese and Vietnamese cuisine. Scrumptious.

Chinatown in Yokohamu
Chinatown in Yokohamu (Image via Wikipedia)

Yokohama

The largest Chinatown in the whole of Asia is announced by four magnificently-colored gates, houses around 250 Chinese-themed outlets, and has been here since 1859. Yokohama would have inevitably been even bigger today, were it not for the outbreak of war between Japan and China in the mid-thirties. As CNN’s Steve Trautlein reports, Yokohama is the place to sink your teeth into bona fide Chinese street cuisine: “Strolling while eating,” Trautlein says, “is the neighborhood’s favorite pastime.” Wanchuchin is apparently the go-to place for sheng jian bao, a filled, griddled dumpling, while barbequed pork dumplings are best bought from low-profile stall Kaseika. Definitely worth the trip from Tokyo.

Havana

The Chinese population in Havana isn’t what it used to be; back in the 1840s, Spanish settlers brought hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers with them to toil in the sugar fields. Once they had fulfilled eight-year contracts, workers were free to put aside their tools and become permanent Cuban residents. At one time, Havana’s Chinatown, known locally as Barrio Chino, was among the largest in Latin America, but in 2013, it’s thought there are just 300 Chinese inhabitants left, served by one Chinese language newspaper that is still hand-printed. It isn’t the world’s most vibrant Chinatown, but Havana’s is steeped in fast-fading history that should be experienced before it disappears altogether.

Chinatown in London
Chinatown in London (Image via Wikipedia)

London

Limehouse in East London was the city’s first Chinatown, when, in the mid-19th century, it housed many a sailor from places like Tianjin and Shanghai. It’s said that the area became a hotbed of opium dens and various other vices, although some historians have recently come forward to suggest many of these stories are mythology. Nonetheless, this Chinatown was largely destroyed during the Second World War, with little attempt to restore it. Today, Chinatown is situated in central London, just off Leicester Square, and has been here since the 1970s. Restaurants are the main pull now (you’ll do well to find a single opium den); the Four Seasons is said to have the best roast duck in the world, while the Golden Gate Cake Shop is a miniscule self-service gem hawking sweet pandan, pineapple buns and mango pudding.

Chinatown in Bangkok
Chinatown in Bangkok (Image via Wikipedia)

Bangkok

Chinatown in Bangkok is not a million miles away from China itself, and this means there are touches of authenticity everywhere. The heart of activity is found in Thanon Charoen Krung and Thanon Yaowarat, two stretches lined with eating establishments, filled with rickshaws, and interspersed with historical Bangkok architecture. According to the official website, 14% of buildings in this area are designated as historical landmarks. Sampeng Lane and Pahurat Textile Market are where to marvel at workers weaving in and out of the crowds, loaded with sacks and boxes, and where to pick up bargain souvenirs. In Chinatown’s center is Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, the huge Chinese-Buddhist temple built in 1872, and accentuated in traditionally flamboyant style, with carved motifs and gilded Buddhas.

Chinatown in Vancouver
Chinatown in Vancouver (Image via Wikipedia)

 

Vancouver

Canada’s largest Chinatown is now void of the neon lights which once flooded its streets at nighttime (a bylaw was passed in the mid-seventies to banish them), but it is a hive of color all the same. Pender Street’s China Gate is the ornate stone and steel structure through which you should first enter; it was given to the city by China during the 1986 World Exposition, and renovated in 2005. Those with a penchant for rock ‘n’ roll should know that Jimi Hendrix grew up on 796 Main Street, where he cut his teeth by busking on the sidewalk. Today, there’s a shrine to his memory, with various photos and videos. Events in Vancouver’s Chinatown are frequent; as well as the imminent New Year celebrations, festivities such as Streetfest and the TD Youth Talent Showdown keep the atmosphere youthful and vibrant.

Chinatown in Manila
Chinatown in Manila (Image via Wikipedia)

Manila

The oldest Chinatown in the world, Binondo, was established by Spanish Governor Luis Pérez Dasmariñas in the late 16th century. It’s interesting that a purpose-built community (and done so by a foreigner) is still thriving to this day. Here is a mesmerizing hodgepodge of architecture; the church, built in 1596, is one of the oldest extant centers of Christian worship in the world, and its moss-coated edifice warrants studying in detail before you gaze up at the vaulted tile ceilings inside. Not far from here is a very different religious building, the Seng Guan Temple, which throngs with worshipers and incense, and becomes Binondo’s hub of activity during Chinese festivals through the lunar calendar. Escolta Street’s Art deco splendor, such as the Regina Building, is shabbier than it once was, but still bears checking out. Like other Chinatowns in the East, Binondo has the climate and the history to ensure that outdoor markets are rife. Arranque Market sells seemingly every meat under the sun, including frog, pigeon and snake, while Caravajal Street is the ideal spot for a lunch of noodles and fresh fruit.

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