San Francisco, New York City—some of the world’s most famous Chinatowns reside in the United States. But with approximately 50 million ethnically Chinese people currently living outside of China, these little enclaves aren’t just a U.S. phenomenon; they’re scattered in every major metropolitan area across the world, each with its own unique traditions and history that are inextricably intertwined with the local culture.
During the mid-1800s, a time when thousands of Chinese men emigrated from the country and many Chinatowns around the world were founded, China was experiencing intense political and societal upheaval. The Qing Dynasty (a Manchu-led dynasty that ruled from 1644 to 1911, the last imperial dynasty that China would have) was contending with several internal rebellions within its borders, while recovering from the Opium Wars with Britain. This era was marred by corruption in the government, periods of famine, and economic turmoil.
The vast majority of people who emigrated from China during this time were young men. According to tradition and custom, the first-born son of a family would inherit the lion’s share of his parents’ property holdings, leaving little for his subsequent siblings. Many set out to strange new places to try their luck prospecting for gold near San Francisco or Melbourne or laboring in European colonies all over the globe to make a life for themselves and send money home to their families. These men brought their history, culture, and, of course, food to their new homes and established Chinatowns worldwide.
From the Land Down Under to South America, there’s a red lantern-lit street to get lost in in every city.
Though this neighborhood currently spans just two blocks on Jirón Ucayali in downtown Lima, it’s considered one of the oldest Chinatowns in Latin America. After slavery was abolished in Peru in 1854, more than 100,000 Chinese indentured laborers were brought to meet the needs of sugar and cotton industries in the years between 1849 and 1874. More than half would meet untimely deaths due to exhaustion, abuse, or suicide.
After completing their work contracts, many Chinese men (Chinese women made up less than 1 percent of the local population by 1860) immigrated to the Peruvian capital of Lima to settle down, marry local women, and open chifas—a Peruvian word that derives from the Chinese phrase “chī fàn” or “to eat.” Chifa refers to both Chinese restaurants and arguably the most delicious fusion culinary tradition to ever occur: Peruvian and Chinese food. Featured dishes include lomo saltado (stir-fried beef), arroz chaufa (Chinese-style fried rice), and sopa wantán (wonton soup).
Sadly, Lima’s Barrio Chino was heavily damaged in the late 19th-century War of the Pacific by invading Chilean forces, fell into dereliction, and wouldn’t see a full revival until the late 1990s. Today, the Barrio Chino is paved with more than 30,000 red bricks and offers guests an opportunity to taste authentic chifa delicacies as well as traditional Chinese fare.
There’s not just one, but three Quartiers Chinois in Paris. The original, and smallest of the three, is located in the 3rd arrondissement around Rue au Maire. Better known are the other two areas, one of them in the 20th arrondissement and home to a predominantly Chinese population. The other, and best known, is in the 13th arrondissement and is primarily occupied by people of Chinese and Vietnamese descent who fled Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and other Southeast Asian countries during the Vietnam War and in the years that followed.
Unlike other Chinatowns with elaborate gateways, imperial-style embellishments, and hip-and-gable roofs, Paris’s Chinatowns are rather tame in terms of an architectural wow-factor. Rather than constructing their own buildings and community from scratch, the Chinese communities of Paris instead used the European-style structures that were already available to them. However, what the neighborhoods lack in terms of notable buildings, they make up for with Buddhist temples, supermarkets, and delicious pho, stir-fried noodle, and dumpling options.
In addition to being Japan’s second largest city—with a booming population of nearly 3.8 million—Yokohama is also home to the country’s largest Chinatown. Once the practice of sakoku (a political isolationist policy that included an almost total ban on international trade) ended in Japan in 1859, Yokohama became the first Japanese port to open its doors to foreign traders; enterprising merchants from Hong Kong and Shanghai soon began to build homes and set up shop in the city.
Today, four elaborately decorated paifang (gateways) mark the entrance to Yokohama’s Chinatown. The neighborhood is constantly abuzz with visitors shopping the area’s 250 storefronts, where things like auspicious trinkets, qipao dresses, and earthy herbal remedies as well as chūka, aka Japanese Chinese food, can be bought. Some popular chūka dishes include gyoza, manju (meat-filled steamed buns), and chāshū (honey-slathered barbecue pork). Don’t miss the 160-year-old Kanteibyo Temple, dedicated to Guan Yu, the Chinese god of war, and considered the spiritual center of the neighborhood.
During the mid-1800s, many Chinese men fled their homelands in the wake of famine and civil war in the hopes of cashing in on the Gold Rush in California—and in Melbourne, Australia, another major boomtown obsessed with the shiny stuff. Officially established in 1854, when the first Chinese-owned houses were completed off of Little Bourke Street, Melbourne’s Chinatown is considered to be not only the oldest Chinese enclave in Australia but also the oldest continuously inhabited Chinatown in the Western world, since San Francisco’s was decimated by the the 1906 earthquake.
There were, however, a few setbacks in Melbourne’s Chinatown history, which included the White Australia Policy of 1901, which effectively forbade people of non-European descent from immigrating to Australia. But after the law was repealed in 1966, the neighborhood made a strong comeback. Today, Melbourne’s Chinatown is a thriving downtown district and a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. It’s also home to popular restaurants like ShanDong MaMa dumpling house and RuYi Modern Chinese, which serves up reimagined Chinese cuisine in a minimalist setting. And if you’d like to brush up on your history, consider stopping by the Museum of Chinese Australian History, which aims to preserve the legacy of Australia’s Chinese community.
Johannesburg, South Africa
South Africa is home to the largest Chinese population on the African continent, so it only follows that Johannesburg, the country’s sprawling metropolis, would be home to two Chinatowns. The original one, located on and around Commissioner Street in the city’s business district, is relatively young as far as Chinatowns go—but that fact merely reflects the age of Johannesburg. The first Chinese immigrants arrived in the late 1880s, following the discovery of gold around the Witwatersrand escarpment in 1886. Then, in the 1970s and ’80s, a large population of Taiwanese immigrants, encouraged by an amicable relationship between the two countries (at the time) and generous government incentives for immigrating Taiwanese investors, moved into the neighborhood around Commissioner Street as well.
The second Chinatown is located in the hip suburb of Cyrildene and is just five miles from the city’s center. Known as “New Chinatown,” the neighborhood was formed during the social upheaval of the 1990s and is home to a booming Chinese community with storefronts including fishmongers, masseuses, and supermarkets. Restaurant options abound, including Delicious Casserole Food, where dishes are cooked and served in clay pots, and Shun De, a local dim sum favorite. Here, diners can enjoy siu mai, egg tarts, and other classic Chinese offerings.