There’s a Chinatown in every major city in the world, such is the huge footprint of Chinese people who have left the motherland for a life elsewhere. No matter where Chinese people end up, they manage to create three essential things to make their new place home.
A traditional Chinese New Year festival; commerce; a good place to eat. Here’s where it happens in the world’s most scenic Chinatowns.
Hola amigo, ni hao ma? Welcome to Barrio Chino, where the locals embrace their unique Spanish and Chinese heritage in Cuba.
Havana once held Latin America’s largest Chinatown.
It was started by coolies brought in from Guangdong in the 1840s to work on the sugar plantations. A few decades later, 5,000 Los Californianos arrived from the United States. Finally, in the early 20th century, a third wave of migrants came fleeing social upheaval in China.
At its height, the Chinese population in Havana numbered some 50,000, with the laundries, small factories and restaurants you can find in Chinatowns worldwide. The end came with Cuba’s 1959 revolution, the collapse of private enterprise and emigration – much of it back to the United States.
With only some 150 native Cuban-Chinese left, the Chinese government has helped pay to spruce up Havana’s Chinatown, including building a huge new archway.
Several thousand Chinese students now also come to Cuba annually to study Spanish, though what they make of the “chop suey” on menus (the El Gran Dragon actually serves pizza and sandwiches) is anyone’s guess.
Stand-out feature: The four-sheet Chinese-language Kwong Wah Po newspaper is printed on a 110-year-old printing press, with some 6,000 characters that have to be set by hand.
Must-visit restaurant: Run by second-generation Chinese-Cuban Roberto Vargas Lee, Tien Tan is a favorite on Calle Cuchillo, or Knife Street, Barrio Chino’s main restaurant drag.
Like thousands of others who fled early 19th-century war and famine in their homeland, the Chinese — predominately from South China — found their way to former Calcutta, back then the capital of British India.
According to current estimates, there are only about 5,000-10,000 Indian-Chinese still living in Kolkata, with numbers having steadily decreased since the Sino-India war of 1962, when many emigrated to Western countries.
There’s a large Indian-Chinese community in the Canadian city of Toronto, for example, where Chinese supermarkets sell tandoori chicken and the latest Hindi songs are performed at weddings.
For now though in Kolkata, you can still find Taoist temples, markets where dim sum is sold from bamboo baskets and even a Chinese goods store run by the charming Stella, who totes up your bill on an abacus, and likes aloo loochi, a local potato and bread snack, as much as the Kolkatan chow mien that can be found on almost any street corner.
Chinese food is the most popular cuisine in Kolkata.
Stand-out feature: Although from the neighboring state of Jharkhand, Indian-Chinese Meiyang Chang, a 34-year-old actor, TV host, singer and dentist (whose ancestors migrated from Hubei province in the 18th century) has been adopted by Kolkatans as one of their own. He was recently seen playing himself in the Salman Khan Bollywood blockbuster Sultan (2016). His latest project is a web-series called Untag
Must-visit restaurant: For Indian-Chinese cuisine, there’s Tung Fong (25B Park St.; +91 33 2217 4989), with its menu of localized items like vegetable Manchurian and chili chicken.
At night, Bangkok’s Chinatown resembles 1960s Hong Kong.
It’s a relatively low-rise neighborhood of bustling back-alley markets, steaming street food and gleaming gold shops, all backlit by the glow of neon signs in Chinese and Thai.
It’s been this way for some 200 years, since the capital’s Chinese community moved here from the spot where the Grand Palace is now located.
Locally, Chinatown is known as Yaowarat, after the area’s main street. Although one of the city’s most fascinating and energetic districts, it’s not the most convenient place to get to.
With no Chinatown BTS, you can either walk west from Hualumphong MRT station (take exit 1), or east from the Ratchawong river taxi pier.
The main attraction is the food. One of the easiest ways to enjoy it is to sign up for a tour with Bangkok Food Tours’ Chinatown Foodie Walk.
This guided tour takes you to seven famous local eateries, from street food to fine dining. In between eating, you meet lively characters, hear famous stories and visit religious and cultural landmarks.
Stand-out feature: The most important figure in Chinatown is the Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit.
The world’s largest solid gold statue was made in the 13th century, before being covered with a plaster facade to keep it out of the hands of Burmese invaders in 1767. The five-ton marvel was rediscovered in 1955, when movers accidentally dropped the statue, revealing the gleaming Buddha within.
Must-visit restaurant: Since most of the local Thai-Chinese are Teochew, the choice is Yim Yim (89 Yaowaphanit Road; +66 (0)2 224 2205), a fourth-generation Teochew restaurant that serves excellent crab claws, chicken soup and sweet yam custard.
Binondo is the world’s oldest Chinatown, established in the 1590s by the Spanish as a settlement for Catholic Chinese.
Located across the river from the walled city of Intramuros, it was positioned so that colonial rulers could keep a close eye on their migrant subjects.
Although almost 20,000 Chinese were killed following a revolt in 1603, Hokkiens continued to flock here from Fujian and today Binondo is an integral, thriving part of the Filipino capital.
The best place to start a tour is on Carvajal Street, otherwise known as Umbrella Alley (so-called for the multitude of umbrellas that protect the small street stalls), which offers some of the best street food in the city.
For a knowledgeable guide on your culinary adventure, the Big Binondo Food Wok tour is run by Old Manila Walks, co-owned by local Ivan Mandy.
Each participant on the guided walk is given a souvenir Big Binondo Food Wok Map, which lists restaurant and shops, as well as coupons for businesses in the area.
Stand-out feature: Built in 1596, the landmark Binondo Church is home to the Santo Cristo de Longos or Crucified Christ, believed to be miraculous. In the 16th century, a deaf-mute Chinese supposedly regained the power of speech after finding the image.
Must-visit restaurant: Café Mezzanine above the Eng Bee Tin Chinese Deli (famous for hopia ube pastries) in Ongpin Sreet. A part of the restaurant’s income goes to Binondo’s fire department, whose iconic purple truck is parked beside the Binondo Church.
Johannesburg, South Africa
South Africa is home to the largest ethnic Chinese community on the continent. Most live in the country’s largest city, Johannesburg.
Migrants came here in waves from the 19th century onwards to work in the gold mines of the Transvaal.
The city is actually home to two Chinatowns.
The first is located downtown along historic Commissioner Street. Once a thriving community of shops, community centers and restaurants, many residents emigrated in the 1990s, forced out by the rising crime rates in the Central Business District.
In its place, however, has emerged New Chinatown in the eastern Jo’burg suburb of Cyrildene. Here, on Derrick Avenue, you’ll find restaurants, supermarkets, electronics stores, massage parlors, grocery stores, butchers and fishmongers, many run by recent Mandarin-speaking immigrants.
Cuisines range from Shanghainese to Sichuan.
Despite their change in fates, both Chinatowns still celebrate Chinese New Year in late January or early February, with fireworks displays, lion and dragon dances.
Stand-out feature: While it’s not admittedly part of the local Chinese heritage, you can combine a visit to Commissioner Street with a tour of the nearby SAB World of Beer, an award-winning museum showcasing the history of South African beer.
The best part? All tours finish with two complimentary beers.
Must-visit restaurant: Swallows Inn (+27 11 838 2946) at 6 Commissioner Street is Johannesburg’s oldest Chinese restaurant.
Established in 1940, it serves interesting Afro-Asian fare such as “Shanghai steak,” spring rolls and tinned lychees with ice cream. Waiters take your order in English, Afrikaans or Cantonese.
The lure of quick fortunes drew young men from South China to the Australian state of Victoria.
Beginning in 1851, ships laden with gold diggers sailed from Hong Kong bound for Melbourne. As more and more arrived, a vibrant Chinese community set up shop in Little Bourke Street to cater to the needs of the new arrivals, supplying accommodation, food and equipment.
This boom time continued until the introduction of the White Australia Policy in 1901, when the Chinese, like many non-European immigrants, suffered under racist rule. After the policy was relaxed after World War II, Melbourne’s Chinatown was reinvigorated.
Today, its historic three-story brick buildings remain home to Cantonese restaurants, groceries, herbal medicine shops and a museum detailing the community’s history.
Tourists and locals alike enjoy strolling along the main drag of Little Bourke, Swanston and Spring Streets, and the many lanes that crisscross the area.
A particularly good time to visit is Lunar New Year (January or February).
According to the Chinatown Precinct Association, Melbourne’s Chinatown is one of the world’s longest continuously inhabited overseas Chinese settlements.
It’s also one of the most cosmopolitan, with Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Japanese and Australian cuisines available.
Stand-out feature: Every Lunar New Year, one of the world’s biggest dragons stalks the streets of Chinatown – Dai Loong, which requires 200 people to operate it. For the rest of the year, it slumbers quietly at the Chinese Museum (22 Cohen Place).
Must-visit restaurant: In dumpling-mad Melbourne, there’s only one place to chow down on some jiaozi, and that’s HuTong Dumpling Bar (14-16 Market Lane), rated for its soup-packed xiaolongbao, and “money bags” – deep-fried wonton tied up with rice noodles or chive leaves resembling little purses.
It was the British who helped create North America’s most Asian city.
After the signing of the Joint Declaration in 1984 between Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping, which promised the return of Hong Kong to Mainland China in 1997, waves of well-educated Hong Kong Chinese emigrated to Vancouver in search of a safe haven from a future of uncertainty.
Following early-20th-century pioneers, they came in such numbers that the city gained the nickname Hongcouver.
Today, ethnic Chinese can be found living in every part of Vancouver (Richmond, modern-day Chinatown, is 50% Chinese). You can dine out on as many varieties of Chinese food as you can find in Hong Kong. Mayor Gregor Robertson speaks Cantonese. Chief Constable Jim Chu was born in Shanghai. One in three of the city’s residents is of Asian descent.
In recent years, a reverse brain drain has seen Canadian-born Chinese moving back to Hong Kong and China in search of better job opportunities (there are up to 300,000 Canadian passport holders in Hong Kong).
They’ve been replaced by a new wave of Chinese arrivals, this time from the mainland. As one commentator puts it: “Forget Hongcouver, here comes Chinada!”
Stand-out feature: Move over Rover and let Jimi take over. On Chinatown’s southern edge, marked by a guitar sign, you’ll find a shrine dedicated to Jimi Hendrix (207 Union Street).
The fried chicken restaurant once located here used to belong to Nora Rose Moore Hendrix, Hendrix’s grandmother, and Jimi lived here as a young boy.
Must-visit restaurant: For buns and bakery goods, New Town Bakery and Restaurant (148 East Pender St.) has been serving sweet and savory treats for more than 30 years.
Pineapple buns, egg tarts, steamed custard buns, apple tarts and donuts are favorites.
San Francisco, United States
Chinese immigrants are still flocking to San Francisco in large numbers.
Like Melbourne, San Francisco claims to be home to the world’s oldest Chinatown, following the 1848 arrival of three Chinese immigrants, two men and one woman.
As in Australia, they had to fight racial prejudice. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens. They were also not allowed to own property, vote, send for their families or marry non-Chinese.
After more than 150 years in San Francisco, Chinese are an integral part of the rich fabric of the city, now run by Chinese-American mayor Edwin Lee.
Chinatown is the city’s top tourist attraction, drawing more people each year than the Golden Gate Bridge.
Any tour of the area starts on historic Grant Avenue.
In the late 1880s, this was one of the sleaziest drags in town, filled with opium dens and brothels.
Today, the junction of Grant Avenue and Bush Street is home to the southern gateway to Chinatown, beyond which you’ll find dragon-entwined lamp posts, bilingual street signs and shops selling herbal medicine, porcelain, fabrics and more than 300 restaurants.
Must-visit restaurant: If you like your Chinese food spicy, a great choice is Henry’s Hunan Restaurant. Founded in 1974, it’s earned a stellar reputation as the place to go for dumplings and curried tofu draped in hot sauce.
Stand-out feature: To see Chinatown in a new light, sign up for a SF Chinatown Ghost Tour, which promises to bring to life tales of San Francisco Chinatown’s supernatural past and present, as you are led on a tour of Chinatown’s historic, mysterious and possibly haunted streets and alleyways.
Having such a long, controversial history with China (two Opium Wars, ownership of Hong Kong for more than 150 years) it seems only apt that the center of London is home to Europe’s largest Chinatown.
Originally, Chinese sailors and traders settled in the East End in the late 18th century, but the destruction of the area during World War II combined with a shortage of work saw the community dwindle.
However, it was saved by the return of British servicemen who had served in Asia, and developed a taste for Chinese food.
Throughout the 1960s, thousands more Chinese arrived from Hong Kong, many opening restaurants in and around Gerrard Street, attracted by the cheap rents and short leases on offer in the salubrious area (famously, Ronnie Scott set up his first jazz club in the basement of number 39).
Today, London Chinatown is located in the busy center of London, between Soho, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden, with tourists flocking to the area for its Chinese restaurants, teahouses, supermarkets and traditional Chinese doctors.
From being an insular, temporary community – the old saying used to be “earn enough then head home” – London’s Chinatown is now a proud part of the British capital, attracting 300,00 people for the Lunar New Year celebrations.
Stand-out feature: After dinner at one of the many Chinese restaurants, it’s on to nearby Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club where some of the greatest names in music have performed, including Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis.
Must-visit restaurant: At Joy King Lau, it’s all about the Cantonese classics. Over three storys, wonderfully brusque staff dish out delightful dim sum, and do their very best to make you forget you’re sitting in the middle of London.
Editor’s note: This article was previously published in 2012. It was reformatted, updated and republished in 2017.