Chinatown, Suburban Style

In the face of gentrification, America's Chinatowns set up shop in the suburbs


| September 13, 2007


'What is gentrification?' a community organizer asks Manhattan teenager Yi Lian Zheng. 'It is when low-income tenants experience extremely high rents and are unable to pay,' Zheng responds, and moves ahead five spaces on a human-sized game board in the city's Columbus Park. The game is called 'Rent: The Game,' and was organized by the Chinatown Tenants Union to educate students about the sky-high rents that are forcing Chinatown residents to relocate, reports Manhattan's Downtown Express. But even as local organizations like the Chinatown Tenants Union try to mobilize residents and lessen the blow of gentrification, Chinese communities around the country are being squeezed out of downtown areas en mass. And many are finding new life in the suburbs.

Recent research suggests that members of these Chinese communities aren't getting dispersed and lost in the 'burbs. Rather, they're 'reconstituting' their Chinatowns in suburban settings, reports Adam Meagher for the Next American City. Meagher points to Quincy, Massachusetts, as an example of the trend. When high rents forced Boston's Chinatown residents to relocate, they found a new, affordable home in suburban Quincy, only a short train ride from work in the city. Quincy's slumping economy allowed the urban Chinatown exiles to purchase homes and punch their ticket into the American middle-class.

The demographic shift also gave Quincy a much-needed economic shot in the arm. Meagher notes that after a Wal-Mart put a local strip mall out of business, the Chinese community revitalized the abandoned property with a new Chinatown hub that boasts the largest Asian grocery store in the state. Towns like Quincy and Los Angeles' Monterey Park have become 'ethnoburbs,' so dubbed by geographer Wei Li to denote communities vastly altered by immigrants with global economic connections.

Halfway across the world Chinese investors are finding cozy suburbs the perfect place to settle down. State-funded Deutsche Welle reports that the dull East-German city of Oranienburg just north of Berlin will be the beneficiary of Europe's newest Chinatown. Funded by a mystery Chinese investor, plans are in the works for a new 500-million-euro,  Las Vegas-style Chinatown, including a hotel, apartments, and even a mini-version of the Great Wall. Deutsche Welle notes that in addition to the much needed jolt the Chinatown could give the economy, Oranienburg might also benefit from a newfound ethnic diversity.

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