Chinatown: from the 1920s images of dark shadows and oriental mystery, to modern images of triad corruption and, well, oriental mystery, this article examines the history and growth of Chinatowns and their depiction in American and Asian cinema.

Leaving Home: Emigration

In considering the history of any great nation, and of China in particular, there are certain time periods that, looking back on them, one realizes it would be sheer hell to live through. Mao's Great Leap Forward of the early sixties is certainly one of those times. But another time, by all accounts, is the whole of the second half of the nineteenth century. But unlike China under Mao, many people could, and did, leave. It is with this mass emigration that a history of Chinatown must begin.

By around 1850, population figures in China are estimated at 430,000,000, and there simply wasn't enough arable land to go around. No major advancements in farming techniques or technologies meant that China was having trouble feeding itself. A dip in population pressure was forthcoming, however, as war and rebellion broke out on an unprecedented scale. The Taiping Rebellion essentially plunged China into civil war. The Qing government finally subdued the Taipings with the help of the foreign powers, but not before hundreds of cities were destroyed, the countryside ravaged, and tens of millions of people dislocated from their homes. At around the same time there was the Nian Rebellion in eastern China, brought about by intense flooding and hardship in the region, and the Muslim revolts of western China, caused by over taxation and disputes over mining rights with Qing officials.

None of this would have been possible were it not for the extremely weak central government. It is something of a miracle the Qing Dynasty didn't just fall apart, instead of maintaining its power as it did until the early years of the twentieth century. The Qing stayed in place, but just barely, the weak central government engendered the corruption of local officials, the proliferation of bandits, and increased the severity of hardship, since aid to hard-hit regions was rarely organized or even forthcoming.

So beginning in the 1850's, there was significant encouragement to the populace to leave and try their luck elsewhere. Internal migration was quite common, but just shuffling the deck did little to change the cards dealt. Many emigrated to Southeast Asia, the nearest ports and most common destinations. Going abroad was seen by many as a way to start a new life with better prospects. And for the first time, it was legal to do so, the British having pushed China to accept their free trade policies, going so far as to launch two so-called "Opium Wars" to force the issue. Under British pressure, the Chinese adopted laws which allowed Chinese citizens to leave the country, if of their own free will, to seek employment abroad. By 1860, this was the law of the land. By 1868 the American envoy to China, Anson Burlingame, came to an agreement in which the U.S. and China would recognize "the inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance."

In retrospect it seems odd that the Americans and British would be so keen to allow Chinese emigration rights, when only twenty years later they went about doing everything in their considerable powers to repeal them. But the original reasoning is quite simple to discern -- the slave trade had finally been banned, the ban finally and effectively enforced, and the colonies in sore need of cheap, preferrably free, labor. Chinese "Coolies" (low- or no-wage menial laborers) fit the bill. The slave trade was over, the coolie trade just begun. Poor, starving Chinese farmers and laborers signed up for a berth on a ship to take them east as free men. Though, first, of course, they had to work off the price of the trip, which usually came out to about eight years of hard labor. Some of the coolie ships were old slavers pressed back into use, the conditions not much better. On average only one in five coolies survived the trip, at least until the mid-sixties, when steamships finally made the trip much faster and less lethal. Demand for coolies outstripped supply, so press gangs would rove the coast and round up able-bodied men for a tidy profit.

Supposing the coolie came of his own free will, and survived the boat trip, surviving his term of employment was yet another obstacle. They were sent to do work in the worst places imaginable. Thousands were sent to the guano beds of Peru, shoveling bird shit every day until the smell burned away their lungs. Over one hundred thousand found their way to Cuba to work on the sugar plantations side by side with African slaves. But here as elsewhere, the coolies refused to be called slaves. They had given up their freedom, but only temporarily, and lost most everything else they had, but they still had their dignity. In practice, though, their Cuban masters were unclear on the distinction, often refusing to free the coolie after their term of service, chaining, whipping, and otherwise coercing the poor worker to stay put until death.

Happily, not all Chinese emigrees had it quite that bad. Many left China not to work away their lives under fierce landowners, but rather to strike it rich themselves. In 1848, gold was discovered in Sutter's Mill, California. By 1860, over 41,000 Chinese had emigrated to the States with dreams of fame and fortune. Gold discovered in Australia prompted another rush there at around the same time. And so the first job independent Chinese workers would become known for outside of China was mining. And it was the response to that work by locals, combined with pre-existing tendencies of the immigrants themselves, that would define and concretely establish Chinatowns all over the world.

Unwelcome Sojourners

To speak of Chinatown is not to speak of a town, standing on its own, exclusively made up of Chinese residents, though there have been instances of such. Rather, Chinatown is most often a neighborhood in a large city in which a Chinese community was built.

Newly arrived Chinese immigrants would naturally gravitate toward towns which already included some Chinese settlers for many reasons, not least of which the fact that it becomes relatively easier and safer for latecomers to follow in the pioneers footsteps on their arrival, to quickly pick up information that was hard leared by those who came before. Often times it happened that the bulk of immigrants to a certain city were from the same location and spoke the same dialect in China, and so stayed together after emigration. Clustering together also allowed for imported Chinese foods and services to be had, such as opium and the necessary prostitution (since most all emigrees were single males). All of these things made the creation of Chinatowns a natural, and in fact similar neighborhoods were often created for the exact same reasons for all manner of newly arrived European groups as well.

What made Chinatowns exceptional was the power of external forces which were also often brought to bear on the Chinese community which necessitated the existence of Chinatown simply for survival among the hostile landowners and workers who felt threatened by the Chinese presence. Like the Jews forced to live in the Ghetto district of Venice, like the Black Metropolis of the south side of Chicago, often the Chinese lived in Chinatown because they were not welcome, not allowed, to live anywhere else. In Australia, race segregation policies ensured that the Chinese would not be seen in public mixing with whites well into the twentieth century. In Mexico City, Mexico, one of the first Chinatowns of the new world (developed around 1600s!) was causing resentment due to overly successful business, and petitions were made to push the Chinese to a settlement on the outskirts of town. Under the British in South-East Asia, they made it policy to segregate races, to 'divide and conquer.' The Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan, closed to the rest of the world for hundreds of years, allowed trading only in Nagasaki, and only for the Dutch and the Chinese, neither of whom were ever supposed to leave their cantonments. And so it goes from city to city, country to country.

I have already dealt with the series of laws passed in the United States that restricted the rights and freedoms of the Chinese in the second half of the ninteenth century in an earlier article about the Yellow Peril and do not need to cover them again here. The legislation was in response to two percieved threats of the Chinese presence in America. The first was a rejection of the "melting pot" theory of America. At the time, it was believed everyone who came to America should eventually just blend with everyone else. The Chinese had no such dreams, and in fact, most immigrants planned to go back home to China after becoming successful. Although this viewpoint is in fact entirely typical of all first generation immigrants, regardless of home country, it was perceived as something uniquely Chinese. That they would not become citizens, but instead simply "sojourners," was an affront to the newly forming American identity. The second threat was more concrete, and the same charge still leveled today against unwanted immigrants -- they're stealing jobs.

Though in fact America was in a general recession and jobs were hard to come by. For the Chinese, mining didn't really 'pan' out, California more than happy to levy special fines against Chinese miners just in case they made any real money. The Pacific railroad was another big employer, but when that job was over, a glut of Chinese workers flooded the market. Some employers would hire them as strike breakers, often without their full knowledge or understanding of the undertaking. Most often, employers sought out Chinese workers because they worked long hours and they worked hard and they asked for little, in marked contrast to most other blue collar laborers. By the 1870's, groups like the Anti-Chinese Union was formed, with slogans such as "The Chinese Must Go!," driving out the Chinese from manufacturing work and other labor in which they competed with German or Irish laborers, and driving them to seek shelter with each other -- in Chinatown.

The forced exclusion of Chinese workers from almost all types of work pushed them into a market still untapped -- women's work. Specifically, the hand laundry. Soon, Chinese laundries could be seen in every city in America and Canada, and an enduring stereotype was born. Legislators were entirely unsatisfyed to note that the Chinese Laundries thrived, and soon much local legislation was passed trying to sanitize and regulate the "dirty laundries." A memoir of a Chinese laundry worker from that time recalls, however, how smelling the dirty clothes made him physically ill, and it should perhaps be noted that these "dirty Chinese" were in fact much more prone to bathing, and more often, than their western counterparts. The hand laundry was the profession most often associated with the Chinese workers up until the second World War. Afterwards, American owned automatic laundromats put the hand laundries out of business.

By that time, Chinatowns had discovered another livelihood. By trumpeting more garish 'oriental' designs, and opening curio shops and restaurants, tourism became an important part of the Chinatown economy. Today, many Chinatowns rely almost exclusively on tourism, some are even considered "one business economies" because of their sole reliance on the restaurant business. Chinese festivals are a regular part of life in every Chinatown, drawing spectators from all over the city.

Benevolent Associations, Tong Wars

Three different types of associations defined Chinese immigrant life, and Chinatown itself, by extension.

First are Family Associations, usually organized by surname. These Associations were the first to be established. Usually, the Family Association would help facilitate the transfer of new immigrants, and help provide work and social support upon arrival. Many immigrants to a specific location would be from the same village in China, and therefore often of the same surname. The Family Association was a natural extension of an already existing process. As a result, it was often the case in those early years that a particular surname clan would completely control a certain job. One lineage group would be barbers, another labourers, and so on.

Merchant Associations soon followed, organized by job. Merchants, miners, laundrymen, each had their own Association. These associations were designed to help fight discriminatory legislation, facilitate mutual aid networks, ensure that workers were properly cared for, and behaved very much like exclusively Chinese unions. Often a Chinese immigrant would belong to both a family and a merchant association. These eventually grew and combined, continually evolving into more of a quasi-governmental body within Chinatown. The best known and largest began in San Francisco and is known as the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (also called the Six Companies), still very much alive today.

But these benevolent societies are hardly the headline grabbers of their less savory counterparts: the Tongs. The Tong (which means, "meeting hall,") is really just another kind of association, but on the other side of the law. Really, the temptation to corruption was always built-in to the Association system: Every merchant, labourer, and wage-earner was a member of an Association, and therefore had to pay fees. In return for those fees, the association provided protection. It's not hard to imagine how quickly such a system could become corrupted. Part of the Six Companies responsibilities was protection, and the groups who provided that protection became the first tongs. Gambling houses, opium dens, and the like were particularly in need of protection from thugs who would raid them, so tongs were created by the owners of these places to protect their interests. The business was so lucrative that tongs began fighting among themselves, competing for territory.

The so-called "Tong Wars" raged in Chinatowns throughout America from the 1850s to the 1930s. One of the most famous conflicts was in New York, between the On Leong, led by Tom Lee, and Hip Sing Tong, led by Mock Duck. Their conflict lasted for thirty years, off an on, and provided many sensational headlines. Both the leaders and their men took to wearing chain-mail shirts, carried revolvers, and used hatchets. "Hatchet-men" became the catch phrase for papers reporting about the Tong killers. By the twenties, they escalated the conflict to bombs, but by that time, Mock Duck had served some time at Sing Sing and quietly retired. A truce was eventually called, and both Tongs still exist today.

The criminal tongs (again, since "Tong" simply implies an association, not all of them are criminal in nature) have close ties to international Triad organizations, and have had since their very inception. The triads, always looking for lucrative money-making opportunities, quickly moved into the coolie smuggling business. Often, they would arrange the departure and terms of employment of the coolie, who would then be picked up in the New World by the tong. When immigration was declared illegal by the U.S. Government, triads and tongs could completely take over the trade without competition from legitimate businesses. Some tongs today are still in the business of smuggling human cargo, as well as operating illegal gambling and heroin dealing, almost exactly what they were doing when the associations first originated, over 100 years ago.

"Forget it, Jake -- It's Chinatown"

It may seem strange at first, naming the Polanski film Chinatown. After all, only a tiny amount of screen time is actually spent there. But it isn't the location that screenwriter Robert Towne alludes to with the title. Rather, he refers to what Chinatown represents, which is, in short, corruption to the very core. A place beyond the reach of the laws of civil society. Where illegal gambling, prostitution, and drug dealing is commonplace. Where exposing scandal is like peeling an onion -- a thousand layers deep.

Towne was able to effectively use this metaphor for the film as a whole because that is what Chinatown had become, as defined by Hollywood pictures of the past seventy years. There are no tourists here, and even the man who runs the curio shop may be a criminal mastermind.

Hong Kong cinema fares no better in its depictions of Chinatown -- and why should it? Again it is a cinema of outsiders, looking in. The films certainly show greater depth and characterization of the residents of Chinatown, but the actual mechanics of life there, and interaction with the rest of society, seem forced and often ridiculous. Often the most poignant and true portrayals of Chinese immigrants living in America, such as An Autumn's Tale, reduce the significance of Chinatown itself, rarely even showing it at all.

Ultimately it may be up to a new generation of Asian-American filmmakers to depict Chinatown in film with all its richness and depth, filmmakers like Wayne Wang, who broke into the mainstream with The Joy Luck Club. Or then again, it may be that Chinatown itself does not need to be recalled and understood in film any longer. Perhaps it is time instead for Hollywood to realize that Chinese Americans live in cities and suburbs all over the country, and far more live outside of Chinatown than in. Perhaps once and for all we can retire the notion of a Chinatown setting being neccessary to explain the presence of one or more Chinese cast members. Though, if the latest Hollywood fare, such as Rush Hour and The Corruptor is anything to judge, we still have a ways to go.

For reviews on this site related to Chinatown, click here.


Without a lot of free time to tackle this subject in great detail, I shot randomly about the libraries and bookstores and my own home bookshelves to cobble together whatever bits of history I could find. Here are some of the books most helpful in understanding the history of Chinatowns:

LEE, Robert G. Orientals : Asian Americans in Popular Culture. Temple University Press, 1999.
This book should be required reading for every American who wishes to better understand the Asian-American experience. Neatly divided into seven chapters each devoted to another kind of stereotype and how that stereotype is represented in popular culture, including the yellow peril, the coolie, the model minority, and the gook.

PAN, LynnSons of the Yellow Emperor. Kodansha International, 1994.
Subtitled a History of the Chinese Diaspora, it is just that. And it explores the notion of Chinese immigrant identity and the formation of Chinatowns all over the world. The emphasis, however, is on the Chinese experience in South-East Asia, as opposed to in Western countries, but it is a fascinating read nonetheless.

SPENCE, Jonathan D.The Search of Modern China. Norton, 1991.
Spence is surely one of the best writers of popular histories of China. In this one, he takes a look at China, from the Qing to Communism, to try and get to the heart of modern China.

SPENCE, Jonathan D.The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds. Norton, 1999.
An overview of how Westerners have perceived China and its people throughout history, from early traveler's tales and missionaries reports to the first immigrants from China settling in America. An invaluable guide.

ZIA, HelenAsian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000.
A personal memoir and a history, or perhaps, a "thoughtful exploration" of the notion of an Asian American identity, the prejudices and political realities that made it attractive.


The big Chinatowns around the world all have their own website:

San Francisco Chinatown has the most comprehensive site online, including a wonderful history timeline. A close second is
Chinatown Online UK, which has lots of Chinese cultural links as well as information about London Chinatown.

The Sidney, Australia site has mostly information about local events, with a few general Chinese culture comments in the "Forbidden City" section. Other mostly local sites include one for Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. There's even a beautiful site for Honolulu's Chinatown, which includes links to still more Chinatown sites around the web.

For a look at some articles and cartoons published in Harper's Weekly at the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, check out the fascinating Chinese American Experience from HarpWeek.

For a comprehensive overview of Chinese immigration and the creation of Chinatowns, with a particular focus on Washington, D.C., see The Rise and Decline of Chinatown, D.C. by Alison Mara Friedman in The Concord Review.

Posted by Peter Nepstad on January 15, 2002.


Hello, I'm confused. When you wrote this, did you mean Hong Kong cinema's depictions of Chinatowns in other parts of the world or its depictions of Hong Kong, itself? Are you calling Hong Kong a "Chinatown"?

"Hong Kong cinema fares no better in its depictions of Chinatown -- and why should it? Again it is a cinema of outsiders, looking in."

I checked the reviews under the section called "Chinatown Genre," and I still don't know what Hong Kong films you're describing with this paragraph. Can you please explain a bit further what you mean? Have some Hong Kong directors set films in Chinatowns in the U.S. or Europe? Thanks!

Posted by: L at June 13, 2006 06:57 AM

Hong Kong's depictions of Chinatowns -- especially ones in the U.S., are usually just as silly if not moreso than American depictions. Some movies I had in mind when writing that paragraph include CHINATOWN KID, A MAN CALLED HERO, and DRAGON FIGHT. I mention it in this article because race is sometimes pointed to as the reason American filmmakers stereotype Chinatown, whereas I think it's more like simple ignorance, which transcends all racial and national boundaries. Such misrepresentation is rarely deliberate, and sometimes kind of entertaining. Hope this helps.

Posted by: PTN at June 13, 2006 11:39 PM

Yes, thank you, Peter, for your reply! Your clarification helps a great deal. I've been reading and thinking about cinematic depictions of Chinatown, and I was unaware that Hong Kong filmmakers have had a go at shooting Chinatowns as well. Sorry; I didn't read far enough through the reviews in your Chinatown section to realize that the films you mention in your reply shifted from Hong Kong to the U.S. partway through the stories. I couldn't find a review of "Dragon Fight" on the site, though.

The idea that a filmmaker's race isn't a definitive factor in securing a film's authenticity flies in the face of conventional judgments. Nice!

I love your articles. They are very thoughtful and well written. Plus, they cover aspects of Asian film that I don't usually see covered. But then, I don't read enough film criticism!

Posted by: L at June 15, 2006 06:20 AM
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