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The hustle and bustle of San Francisco’s Chinatown during the Autumn Moon Festival. Above photo by Dawn Endico. Feature photo by Bala.

Can’t be in China to ring in the Lunar New Year? Not to worry: there will be celebrations going on in Chinatowns worldwide.
Singapore

Singapore’s Chinatown, once home to the first Chinese settlers in what’s now a heavily Westernized city-state, is one of its few distinctly Asian neighborhoods.

The Grand Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Above photo by Riza.

The enclave was home to the area’s earliest Chinese settlers. Several of its institutions, such as the Heritage Centre, Food Street, and Night Market, preserve the culture of its original inhabitants, while some areas of the district are designated national heritage sites.

Many historic buildings remain as relics of the past, as well as to complement the otherwise modern landscape.

Melbourne

Melbourne boasts the oldest Chinatown in the world, established during Victoria’s Gold Rush in 1854.

Yum Cha Cafe serves up some delicious, dainty egg tarts. Photo by Avlxyz.

Catch the world’s longest Chinese dragon– the Millennium Dai Loong Dragon tops 100 meters — in action as it is brought to life by 200 people during the Chinese New Year parade.

Kuala Lumpur

The capital of Malaysia was actually founded by Chinese tin prospectors in the 1850s, who played a pivotal role in the city’s transformation from a jungle settlement to a center for the tin mining industry. The Chinese remain the city’s dominant ethnic group and control a large proportion of the country’s commerce.

Photo by Jason Weemin.

Chinatown, known locally as Petaling Street or Jalan Petaling, is famous for its food stalls and night market, where shoppers can load up on fresh produce and counterfeit DVDs, watches and purses (don’t forget to haggle).

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

Arriving in Georgetown, Penang, off the west coast of Malaysia after a long journey from Thailand, you may almost think that you accidentally traveled all the way to China. The city’s Chinatown is one of the largest and best preserved in the world, with everyday sights and sounds reminiscent of a small city in China.

Offerings at a local shrine. Photo by Sam Sherratt.

Most residents are descended from Chinese immigrants who arrived in Penang during the colonial era and made their fortunes as traders and shopkeepers. Many of their original shops are still intact today.

Toronto

In the most ethnically diverse city in the world, residents have their pick of seven Chinatowns. The city’s main Chinatown was formed in the late 1960s, when many businesses in the original Chinatown were forced to move.

Vending mangoes off of Spadina Avenue. Photo by High Limitzz.

Since the 1980s, the Greater Toronto Area’s Chinese community has migrated to the suburbs of Scarborough, Mississauga, Richmond Hill, Markham, and North York, where shopping centers are reminiscent of Hong Kong’s malls and street stalls.

New York

New York’s first Chinese residents began arriving in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the late 19th century to escape discriminatory measures on the West Coast. In the 1980s, the neighborhood eclipsed San Francisco’s as the largest Chinatown outside Asia.

Getting ready for the Chinese New Year’s parade in NYC. Photo by Bob Jagendorf.

But don’t overlook the city’s other Chinese enclaves – in Elmhurst and Flushing in Queens, and along Avenue U and 8th Avenue in Brooklyn. In fact, Flushing’s Chinatown has now surpassed Manhattan’s in size.

Vancouver

There’s a reason this city has been nicknamed “Hongcouver.” In the years leading up to Hong Kong’s 1997 handover to China, waves of wealthy immigrants flooded the city. The mayor, Sam Sullivan, even speaks Cantonese.

Discount DVDs at the night market. Photo by Dave O.

Vancouver’s Chinatown dates back to the early 20th century, although recent arrivals have headed for the suburb of Richmond, where many of the Chinese restaurants are considered the best outside of Hong Kong.

San Francisco

The city’s Chinese New Year parade, an annual event since the 1860s, is the largest Asian cultural celebration outside of Asia. Chinatown may seem like a tacky tourist trap, but one cannot ignore the history and significance of one of the world’s best-known Chinese quarters, once the stomping grounds of Sun Yat-Sen and Amy Tan.

Try a tea demonstration next time you find yourself on Grant Street. Photo by Ben Mason.

The original enclave, built in the 1850s by settlers who had arrived during the gold rush and railroad days, would be the world’s oldest had it not been destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Since the 1960s, much of the city’s Chinese community has moved into the Sunset and Richmond districts, while newer immigrants often settle in the suburbs around the Bay Area.

COMMUNITY CONNECTION

To read about a Chinatown really off the beaten path–in Havana, Cuba–check out Julie Schwietert’s blog, “Ni hao, companera.”

Some of the world’s Chinatowns are the perfect spots for you to practice your bargaining skills — brush up before you go, with our guide to haggling. And check out Matador community member Hal Amen’s recent blog post from London: Your Friendly Neighborhood Chinatown.

About The Author

Valerie Ng

Valerie Ng is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, CA. When she's not traveling, she looks for ways to experience foreign culture in her backyard. Her writing has appeared in World Hum, The Travel Channel, The Dallas Morning News, Not For Tourists, and TangoDiva.

  • joshywashington

    Great piece! I love China Town in Frisco, alas this is the only on the list I ave had the pleasure of visiting.

  • VagabonderZ

    I've been in Melbourne for a year now…didn't know the Chinatown here is the oldest in the world! Interesting…although, Australians have a tendency to proclaim a lot of things that are "biggest, oldest, highest, etc" in the world…

    • Djmaxymas

      Manila, philippines boasts of the oldest chinatown in the world. It was established in 1594.

  • Eva

    I love Chinatowns! I love that mixture of continuity (between seemingly every Chinatown across countries and continents) and dissonance (between any given Chinatown and its surroundings) – know what I mean? Funny, I've been to all 8 cities on this list, but only to 5 of the Chinatowns themselves. Missed Vancouver's, Melbourne's and Singapore's. I've got a soft spot for KL's, definitely. I've also enjoyed the Chinatown experience in London, Newcastle (one block long, all five-pound all-you-can-eat greasy buffets) and my own hometown of Ottawa! (Where, to be honest, you'll mostly find Vietnamese food.) I don't think I could ever pick a favourite…

  • Valerie

    It was hard for me to leave some cities off this list – London for example, as well as Lima (which I've never been to but my parents have) and LA (quite small but the suburbs in the San Gabriel Valley are where it's at). I also like the one in Oakland, which I may actually prefer to San Fran. I'm definitely looking forward to checking out more, especially those in Vietnam, Japan and Bangkok (which I missed the last time I was there).

  • Gennaro

    It just hit me how many Chinatowns I've been to around the world. I'm always partial to the New York edition.

  • Julie

    The best Chinatown I've visited is in Havana, Cuba… and I even had better Chinese food there than I had when I lived (briefly) in China! There's also a Chinatown–though not particularly impressive–in Mexico City.

  • Monisha

    I support all Chinatowns as the best place to get a real bargain! Definitely do vouch for it in Singapore and closer home in Kula Lumpur Malaysia. The bargains get better and better. We feel more enthusiastic to look for the best art piece or craft and music CD!

  • D

    The oldest Chinatown in the world is actually in the Philippines as it was established around the 1590s, if I’m not mistaken, making it roughly 260 years older than the one in Sydney.

  • Mango Chow

     Binondo’s Chinatown located in Manila, Philippines is the oldest Chinatown, established in 1594…not in Melbourne. 

  • Djmaxymas

    Better research more thoroughly. Manila, philippines has the oldest chinatown established in the 16th century. I think you should have included it in your list.

  • http://www.mymomfriday.com/ Mom-Friday

    I’m from the  Philippines– Manila’s Chinatown is the oldest… 1594.

  • Guest

    Binondo district in Manila is the oldest in the world. Was founded at mid-1500′s. Probably Oldest in Australia? Even those in Vietnam predate your Melbourne Chinatown. Valerie Ng, are you sure you are qualified to write for this website?

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