“Go back to Wuhan!” the inebriated man hollered as he hurled a beer bottle at me. Even as the bottle flew, I could not help but dwell on how I am from Hong Kong, a city 919 kilometers away from the man’s misplaced wrath. Though the bottle missed and hit a train, I remember emerging from my usual exit at Toronto’s Wellesley station and feeling like an alien landing on Earth for the first time. It was March 10th, 2020, and I felt truly alone in that moment.
So I did what any Asian-American does after a strenuous commute: I headed towards Chinatown to bury my fears in a bowl of soup noodles.
Walk around enough Chinatowns and you will see some similarities. The aroma of fresh Cantonese barbequed pork hanging in windowfront displays, the “veggie grandmas” hawking produce from stalls, laundry dangling from lines — It’s a harmonious cacophony of a community that members of non-Chinese Asian diasporas also latch onto to form their own little slices of home. Whether it’s fresh banh mi from Little Saigon, or the Korean hot pot lane, the irony of the term “Chinatown” is revealing in how it aligns with the lazy categorization of Asian-Americans as a monolithic group in North American society.
You may also see signs of decay. Some of the more popular Chinatowns have been continually inhabited for centuries, and face crumbling brickwork and rising maintenance costs. Less fortunate ones have experienced unrestrained gentrification, often leading to uncanny mixtures of cold-pressed juice bars sandwiched next to tenement housing complexes. For many Chinatowns during the COVID years, the stigma associated with the “unsanitary nature” of their food starved many restaurants into closure.
In the face of rising anti-Asian hate, many Asian-Americans rallied to help our local Chinatowns through business improvement associations (BIAs). After several hours of BIA meetings over what color of paint should be chosen for a street art project, I politely left and joined a different collective called the Friends of Chinatown Toronto (FOCT). From delivering food to senior homes during snowstorms, to helping restaurants edit their English marketing and menu materials for free, we defended Chinatown; not to protect its masonry or its murals, but the people living within its bounds.
Chinatowns serve an increasingly important role as safe havens and accessible food markets for underrepresented communities, particularly those who operate key service sectors in our economy. Here in Connecticut, the relatively recent arrival of Chinese casino workers around Montville and Norwich has led to the sprouting of new neighborhoods to service them, and as someone who has only dealt with older districts, I find the notion of a newer, suburban-style Chinatown to be intriguing. Like a plant thriving in a different soil, it gives me hope to see fellow Chinese immigrants flourish in environments that, just a few decades ago, would have been regarded as overly different from the usual cityscapes that we were accustomed to. Despite some instances of local tensions and cultural miscommunication, the fact that the Chinese community is still growing around those towns demonstrates the welcoming nature of Connecticut, and its capacity to help those seeking new beginnings to take their first steps in America.
Whether you are a community volunteer or just a neighbor who wants to help out, we need to re-evaluate how we think about the future of our Chinatowns. We need to do more than just pick paint colors and edit menus — We need to help our Chinatowns ride the wave of gentrification, instead of resisting it entirely. We need to adopt new land uses that encompass more than just restaurants, but feature technology startups or higher margin services. In an era of heightened geopolitical tensions in Asia and the U.S., we need proper political representation in all levels of government so that the travesty of the Exclusion Act era never sees the light of day again.
Lastly, we need to realize that Chinatowns were originally meant as landing terminals for the newly arrived — and like all scaffolding, we must be ready to discard what does not serve us anymore. Bringing back the neon signs that unashamedly announce the lack of MSG may appeal to those with a taste for nostalgia, but trivial matters of neighborhood aesthetics must be set aside by neighborhood associations if Chinatowns are to truly survive the next century.
After two years of volunteering with the FOCT, my late grandfather’s words resonate in my mind as an apt response to that bottle-throwing man’s ludicrous demand.
The place we go is the place where we belong. We are here to stay.
Ian Ko is studying at Suffolk University as a graduate student in the public administration program.