WASHINGTON — America's historic Chinatowns, home for a century to immigrants seeking social support and refuge from racism, are fading as rising living costs, jobs elsewhere and a desire for wider spaces lure Asian-Americans more than ever to the suburbs.
As the Lunar New Year begins Monday, annual festivities in Washington, D.C.'s shriveled Chinatown are, for the first time, being promoted by a large marketing firm. New York's Chinatown, one of the nation's oldest, has lost its status as home to the city's largest Chinese population, based on the 2010 census.
Shifts also are under way in Los Angeles, Boston, Houston, San Francisco and Seattle, where shiny new "satellite Chinatowns" in the suburbs and outer city limits rival if not overshadow the originals.
"The traditional Chinatown is changing, and in most cities it is no longer the residential, political and cultural center of Asian-American life that it once was," said Wei Li, an Arizona State University professor who chairs the U.S. Census Bureau's advisory committee on the Asian population.
She explained that urban Chinatowns continue to serve a role for newly arrived immigrants with less education or lower skills who seek entry-level work, as well as for elderly residents with poor English skills who can't drive. But middle-class families are almost nowhere to be found, and in many cities, rising downtown property costs and urban gentrification threaten their traditional existence.
"Some have become functional as tourist attractions," Li said.
Signs of Chinatown decline can be seen in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, home to the nation's largest Asian-American population at 1.9 million. There, the city of Monterey Park, deemed part of an "ethnoburb" outside Los Angeles after it gained a majority of Asian-American in the 1990s, has long been a first stopping point for newly arrived Chinese seeking bigger houses away from downtown Los Angeles.
Because of fast growth, the Asian-American suburban population has spread to other areas of California's San Gabriel Valley and more recently to Irvine, where their share of the population jumped from 30 percent to 39 percent over the last decade.
"Irvine is one of the new wave of Asian communities, but it is not overtly Chinatown," said Ralph Lee, 28, of Irvine. Lee, whose immigrant parents reared him in the affluent seaside community of Newport Beach, Calif., has never been to the Los Angeles Chinatown.
Nationwide, about 62 percent of Asian-Americans in the nation's large metropolitan areas live in the suburbs, up from 54 percent in 1990 and the highest ever. Tied with Hispanics as the fastest-growing group, the nation's 4.4 million Asians are more likely than other minorities to live in the suburbs; only whites, at 78 percent, are higher.
Since 2000, nearly three-fourths of Asian population growth in the U.S. occurred in suburbs, many of them in the South.
"While the general image of Asians is associated with Chinatowns, Koreatowns or urban neighborhoods with Indian restaurants, the majority of all major Asian groups now live in the suburbs," said William H. Frey, a demographer at Brookings Institution, who reviewed the census data. "Suburban living is still the American dream for most minorities in the U.S. and a sign of 'making it,' and better schools are also a draw."
It wasn't always that way.
The first neighborhoods known as Chinatowns emerged in the 1800s during the Gold Rush and the building of railroads. After the work was done, a shortage of jobs led Congress to pass a law in 1882 banning the entry of new Chinese laborers. Seeking refuge, many Chinese in the U.S. avoided jobs that directly competed with white labor and opened laundries and restaurants in urban Chinatowns.
The neighborhoods prospered for much of the 20th century after the ban was lifted, before a loosening of federal immigration laws in 1965. That spurred waves of Asian immigrants in subsequent decades who filled existing Chinatowns and pushed new growth of communities elsewhere.
Today, lower-income immigrant families are now more apt to move to outer city areas in Flushing, Queens, or Sunset Park, Brooklyn, than New York's Chinatown, drawn by affordability and wider spaces. More immigrants, especially those who are affluent or hold college degrees, are heading straight to suburbs in the South including Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Texas, where high-tech or manufacturing jobs are in greater supply.
The shifting migration is spurring development of new mini-Chinatowns in the suburbs and South, typically large shopping malls where residents living in subdivisions miles away can get a day of cultural community at the hair salon, Dim Sum restaurant or Asian supermarket.
"The movement from big-city ethnic enclaves suggests that discrimination and other barriers to upward mobility have declined," said Daniel Lichter, a Cornell University sociology professor who is president of the nonprofit Population Association of America. Still, traditional Chinatowns aren't necessarily going away, he says, comparing them to pockets of "Little Italy" where Americans of all backgrounds now shop and eat.
"Chinatown may change from being strictly safe havens for new Asian immigrants to serving America's never-ending appetite for new cultural experiences," Lichter said.
In the Washington, D.C., metro area, which has a population of one-half million Asian-Americans, fewer than 500 Asians live in Chinatown, down from around 3,000 in 1970. Once a close-knit community of modest shops and rowhouses, it now has become known more for a sports arena, high-rise luxury apartments and national chains including Starbucks, Bed Bath & Beyond and Hooters.
The Chinese residents have scattered to large Asian communities in suburban Montgomery County, Md., and Fairfax County, Va. Many who remain are elderly and live in federally subsidized housing, taking vans several times a week to Great Wall, a Chinese supermarket in suburban Falls Church, Va., so they can buy groceries.
"I'm not going to deny that Chinatown is shrinking," said Soohyun "Julie" Koo, director of the district's Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, who lives blocks away and is advising the planners of next week's Chinese New Year parade. Parade organizers recently told a local paper they had decided in the Year of the Dragon — a symbol of power — that it was time to think big to attract sponsors and promote the neighborhood's heritage.
Shirley Woo, 62, a district native who now lives in Fairfax, Va., has been visiting Chinatown since childhood. Her Chinese immigrant parents owned a laundromat in the city and would socialize with friends and dine there. But outside Chinatown, their options were limited, and she remembers taking trips to New York to stock up on groceries and other staples.
Now, she said, her mother lives in Silver Spring, Md., and has several nearby options that serve authentic Cantonese cuisine.
"Most people don't go down there to eat anyway," Woo said. "You don't think of Chinatown as having the best Chinese food."