Bustling Chinatowns around the world

Pat Fama
Yahoo! Malaysia Editorial

Tens of millions of ethnically Chinese people live outside their ancestral homeland, everywhere from North America to South Africa. Many of them have gathered together in Chinatowns, some of them hundreds of years old, others much more recent. However different these Chinatowns are from each other, Chinese New Year is a shared celebration.


The area of Binondo in the Philippines capital has the distinction of being the oldest surviving Chinatown in the world. It was established by the Spanish colonial authorities in 1594, for Chinese converts to Catholicism. Many of these settlers married local women, and millions of Filipinos can claim some Chinese ancestry today.


From the early 17th century, the Dutch encouraged Chinese to settle in Jakarta (then known as Batavia). The resentment of the local Javanese grew ever greater, until it exploded in 1740 with the massacre of several thousand Chinese. Those who survived were forced to resettle outside the city walls, in an area called Glodok, which is now Indonesia’s largest Chinatown.


The Chinatown centred on Yaowarat Road can trace its history back to the founding of a new Thai capital in 1782, on the right bank of the Chao Praya River. It has been the centre of Chinese commercial activity in Thailand ever since. The ethnic-Chinese community is so well integrated that it can be hard to believe that it is the largest in South East Asia.


The island state is the only nation in the world outside China (Taiwan is not officially a country) to be majority Chinese. It may seem a bit odd therefore to have a Chinatown in Singapore. But the area’s designation goes back to British colonial times, when the different ethnic groups lived in separate communities.

San Francisco

The United States has many Chinatowns, but none is as old, or as iconic, as the one in San Francisco. From 1848, when the first Chinese immigrants arrived, to the present day, it has welcomed waves of settlers. The passing years have seen plenty of setbacks, from race riots to natural disasters, but San Francisco’s Chinatown has survived them all.


Although probably the best known Chinatown in Europe, Soho’s link to the Chinese community is a comparatively recent phenomenon, only starting in the early 1970s. The area is now filled with Chinese-run businesses, including dozens of restaurants. It has largely superseded London’s original Chinatown in the Limehouse district.


India’s last surviving Chinatown is in the capital of West Bengal, Kolkata. Chinese settlers began arriving in the city (then known as Calcutta) in the early 1800s, and eventually formed a community in the Tangra district. It’s thought about two thousand ethnic Chinese people still live in this Chinatown; just one tenth of the population at its height.


South Africa’s largest city - like much of Africa - has seen a huge influx of settlers from mainland China over recent years. Most of them have settled in the suburb of Cyrildene, making it one of the world’s fastest growing Chinatowns. Cyrildene has eclipsed an older Chinatown in Newton, which is inhabited by second and third generation immigrants.


Although the first Chinese settlers arrived in Jamaica in the 1840s as indentured labourers, within a few generations they had a formed a thriving Chinatown in Kingston. The area never really recovered from race riots in 1965, and although many Jamaicans have some Chinese ancestry, little now remains of the former Chinatown.

Buenos Aires

In geographical terms, the Argentine capital is almost as far as it is possible to get from Beijing, but this has not stopped Buenos Aires from having a vibrant, albeit small, Chinatown (Barrio Chino in Spanish). Located in the Belgrano district, it is mostly made up of first generation immigrants from Taiwan and the People’s Republic.