How a new generation is revitalising the Chinatowns of Manhattan, London and San Francisco

Chinatowns emerged as symbolic cultural enclaves; a way to retain identity in a hostile world. But as Chinese communities gradually assimilated, their need to seek out a cultural one-stop shop lessened. No longer a refuge from persecution, nor the seedy underbelly of society, Chinatowns settled with a somewhat unfair reputation as tired and tacky; somewhere to find cheap Chinese food or kitsch souvenirs. Floating in an identity limbo, Chinatowns have been caught between two cultures.

But more recently, Chinatowns across the world have found themselves in a simmering hotpot of change.

The transformation is most evident in an explosion of flavour. Traditional family-run restaurants, started by first waves of mainly Cantonese immigrants, jostle against new upstarts that reflect the diversification of the Chinese diaspora. The changing flavour of Chinatown has also been impacted by numerous Mainland Chinese students and business travellers, as well as a widening appreciation for authentic, regional food. Now, foodies flock to restaurants specialising in provincial cuisines like Sichuan, Shaanxi or Hunan, as well as the food of Singapore and Malaysia, while the unstoppable influence of Korean culture has launched a thousand fried chicken shops.

In San Francisco, George Chen opened upmarket food hall China Live in 2017. ‘It’s time to get out of this “hole in the wall” syndrome that Chinese food is only good in dirty, cheap places,’ he says. His dining-retail hybrid serves nearly 1,000 guests per day – from passers-by grabbing fresh Shanghainese shengjianbao to high-end customers booking the exclusive Eight Tables private dining experience. ‘Asians are always curious about ethnic success in America. And the wealthy traveller always thinks Chinese food in America stinks – we are changing that perception,’ he says.

It’s not just new competition that challenges the old-guard restaurants. Tougher immigration policies complicate hiring skilled Cantonese chefs from Asia. Survival requires adaptation: simpler menus like hotpot, buffet or street food concepts return higher margins; restaurant investors prefer to back youth trends such as baos and bubble teas.- Cathay Pacific Discovery (02.13.20)