Once-teeming Chinatowns in decline across country

The coming of the Chinese New Year in Baltimore was announced this year by a tattered lion dancing in what was once known as Baltimore's Chinatown.

The old lion's head - made of papier-mache and now held together by tape - looked much like its surroundings: faded colors, frayed edges with a general appearance of deterioration.


"Chinatown isn't what it used to be," explained the lion's owner Arthur Lee after 10 minutes of dancing in front of a small crowd, which consisted mostly of bewildered white parishioners from an Episcopal church.

Chinatown once stretched for what was then more than two blocks along Park Avenue, between Saratoga and Mulberry streets. The neighborhood served for more than a century as the commercial and social hub for Baltimore's Chinese population. Today, all that remains is a cramped grocery store and a restaurant in the 300 block of Park Ave.


All over the country, Chinatowns are in decline, hit hard by redevelopment, the changing lifestyles of a younger generation and the migration of most Chinese populations to the suburbs.

The last standing structure from New Orleans' once-flourishing Chinese district was authorized this year for demolition. Soon, the district's only remnants will be jazz songs like "Who'll Chop Your Suey (When I'm Gone?)."

In San Francisco, many parts of Chinatown now serve mostly as tourist attractions. In Los Angeles, the Chinatown made famous by Jack Nicholson in the 1970s is largely ignored by immigrants who head instead for the ever-expanding San Gabriel Valley.

The reasons behind America's waning Chinatowns are complex and rooted in history. But the most important cause is the movement of Chinese-Americans to the suburbs.

Once restricted by discriminatory laws and practices, Chinese-Americans are now pursuing good schools for their children in the suburbs and jobs in the mainstream labor market that were once closed to them, said Min Zhou, author of Chinatown: The Socioeconomic Potential of an Urban Enclave.

"Even the newer immigrants today are more diverse," said Zhou, chairwoman of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Many are suburbanized upon arrival because they have the resources and skills. They don't need a Chinatown to survive anymore."

There is also an economic component to the decline. When most Chinatowns began, they were formed on what was then the city's edge, said Peter Kwong, an Asian-American studies professor at Hunter College in New York.

"Now the same area is considered part of downtown, and the real estate value is so expensive you can't just have a small-time restaurant serving only Chinese anymore," he said.


Faced with this dilemma, Chinatowns in many cities have shifted their focus to attracting tourists.

"But once you do that, there's no reason for Chinese to live in the area anymore," Kwong said. "It's not authentic and doesn't cater to them."

The first Chinatowns began on the West Coast in the mid-1800s as the gold rush and the need for cheap labor to complete the transcontinental railroad brought in droves of Chinese workers.

When the economy soured, so did life for the Chinese laborers who witnessed anti-Chinese riots and the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which banned further immigration of Chinese workers.

With those conditions as backdrop, Chinatowns were born out of necessity.

"Chinese were excluded by law from participating in larger society, so they formed their own communities," Zhou said. "Many were undocumented. They needed an enclave to protect them."


Seeking to escape the hostility in the West, some journeyed eastward.

Chinese arriving in Baltimore eked out a peaceful existence here due in part to their small numbers.

"They were considered white for some purposes but non-white for others," said Taunya Banks, a professor at University of Maryland School of Law.

Even during the 1950s and 1960s - in a city largely divided by racial politics - Chinese children attended Baltimore's white public schools. Jobs, however, were mostly limited to hand-wash laundries and restaurants.

All the while, Baltimore's Chinatown served as the focal point for Chinese residents, even though they lived scattered throughout the city.

Fay Chen Lee's family owned one of a number of Chinese laundries on Harlem Avenue. Now 53, Lee remembers playing with her sisters as kids underneath thin wooden laundry tables as her family pressed and starched.


"We all helped out in the family business," she said. The work was hard and the income low, but every year the family would look forward to the Chinese New Year celebration.

Over the years, the festival became bigger and more elaborate as the population grew. There were firecrackers, lion dances, kung fu demonstrations, Chinese songs and dancing and even fashion shows. Some years, as many as 200 people would crowd Park Avenue for the festivities.

When mechanization put most hand-wash laundries out of business in the 1950s and '60s, Fay Lee's family began a Chinese carryout, then a Chinese grocery store.

Finally, when they had saved enough money, Lee's family, like many others, moved out of the city and into the suburbs.

"My parents had better aspirations for their kids," Lee said. "That's the American dream, right? They wanted us to go to good schools and get good grades."

According to U.S. Census figures, the turning point came in 1980 when, for the first time, the number of Chinese in Baltimore County outnumbered those in living in the city.


The same trend in other cities - migration of Chinese to the suburbs - has led to the creation of "new Chinatowns." Chinese in the San Francisco region now flock to Richmond, Calif. In Los Angeles, they go to Monterey Park and the San Gabriel Valley. In Washington, many have clustered around Rockville. In New York, two more Chinatowns have sprung up in boroughs around the original community in Manhattan.

In the Baltimore region, however, no such new community has emerged (though some generically Asian shopping centers have sprung up in Howard and Baltimore counties).

But even as Baltimore's Chinatown has disappeared, several Chinese from the city's oldest families have kept the Chinese New Year's celebration alive.

Since the 1950s, one woman in particular, Lillian Kim, has served as a driving force and advocate for the waning community.

"She was a one-woman powerhouse," said Arthur Lee, who organized this year's bare-bones celebration in February. "If she wanted something done, it got done."

A City Hall secretary for three of Baltimore's mayors, she organized tirelessly for Chinatown events, calling in favors from politicians, businessmen and residents.


Streets were closed off for the Chinese New Year festival. A bounty of delicacies was brought in. U.S. senators, mayors and other politicians dutifully attended the annual dinners.

In later years as the community began to dwindle, Kim researched and wrote a 494-page book, Early Baltimore Chinese Families, a history of the disappearing Chinese community.

Kim died in September at age 85, and with her, many believe, went the last of Chinatown's vitality. Now those of the older generation wonder whether anything will remain.

This year, only a week before Chinese New Year, Lee, 49, realized no one was planning to hold the annual celebration Kim had always organized at Grace & St. Peters Episcopal Church, near old Chinatown. So he made a few calls, dug out his tattered lion head and once again made the journey from his Towson home to Park Avenue.

The lion dance performed outside the church went well, if brief. Afterward, looking down a street with boarded-up storefronts and closed businesses, Lee talked about his childhood memories of Chinese New Year. He has performed the lion dance since age 6.

Now, four decades later, Lee picked up the worn-out lion head. "It's kind of falling apart," he said, turning it over in his hands.


Then waving his hand to include himself, the handful of Chinese observers and the street that used to be Chinatown, he said, "It all comes down to the same problem - we're getting old. We'll continue the traditions as much as possible, but I don't know how much longer that will be."