I’ve never stepped foot in China, but sometimes I feel like I’ve come pretty close! I’ve sampled wonton soup on Kuala Lumpur’s Petaling street, browsed in Chinese antique shops in San Francisco, and spent lazy afternoons feasting on hot homemade pork dumplings at Vanessa’s Dumpling House in NYC’s Lower East Side. Fragments of China seem to be everywhere, and Chinatowns all over the world allow people to experience some of China without leaving home. If you’re an adventure seeker in between trips, a visit to a nearby Chinatown may be the perfect fix. You can dine on authentic dim sum, stock up on traditional Chinese medicines and learn a thing or two by checking out Asian supermarkets. The authentic Chinese culture, fun foods and exotic surroundings will leave you wondering if you’re really still at home. And if you’re actually in China? Don’t worry, there’s a Chinatown in Shanghai too!
What’s so cool about Chinatown?
Authenticity: Chinatowns didn’t just appear for the purposes of selling inexpensive Chinese food. The ethnic enclaves were established as Chinese immigrants settled around the world, forming communities that reminded them of home. In the case of American Chinatowns, it was the wave of Chinese immigrant laborers and traders arriving to work the gold fields or construct the Central Pacific Railroad that laid the foundations for today’s Chinese districts. How to spot an entrance? Look for the large decorative arches, which in many cases were donations from China in support of cultural renaissance. Many shophouses, restaurants and apartments remain unchanged from their original construction. Combining local architecture with Chinese influence, the old buildings themselves encourage plenty of photo ops! In addition to chowing down traditional noodles and peking duck, check out cultural tours, which reveal some of the more hidden treasures. You can find food tours, bike tours and walking tours in most of them. SpiceRoads cycle tours organizes a fabulous jaunt around Bangkok’s Yaowarat Rd that shouldn’t be missed!
Shopping: Chinatowns are famous for having everything, especially things you never thought you needed. Whether window shopping through gigantic wholesale markets or herbal mom and pop shops, you’ll learn more about Chinese culture this way than you’d expect. You may learn a little more than you bargained for, as many Chinese shops have been known to harvest rare or endangered species for more traditional remedies. Vancouver and Toronto have actually cracked down on Chinatown shops after finding tiger bone, bear paw and even bear bladder in the medicine cabinet. You can expect copious amounts of incense, herbal teas, cooking supplies, animal parts, fresh flowers and, really anything else you could imagine. Happy shopping!
Food: Edible treats are the real treasures of these ethnic enclaves. Most Chinatown eateries are incredibly affordable, and serve up delectable family recipes.
Unlike more mainstream Chinese restaurants, food stalls and shophouses in Chinatowns aren’t usually altered to cater to Western tastes. If you’re feeling especially daring, there’s plenty of exotic things on the menu – tripe, cobra infused whiskey, and pig snouts, to name a few! I’m new to authentic Chinese food, but here is a list of my new favorites you can find in Chinese neighborhoods around the world:
Dim sum (traditional bite sized dishes – great for beginners!)
Beijing roasted duck (peking duck)
Beef noodle soup
Hainese chicken with rice
Fujian thick soup, or geng
With my inevitable arrival to the US looming, I’m comforted to know that a piece of Asia will never be too far away. What Chinatowns do you think are the best? What about favorite foods? Share your Chinatown experiences below!