Blog Post Linda Coutant May 1, 2024

Preserving Chinatowns: How Many Are at Risk of Being Lost?

The National Park Service has said Asian American and Pacific Islander history is “dramatically underrepresented” among registered landmarks and historic places. NPCA and other groups are seeking to correct that.

Chinese Americans contributed greatly to the development of the U.S. in the 19th century — from the construction of the transcontinental railroad to development of the Northwest’s fishing industry to the mining of gold and coal.

But evidence of their communities and vibrant culture is disappearing. “There are sites we have not properly documented or paid attention to. The Chinese American or Asian American experience has been either purposely or accidently ignored, or made invisible,” said Ted Gong, executive director of 1882 Foundation, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C.

“That’s a common complaint among a lot of Chinese Americans and Asian Americans right now — our communities have been ignored and the history lost,” said Gong, whose group broadens public awareness of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which restricted Chinese immigration to the U.S.

That loss includes both urban and rural sites, which the 1882 Foundation, the National Park Service, NPCA and others are working to save.

Many urban Chinatowns with their traditional restaurants and shops have increasingly suffered from gentrification — development that fragments the neighborhood, drives up housing costs and harms cultural preservation. In 2023, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included Chinatowns in Seattle and Philadelphia in its “11 Most Endangered Historic Places” list — Seattle due to a proposed transit system expansion and Philadelphia for a proposed arena for the 76ers basketball team. See a map of 83 Chinatown communities the trust has identified as threatened.

Chinese Americans in traditional dress

Chinese American men and children in traditional dress on a street in Chinatown, San Francisco, sometime between 1896 and 1911.

camera icon Arnold Genthe/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

“When we talk about Chinatowns, urban Chinatowns become dominant… (but) there’s a whole range of Chinese history topics that are literally or figuratively buried. For historians trying to preserve the larger history, we can’t ignore the ghost towns, cemeteries or archaeological sites that represent communities that no longer exist,” Gong said.

It’s not just development that worries people. A 2021 fire in Hanford, California’s China Alley, for example, heavily damaged a 100-year-old Taoist Temple.

NPCA has been working with the 1882 Foundation to navigate the application process for preserving Chinese American cultural and historical sites.

A 2019 theme study by the National Park Service identified buildings, structures, sites, objects and districts associated with Asian American-Pacific Islander history that communities may want to apply for designation as either National Historic Landmarks, places that tell stories important to the history of the nation, or the National Register of Historic Places, a larger listing of historic properties considered worthy of preservation.

The study’s editors wrote at the time that it was “manifestly evident that the histories and heritages of AAPIs are dramatically underrepresented” in these lists.

Among sites the 1882 Foundation has nominated for National Historic Landmark status is the 1.6-mile-long Summit Tunnel in California that cuts through the Sierra Nevada Mountains as part of the transcontinental railroad. Chinese immigrants with picks and axes built 90% of the tunnel, which many people consider an engineering marvel. As many as 500 to 1,000 Chinese workers died in the process. The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the tunnel, located in what’s now Tahoe National Forest, as “at risk” in 2021 due to irreparable damage from vandalism.

Last May, the 1882 Foundation organized a meeting of civic leaders, landscape architects and others that focused on the future of urban Chinatowns.

Chinese American girls in NYC, 1965

Four Chinese American girls carry ice skates in New York’s Chinatown in 1965.

camera icon New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection/Library of Congress

This June 18-21, the organization will host a Rural Chinatowns and Hidden Sites Conference in Salt Lake City for scholars and preservation professionals to highlight their research and keep up the dialogue about an often overlooked culture that played important roles in U.S. history.

The purpose of the June conference, Gong said, is “to talk about those forgotten places.”

Terrace, Utah, for example, formed as a Chinese community of railroad workers in 1869, and most of the town burned in a 1903 fire. Archaeologists have found ceramics, leather shoes and remnants of wooden houses. Chinese immigrants also settled in the Midwest and small towns in the Mississippi Delta. Initially drawn to the South to pick cotton after the end of slavery, they opened community grocery stores and filled an unmet need: serving Black customers during segregation. Most of these groceries closed over time, and the families blended into the larger community.

Other Chinese communities have maintained their identifies, at least to some degree. Below is a sampling of urban and rural sites already on the registered landmarks and historic places lists that park enthusiasts may want to visit. The National Park Service highlights more places, too, that tell the stories of Asian American Pacific Islanders.

1. Locke Historic District – California

The Locke Historic District is the largest, most complete example of a rural, agricultural Chinese American community in the U.S., according to the Park Service. Immigrants from China’s Guangdong province built the town in 1915 in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It is located about 30 minutes from Sacramento.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1970, it is the only town in the United States built exclusively by Chinese Americans for Chinese Americans.

Locke Historic District

Locke, an unincorporated community in the Sacramento/San Joaqin River Delta in California. 

camera icon The Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Several Chinese businessmen started Locke after a 1915 fire devastated the Chinese community in Walnut Grove, about a mile south. Although some people still live in Locke, the town is largely vacant yet preserved by the Locke Foundation. Must-sees include the Locke Boarding House Museum and Visitors’ Center, the Chinese School Museum, and the Dai Loy Gambling House Museum in the building that drew weekend crowds during the Prohibition era.

2. Walnut Grove – California

Founded in 1851 as a steamer stop on the Sacramento River, Walnut Grove developed a community of Chinese immigrants in the 1870s. Chinese businessmen created a prosperous commercial and social center for the hundreds of Chinese, Japanese and Filipino agricultural workers.

Walnut Grove Chinese Historic District was almost completely rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1937, one of two in the early 1900s, making it the last Chinese American commercial district built in an agricultural community in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Visitors can see 19 buildings from the rebuilding of Chinatown, as well as two buildings that survived the 1937 fire: a residence constructed in the 1920s and a cafe constructed in 1916. The historic district is on the National Register of Historic Places.

3. Chinatown - Washington, D.C.

The capital city’s Chinatown, with its iconic “Friendship Arch” on H Street between 7th and 6th streets, reflects a mix of residences, restaurants, theaters, office buildings and stores. The neighborhood formed in the 1930s after city development displaced residents from the original Chinatown that formed in the 1880s along the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue between John Marshall Way and 7th Street, NW.

The “new” Chinatown took over some of the city’s oldest pre-Civil War buildings with flat or sloped roofs, some of which can still be seen under the Chinese facades. Chinatown thrived into the 1970s with businesses, schools, churches and residences, but the city’s expanding development pushed many residents into suburban areas.

Chinatown is on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the city’s larger Downtown Historic District.

4. New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District – Portland, Oregon

Located near the Willamette River, this district constitutes Portland’s original Japanese community and its second Chinatown. The original Chinatown developed in the 1850s on land deemed undesirable by European Americans of the time, and fires and floods gradually forced businesses and residents to relocate on more suitable land. Japanese immigrants began to arrive in the 1890s. Together, the communities flourished into the early 1940s.

Revitalized in the 1970s and 1980s, the New Chinatown/Japantown Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places and features bilingual street signs, ornamental streetlights, banners and Chinese businesses and restaurants. A large traditional Chinese Gate with stone lions marks the entrance at NW 4th Avenue and NW Burnside Street. Interesting landmarks include Lan Su Chinese Garden, considered the most authentic Chinese garden outside of China.

5. Seattle Chinatown Historic District – Washington State

Seattle Chinatown Historic District’s residential and commercial neighborhood includes one of the largest groups of intact pre-World War II buildings in the city. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the district formed in the early 20th century from previous iterations that became uprooted by fire, city development and interstate construction.

Seattle Chinatown buildings

A mural in Seattle’s Chinatown Historic District.

camera icon Visit Seattle/Rudy Willingham

The Chinatown Gate, featuring 8,000 ceramic tiles, represents the resilience and determination of immigrants drawn to the region’s bustling 19th-century lumber mills, fishing operations and railroads. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, immigrants from Japan and the Philippines arrived. Next came African American servicemembers who moved into Chinatown’s abandoned houses after the U.S. government interred people of Japanese descent.

Visitors can learn more about the community’s history and culture at the Wing Luke Museum. Chinatown’s annual Lunar New Year Celebration, Dragon Fest and Summer Night Market draw large crowds each year.

6. Chinatown and Little Italy Historic District – New York City

In downtown New York City, Chinatown developed in the 1870s around Mott Street south of Canal Street. As in other U.S. cities, the first arrivals to Chinatown were single men or those who planned to bring their families later. Immigrants modified downtown’s existing buildings to Chinese architectural styles. The first Chinese-speaking theater east of San Francisco opened here in 1893 in a Doyers Street building now occupied by Chinese Tuxedo restaurant.

Residents successfully fought an urban renewal plan in the 1950s that threatened to replace Chinatown’s businesses and homes with high-rise housing. Continued immigration in the 20th century expanded Chinatown’s boundaries, and by 1980, New York had the largest Chinese community in the U.S. Neighboring Little Italy slowly shrank as residents moved to suburbs, allowing Chinatown to expand. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the district continues to grow as both a tourist attraction and home to most of New York’s Chinese population.

7. Chinatown Historic District – Honolulu, Hawaii

Chinatown Historic District is the largest area in downtown Honolulu that reflects a historic sense of time and place. Most of the buildings date between 1900 and 1920, due to 17-day fire that destroyed most of Chinatown in late 1899.

Chinese and Japanese American Red Cross workers

Japanese and Chinese Red Cross workers in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1918.

camera icon American National Red Cross photograph collection/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Established near Honolulu Harbor, the district served Chinese laborers recruited for the whaling industry and sugar plantations during the mid-1800s. Businesses in Chinatown boomed and became the second-largest employer of Chinese immigrants. Chinatown’s wooden structures were crowded and unsanitary. The 1899 fire began as a series of controlled burns to destroy buildings affected by a bubonic plague outbreak, but it blazed out of control and destroyed 38 acres. Although no one died, more than 4,000 people became homeless.

Residents rebuilt the community, but population shifts and economic downturns led to a long, slow decline. Once added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, the district began to revitalize. Today, Honolulu’s Chinatown thrives again as commercial district.

Chinatown connections to national heritage areas

Some of these Chinatowns are within national heritage areas — nationally significant landscapes preserved through innovative partnerships between the National Park Service and businesses, citizen groups, municipalities and other stakeholders.

The Locke Historic District and Walnut Grove Chinese Historic District are part of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta National Heritage Area, while Seattle Chinatown-International District is in Mountains to Sound Greenway National Heritage Area and immediately adjacent (and culturally connected) to Maritime Washington National Heritage Area.

NPCA partners with national heritage areas and advocates for their continued congressional funding so they can sustain locally managed preservation efforts and promote tourism.

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About the author

  • Linda Coutant Staff Writer

    As staff writer on the Communications team, Linda Coutant manages the Park Advocate blog and coordinates the monthly Park Notes e-newsletter distributed to NPCA’s members and supporters.

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