Changing Demographics, Changing Chinatowns

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As the demographics of our societies change, so too does the structure and look of our cities.  The needs of an aging population, for example, are leading cities to think about ‘age friendly cities’ that will reshape the infrastructure of cities and help seniors live safely and stay involved in their communities. Similarly, the Millennial population have shown an affinity for living in the central city, reshaping transportation options in favor of public transit and active commuting choices as they do so.

The look and structure of older immigrant neighborhoods also face challenges as the demographics of the immigrant group, along with those of the broader society change. The urban geography literature showcases multiple examples of how different immigrant groups define and redefine the spaces that they occupy, with each group leaving their own imprint. In my community of Hamilton, Ontario, the evolution of particular parts of the city’s character can be traced through different immigrant groups, from a predominately white Anglo-Saxon group, to Portuguese and Italian arrivals in the 1950s and 1960s, to Vietnamese arrivals in the 1970s, and more recent arrivals from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and South America. Each group leaves their impression on the same street or creates identifiable communities elsewhere in the city. The same process is seen over and over again throughout North American cities.

But some immigrant communities are more visible than others, with changing demographics having a potentially greater impact on their form and function. Take the notion of ‘Chinatowns’, a visible part of the downtown in many large North American cities. Many traditional Chinatowns are grappling with the rise of suburban Chinatowns, reflecting the shifting demographics of where the Chinese community lives – new suburban spaces or older and more crowded downtown locations. New arrivals also often bypass traditional Chinatowns, preferring to settle in suburban areas, given an inability to afford the higher rents in downtown locations.

The loss of population, along with aging infrastructure and buildings, puts pressure on the Chinatown community. Given their age and often central location, Chinatowns are faced with redevelopment pressures as developers move to build new condo towers that appeal to those that want to live downtown, but that do not necessarily respect the cultural history. Given years of movement out of Chinatowns and an aging population, the other challenge faced by these areas is how to attract new residents and to grow the population while maintaining, as the Globe and Mail calls it, their ‘Chineseness’. Doing so is not easy, with tensions between newcomers and those that have lived in the area for an extended period of time, new immigrants versus older immigrants, Asian versus non-Asian residents, differences in income levels and occupations, or those that have different visions of what the area was or could be.  Over-arching these tensions is the historical and heritage aspect of the community, given the often distinctive architecture, shops, restaurants, and reason for the establishment of Chinatowns.

For Chinatowns, and other immigrant communities, their longevity may ultimately be transient. But change is a given, although their loss – if this ultimately happens – will change the look and feel of the urban fabric of countless cities.

Further Reading:

Francis Bula, Chinatown grapples with change, The Globe and Mail, 9 June 2017. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/canadas-chinatowns-grapple-with-new-development-changingdemographics/article35279032/chinatown-199871_1920

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