With a history that dates back more than 5,000 years ago, it’s no wonder that China’s culture is so rich and diverse. There is so much to learn about this massive country that serves as the home to over a billion people. Travelers who have been to China can keep coming back for years on end and still be amazed to discover new things they didn’t know about the country before. But let’s face it, not all of us who want to pack our bags and schlep them to China can actually afford it. Fortunately for there rest of mankind, the Chinese held on tight to their culture so much so that wherever they went, they made sure that they will maintain their traditions and maintain their distinct identity.
Lots of countries nowadays have their own mini Chinatown where you can see, hear, and taste everything Chinese. In the air, you can smell the hot broth emanating from the noodle shops; or drool over the roast duck hanging behind restaurant windows, their skin glistening from all that oil and fat. There’s a prevalence of red and gold in the community, and signs are posted in two languages. Come to think of it, a lot of people begin to speak in a different language, and suddenly you don’t understand what’s being said in the conversation you’re eavesdropping on.
For those who can’t afford plane tickets but want a taste of Chinese culture, here are a couple of Chinatowns you might like to visit if you happen to be in the area. If by chance you plan on going on a short trip in February, you can visit any of these colorful places and join them in ushering in another year as they celebrate Chinese New Year.
CANADA – TORONTO
Malaysia may have two, but get this—the city of Toronto in Canada has seven Chinatowns to choose from. If you’re Canadian and you recently discovered you’re of Chinese descent, visiting all seven of them would be a good way to tap into those roots. You can celebrate the Chinese in you by going to Chinatown and immersing yourself in everything Chinese. The main Chinatown in Toronto was established about half a century ago way back in the 1960s.
Around the 1980s, the Chinese community occupying Canada’s Grater Toronto Area moved their settlement and migrated to different suburbs in Scarborough, Richmond Hill, North York, Missisauga, and Markham. Here, you will find shopping malls much like the ones in the bustling island of Hong Kong. For those who prefer to haggle their way and appreciate a good bargain, street stalls are also present offering almost everything from clothes to shoes to accessories and stuff for your home such as porcelain figurines, clocks, pillowcases, etc.
UNITED STATES – NEW YORK
The first Chinese residents to occupy New York arrived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This was around the latter part of the 19th century, in an attempt to escape from the discrimination that they experienced in the West Coast. By the time the 1980s rolled around, Manhattan’s Chinatown has grown so large that it overshadowed the one in San Francisco, which was previously known as the largest Chinatown established outside of Asia. Follow Mott Street long enough and you will come across a hole in the wall that sells the best bowl of beef brisket noodle soup in town. Even on a bitter winter night, one sip of this broth is enough to provide warmth from your lips all the way down to your toes.
Aside from the one in Manhattan, New York has other Chinatowns scattered all over the five boroughs. In Queens, you can make your way to Elmhurst or perhaps Flushing, which was the home of the ever famous and always fabulous Nanny Fine. It’s interesting to note that the Chinatown in Flushing has managed to surpass the one in Manhattan when in comes to size. If you happen to be in Brooklyn, you can visit Avenue U or you can also go to 8th Avenue.
The entire area occupied by this country measures only about 700 kilometers. If you think about it, that’s actually smaller than some Asian cities. But interestingly enough, this tiny island is home to different cultures including Chinese. With the onset of globalization, Singapore has now become highly westernized, and on a tour around the city, travelers will find familiar names and images they’re used to back home.
The Chinatown in Singapore used to be the hub for the first settlers in the island that originated from China. There are actually a number of Asian neighborhoods in Singapore, and Chinatown is one of the more distinct towns. If you’re interested in learning about the people who dared the odds and set out for a place that was entirely new to them, you can pop by the Heritage Center. For those whose main food groups include candy, pizza and chips, you might want to saunter over to the Food Street and introduce your palate to a whole new world of gastronomic delights. From the common dishes such as fried rice, to the more bizarre snacks like chicken feet, Food Street has them all.
At the Night Market, an assortment of items is made available to visitors who wish to shop from lucky charms to jewelry, and even Chinese pajamas embroidered with bamboo designs. These places all help in preserving China’s heritage despite the fact that a lot of Chinese people made the decision to live abroad.
In contrast to the modern landscape in this up and coming country, Chinatown offers a more historical backdrop, with old buildings that serve as relics of years that have gone by.
AUSTRALIA – MELBOURNE
If you’re thinking that all you’ll find in the land down under are kangaroos hopping around in the outback, you’re sorely mistaken. Melbourne is actually home to the oldest ever Chinatown that you will find in the whole world. According to records, this town was established over 150 years ago, back in 1854, during the time of the Victorian Gold Rush.
If you’re particularly fond of dragons, you’re in luck because you can view the longest Chinese dragon in the world right here. The Millenium Dai Loong Dragon is so long, it actually has a hundred dragon legs. Every year, it takes 200 people join together to wake the Millenium Dai Loong Dragon in time for the celebrations and march him down the street during the parade on Chinese New Year.
MALAYSIA – KUALA LUMPUR
Malaysia’s capital actually rose to become a busy city with the help of some Chinese settlers around 160 years ago, during the 1850s. Chinese tin miners made their way to Malaysia and founded the city that could eventually be the country’s capital. The previous jungle settlement transformed into a center for the country’s mining industry for tin that has flourished and remains strong until today. Even now, the Chinese continue to play a dominant role in the different ethnic groups in Malaysia; they also have control of quite a large share of the loot in Malaysia’s commerce.
If you’re ever in Malaysia, ask around on how to get to Jalan Petaling and you’ll find yourself smack in the middle of Chinatown. If they give you directions on how to get to Jalan Petaling, don’t worry because you’ll wind up in the same place. Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown enjoys a high popularity among food lovers and of course, shoppers. The many food stalls set up in the area offer delectable treats, some of which may not be familiar to western travelers who are visiting Asia for the first time.
Shopping at the night market is simply a joy. If you plan on cooking your own Chinese dish, you can come here and stock up on some fresh produce that can sustain you for the next couple of days. Missed that recent movie because you were sick in bed? Don’t worry, for a couple of bucks, you can get a copy of it from the stalls selling counterfeit DVDs. Other shops sell Rolexes that won’t burn a hole in your pocket (a closer look might reveal it to be a Folex, but who’s gonna know?). For the ladies, you can get that crocodile skin purse for half the price than it normally would if you know how to haggle. Or if you want a new outfit, where else would you go but here?
UNITED STATES – SAN FRANCISCO
Every year, San Francisco hosts a tripped out parade during the New Year. The celebration is held not only to open a new chapter in their lives, but also to attract good luck and good fortune for the year to come. The whole shindig which started around a century and a half ago back in the 1860s, and is considered to be the biggest celebration of Asian culture held outside of Asia. On Chinese New Year, the entire place is filled with music, dancing, food and best of all, good company.
For those who might think that going to Chinatown will land them in some tacky, hyped tourist trap, there is something worthwhile here that travelers can appreciate. For one thing, San Francisco’s Chinatown has a pretty significant role in history. Some years back, this became the refuge of Sun Yat Sen when he was in exile. Those in the literary world can walk the streets of San Francisco and imagine what it was like for writer Amy Tan while she was growing up.
For those who are looking for something fun and unique to try while they’re here, they can walk to Grant Street and check out the tea demonstration. If you enjoyed the experience, you can even shop for some tea afterwards. Here, you can buy some leaves which you can take home and brew in a pot, or you can have some prepared at the store so you can continue on your walk while sipping a cup of Jasmine or Oolong.
MALAYSIA – GEORGETOWN, PENANG
The Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur isn’t the only one that you will find in Malaysia. If you travel to the western coast of the country and make your way to Georgetown in Penang, you’ll find another Chinatown that is also keeps Chinese culture very much alive in these places. Stepping into Penang’s Chinatown, one would definitely get the impression they’re actually in China and not just an area Malaysia. This is one of the biggest Chinatowns that you can visit the world over, not to mention it is also one of the best preserved. Walking down the street, you’re enveloped in various sights and also sounds that remind you of those small cities in China.
A lot of the residents that you will meet here are actually descendants of the Chinese immigrants that came to Penang way back in the colonial era. These immigrants made a living through buying and selling; some of them were traders while others worked as shopkeepers. What’s amazing is that a lot of the original shops constructed back then still stand today, completely intact. What started out as small earnings for these traders and also shopkeepers eventually became big fortunes that benefited later generations.
CANADA – VANCOUVER
We’re back in Canada, and for all the Canadians out there who’ve been longing to go to Hong Kong but are hindered by the oceans of water in between, you might as well settle for the Chinatown in Vancouver because there’s simply nowhere else that comes close. As a testament to this fact, many people have even dubbed this place Hongcouver. In the past years that led to the handover of Hong Kong to China back in 1997, lots of wealthy Chinese immigrants settled in Vancouver. Chinese tourists in Vancouver can even test Mayor Sam Sullivan’s proficiency in Cantonese.
Compared to the Chinatowns you can find in other countries, the one in Vancouver has a more recent history, one that was established around the early part of the 20th century. Other settlers who just recently arrived made their way to Richmond. This suburb is home to some a number of Chinese restaurants that offer delicious, mouth watering dishes that you will remember for days on end. In fact, others consider these restaurants to be the best ones you will find that are outside Hong Kong.
You can also step into a Chinese drugstore and stare in awe at the assortment of herbs on the shelves.
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