Travel writer Bonnie Tsui has wanted to write a book about Chinatowns for most of her life. After all, her grandparents settled in Manhattan’s Chinatown, from Hong Kong, in 1960, and though she spent much of her youth on Long Island, she was never far from Chinatown’s orbit.
But it wasn’t really until she started working as a travel journalist that the idea began to take hold. She discovered Chinatowns everywhere—in London and Paris, in Toronto, in Buenos Aires. Those neighborhoods became her initial point of entry to those cities. “I realized I had this pattern of behavior when traveling to a new city,” she says. “I was curious about the Chinese communities that had settled there.”
She found commonalities among the Chinatowns, yet each one also took on the characteristics of its host city. Tsui initially planned to write about Chinatowns around the world, but for her new book opted for a narrower focus. American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods chronicles Chinese communities in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu and … Las Vegas?
“I’d just been hearing about it as a community that had sprung up, and I was fascinated by the whole man-made aspect of it,” she says. “I wanted to see if it was a functioning community.”
It turns out that it is. Even a fast drive past the pagoda-studded strip malls along Spring Mountain reveals markets and travel shops, jewelers, art stores and a plethora of restaurants representing countries across Asia. At the Pacific Asian Plaza, Tsui “was astounded that everyone was speaking Chinese,” she says. “That’s not what I expected to find.” In other words, these weren’t second-generation immigrants with roots in, say, California, but immigrants direct from China.
Over the book’s final three chapters, Tsui explores the roots of Chinatown in Las Vegas—it was the dream of a California vegetable farmer-turned-developer named James Chen—along with the neighborhood’s fight for legitimacy and its growth as a community.
Food was essential to the success of the neighborhood. “By and large, I found people saying the food is really good there,” she says. “Food culture is usually that first entry point. Because it’s so important inside the culture, and you spend time with people that way. If you find a place that you like, you’re very loyal to it.” (The book recounts how Asian high rollers would forego the fancy restaurants on the Strip to get cheaper, better food in Chinatown.)
Future Chinatowns might actually look a lot like the Vegas model—master-planned developments designed from the ground up to appeal to immigrants, locals and tourists. But they will be dictated by the continued emergence of China itself as a global power. Future Chinese might conclude there are more opportunities at home than in the States—or they might decide that they no longer need Chinatown as an entry point into this country, choosing any number of so-called “ethnoburbs” instead … or, really, any neighborhood. Through the ’90s, the U.S. received more than 500,000 arrivals from China.
Tsui, who now lives in San Francisco, says she’s still enjoying the ride with this book and doesn’t know what her next project will be. Presumably, though, her travel habits are likely to include visits to Chinatowns when she finds them—whenever she sees a “familiar face in a foreign place, your urge is to connect.”