Are All Chinatowns Dirty?

October 5, 2007

San Francisco does, as does Boston, DC, and London, as far as I can tell. New York City's Chinatown takes the grand-ol'-seething-cesspool-of-stink cake for sure.

So what's the problem? Is it city oversight? Is it the sheer number of shoppers looking for those $0.89 bags of bok choy or Haw Flakes every day? Or is related the the 'broken windows' theory - if you see a piece of trash on the ground, are you less likely to want to keep the place clean yourself?

This is particularly baffling considering that Chinese families tend to keep their houses crazy clean (see: leaving your shoes by the door) and are particularly fastidious about cleaning their chopsticks, plates, and cups before eating at restaurants. I've also heard that Asians tend to like "clean" smells when it comes to perfumes and scents, more than other races.

So what gives? Any ideas?

And, related: do Asian Americans feel obligated to visit Chinatowns when traveling?


Lisa Wong Macabasco

Former Editor in chief

Lisa Wong Macabasco joined Hyphen in 2006; she has worked as the magazine's features editor, managing editor, and editor in chief. She has written for Mother Jones, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, AsianWeek, Audrey, Filipinas and ColorLines’ RaceWire. She graduated from U.C. Berkeley and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and co-founded the National Asian American Student Conference. She was formerly an editor at AsianWeek newspaper and an editor in the marketing department of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.



Well, I live in China and there's same thing over here. It's seems to be a matter of apathy to conditions and/or events outside of the home/family unit.
i always go to NYC's Chinatown when i'm there. funny, i never really thought it was dirty. but then again, i used to live in Berkeley - now i notice how dirty it is, back when i lived there i didn't. i guess i had a higher tolerance for grime.i think places that are densely populated/overcrowded tend to be dirtier because there's more people, thus more trash. i dunno, is that too simplistic? i mean, Chinatowns are not just residential, they're a mix of housing/businesses/organizations/services and lots of other stuff. it could also be that Chinatowns are neglected when it comes to street cleaning, etc. (i don't know if this is true, though).anyway, i love visiting Chinatowns, even if it means i get pushed around by old ladies.
I think Chinatowns has to be dirty. Personally, I think it's great. It has a lot to do with the fundamentals of colonialism. People in Chinatown are trying to recreate their piece of home to intimidate the natives (whites) before taking over. It's only a matter of time before we go bullistic on them with sewage cannons. It's going to be sweet.The notion that chinese families have "Clean Homes" is subjective, because although some homes are indeed extremely clean, others are incredibily dishevelled. Remember, Chinese families have more of a tendencey to collect junk and find creative ways to re-use them (We are environmentally friendly). For example, if my dad need to cardboards and scrap newspapers to patch up the holes he made in the walls after a drunken rampage, he'd go to chinatown and look. Remember, although Chinatown has a lot of junk, these junk somehow end up back in a lot of our homes.Relax, Chinatown and its people will always be Chinese. They will not be influenced and they will not be moved.
That's odd- I was just in Vancouver Chinatown a couple weeks ago and I've been going to Vancouver almost every year since I was about six and I remember distinctly that walking down the street there one year I thought to myself how clean it was. That around when I lived in the mid-Atlantic and went to NYC (and its respective Chinatown) and Baltimore somewhat regularly so I thought Vancouver in general was much cleaner than most cities I'd been in.
In the picture that is displayed, the city appears very clean. Cities are not exactly the cleanest places in the world, anywhere. All that HC residue sticks to the buildings. Is this another self hater looking for justifying their dislike for Asians in general? If you want a pristine lily white place to go to, you have to get dirty, meaning you have to go to the sticks. Anywhere that people live has dirt. We take the water we drink from the same river we dump our sewage into. Every city does this. Yes, even the white ones.
The Chinatown in Melbourne, Australia is effectively ONE STREET and it's filthy. Much worse than all the surrounding ones.
Compared to some parts of the cities, I'd say that in my experience the Chinatowns of Oakland, SF and NYC have their own different characters of uncleanliness (the collections of junk/reused refuse, as Junkie pointed out), but there are definitely parts of each city that are dirtier than their respective Chinatown.I wouldn't say I have a tendency to visit other cities' Chinatowns, but traveling with family often requires it and traveling along often means cheap which naturally points to areas like Chinatowns.
Methinks Mason is a little defensive and insecure. Pointing out the cleanliness or lack-there-of in Chinatowns isn't really an indictment against the residents by a "self-hater," especially since what we're talking about is the public face. Sure, maybe in some posh gated community in the suburbs, the residents are pretty much 100% responsible for how the streets look, but in any area of a major city, especially those with numerous businesses, its up to both the community and the municipal government to keep things clean. So an insecure, self-hating Asian might look at an article that says "Chinatowns seem dirty" and respond "ZOMG! Why is this guy talking trash about us!", a reader with better critical thinking skills might think, "Hrm, do the residents keep it this way for some reason? Or maybe the city is neglecting these areas because of their own prejudices? Or maybe something else entirely."So really, many of the problems with the Asian American community are probably because of people like Mason--with too much pride to draw attention to anything that might tarnish the community image, they go out of their way to cover up all sorts of mistreatment, injustice, or discrimination, because whether your a perpetrator or a victim, you lose face. And if you ask for help in redressing these problems, you lose more face. But I guess that applies to a lot of groups. Until the Holocaust, the Jewish community was incredibly stoic about accepting the discrimination they suffered for generations, and nothing changed until the finally pushed back. Female on male domestic violence still gets little attention, and remains a big problem, because most men would rather keep be beaten than go to the police for protection from his wife.
Lisamac, have you had many a sleepless nights over this question! For some guidance, you need to go back in time. Your observations are on the right track.Our fore fathers (many trying to escape the poverty in the far east) were in search of new riches in the western world, and for a place that felt like 'home' (though, go to Hong Kong and you won't find streets lined with cheap tacky gates at the end of each street), a community had to be established where the rent was mega cheap yet close to the work, hence the inner city. Cue cramped streets, a high density of people (where restaurant workers would also live above the premises) and probably the highest concentration of restaurants and supermarkets than any other community, hence the inevitable street hygiene issues.These are probably two of the most package and waste by-product intensive consumer service industries you can think of (and alot of the food is imported, so the boxes gather a lot of dust in the freight liners), and unless you pay a private waste disposal contractor, you're unlikely to get your municipal council/government to collect your waste everyday! And with the limited space, you're not going to keep the waste indoors, who does? So the waste sits (overnight) outside on the streets in containers, and the smell will linger. I'd imagine the sewage system isn't that great in many Chinatowns by virtue of their location (the sewers are probably over a century old, small and close to the surface) so I would say a lot of the 'cess-pool-of-stink' comes from that and the waste (eg, NYC, but isn’t the sewer problem endemic across NYC generally?). From my experience of London’s Chinatown, I think it’s more to do with the time of day – pre and post waste collection. San Francisco’s Chinatown I don’t recall being particularly dirty. What inner city street isn’t?Having mentioned 'cheap rents' I wish my ancestors acquired a lot of real estate in each of the UK’s biggest Chinatowns a few hundred years ago. For London's community, set in the heart of the famous West End (tourist hotspot), the properties are literally worth their weight in gold. Lisa mentions about Asian’s houses being clean - the restaurants and shops are generally clean, but the local businessmen probably don’t think the street is their problem.As for being obligated to visit Chinatown, no it's not, it's more a sense of experiencing familiarity, and tiring of burgers and fries!