Gentrification in Chinatown: The Commercialization of Chinese New Year

Valerie Wu, Managing Editor

Chinese New Year has long been a tradition among many Asian and Asian American communities in the United States. Its importance lies in its nature as a celebration that commemorates heritage and culture.

Yet for many communities in Chinatowns across the United States, gentrification — the urban reconstruction and replacement of an area’s original residents with an influx of more affluent white inhabitants — has affected the way Chinese New Year is celebrated on a national scale.

According to US Census Data from 2010, the original population of Chinatown in New Year has decreased by 9 percent. The same shift in racial and economic demographics is happening in Chinatowns across the United States, including the ones in Boston, San Francisco, and D.C. among others.

The result is that lower-income Chinese families are displaced by landlords, who prefer to rent to more affluent professionals, many of whom are neither Chinese nor immigrant. These effects are most visible in the commercialization of Chinese New Year.

Rising costs provide the platform for high-end businesses to open up in Chinatown. The majority of these businesses aim to profit off of Chinatown’s ethnic culture. Thus, they primarily cater to foreign tourists as a natural consequence of the neighborhood’s changes in racial composition.

Chinatown has become an ethnic theme park, with Chinese New Year as the prime example of these urban and socioeconomic implications for the community.

The impact of gentrification is most evident in the changing scene of Chinatown cuisine. The days of inexpensive food for the new year are gone. Family-owned restaurants are succeeded by an abundance of high-end dining, much of which is not affordable for the area’s older residents.

In Manhattan’s Chinatown, Mott Street’s iconic traditional Chinese cafes are now home to Ali Baba Organic Market. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, the once 1,500-square-foot storefront of Man Hing Ivory & Imports owned by Eddie Au, a member of Chinatown’s older generation, now occupies only 600 square feet.

According to the New York Times, Au is currently selling his inventory on eBay.

Chinese New Year has gradually lost its significance as a family-oriented tradition and has evolved to become a vehicle for financial profit. According to Asian Australian blogger Mabel Kuong, the festival is meant to emphasize cultural memory, rather than encourage frivolous spending and consumerism.

Elements of Chinese New Year are exploited in the many advertisements of Chinatown’s offerings and culture. The Chinese New Year promotion deals offered by established brand-name companies are an example of the season’s commodification.

The contrived image of multiculturalism only depicts the changes Chinatown has seen in the past decade. Lion dances and Chinese New Year gift shops obscure the plights of working-class Asian Americans, who are being driven out by high costs and the privatization of public spaces.

For many neighborhoods, gentrification has created a Chinese New Year that exists for commercial gain. Chinese New Year is hypersexualized as exotic, which leads to the narrative that Chinatown is an ethnic enclave that can be conquered and controlled.

Urban changes have cultural effects. Yet, what gentrification demonstrates is that it is more essential than ever to preserve the history, thus ensuring that Chinatown and Chinese New Year will remain as not only a platform for ethnic unity, but also a celebration of homeland culture that is most authentic to its heritage.