Colonia Incognita: The Formation of Chinatown, New York City, 1850-1890

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The genesis of ethnic areas in cities is attributed to the process of residential concentration. For the Chinese experience in New York, however, the emergence of Chinatown occurred through the concentration of institutions. A rapid influx of Chinese into this northern industrial city followed by an occupational specialization in laundries – the coterminous place of work and residence – resulted in their widespread distribution. This spatial pattern prevented a residential concentration of the Chinese, who possessed a great cultural variance from the indigenous population. The migrational objective of returning to China with their accumulated earnings gave rise to the sojourning nature of Chinese migrants and its attendant detached status of migration without wives or families. These conditions generated a desire among the migrants to preserve their cultural identity, incurring a heavy reliance on things Chinese. In response, Chinatown had formed by 1880. Initially, a concentration of service and social institutions which fulfilled the socio-cultural needs of the dispersed Chinese population, Chinatown eventually became the basis for Chinese residential concentration.