The 10 Most Authentic Chinatowns in the World

by Paul Joseph  |  Updated March 15, 2024

One of the characteristics shared by many cities is the presence of a vibrant ethnic enclave of Chinese people. We’ve cast our eye around the world and picked out the 10 most authentic urban Chinatowns.

Produce on display in a Vancouver Chinatown shopfront (Photo: GoToVan via Flickr / CC BY 2.0 DEED)

The history of Chinatowns dates back to the mid-19th century, when emigration from China to urban centres across the globe began to accelerate. Before long, pockets of Chinese communities began to form, each becoming home to shops, restaurants, markets and entertainment venues specialising in Chinese goods, produce and cultural output. Today they represent some of the most vibrant and colourful districts of the cities they inhabit, with tourists in particular gravitating towards Chinatowns in great numbers. Ranked from bottom to top in order of authenticity, here are the 10 most authentic Chinatowns the world has to offer

10. Vancouver

In recent years, Chinese investment and immigration from the Far East has served to change the face of Vancouver – for better or worse. But its history of opening its doors to Chinese arrivals dates much further, and its Chinatown district was actually established way back in 1885. The largest Chinatown anywhere in Canada, the district is centred around Pender Street, surrounded by Gastown and the Downtown Financial and Central Business Districts to the west and stretching for several blocks east. From Chinese herbs and spices to jade and silks, if it is Chinese in provenance then you’re almost certain to find it here. The specialist shops dotted along East Pender and Keefer streets are particularly popular, and other notable attractions include a Chinese Cultural Centre and the world’s narrowest commercial building at just 1.5 metres wide.

9. Bangkok

Bamboo hats for sale in Bangkok’s Chinatown (Photo: Pietro Motta via Flickr / CC BY 2.0 DEED)

To the untrained eye, the bustling city of Bangkok and its Chinatown district may appear one and the same – but the truth is a little more nuanced than that. One of the oldest areas of the city, dating back to 1757 when immigrants began arriving from southern China, the Thai capital’s Chinatown is awash with ornate Chinese shrines and traditional culinary offerings. Located mainly along Yaowarat road, the area is lined with aromatic food stalls and restaurants, along with several shops specialising in gold. Wherever you wander, you’ll find that the sights, smells and sounds create a sensory experience that is a match for anything the famously frenzied city has to offer. But it’s not all bric-a-brac and cuisine. Bangkok’s Chinatown is also home to numerous Taoist temples, including Wat Traimit, which holds a 5.5-ton solid gold Buddha statue – the world’s largest solid gold sculpture.

8. Manila

Manila’s Chinatown along Ongpin Street (Photo: David Stanley via Flickr / CC BY 2.0 DEED)

The history of trade between the Philippines and China is long-standing, and the establishment of Manila’s Chinatown spans almost as long a period. The cusp of the 17th century – 1594 to be precise – is when the district was founded, making it the oldest Chinatown in the world, and it has continued flourishing ever since. Located just across the Pasig River opposite the Spanish walled city of Intramuros, the area is known by a number of monikers reflecting its history and rich layers of meanings. To tourists, it is known simply as “Chinatown”, while to Filipinos the area is “Binondo”. However, when the Filipino Chinese communicate among themselves, they refer to the area as “Chi Lai”, meaning “inner city”. The key landmark that signals your arrival at Manila’s Chinatown is the Chinese Goodwill Arch, beyond which you will soon encounter myriad icons and institutions that we all associate with Chinatowns the world over, all the way down to the bilingual street signs.

7. Paris

(Photo: Wikipedia)

Located southeast of the 13th arrondissement, Paris’s Chinatown is known locally as the Asian Quarter (or Le Quartier Asiatique, to use the lingo). Home to a large community of around 50,000 residents of Asian heritage, there’s no doubting the authenticity of the huge variety of stores, restaurants, markets and other outlets selling Chinese-themed wares, including food, gaudy decorations, souvenirs, gadgets and much more. Bordered by Avenue d’Italie and Avenue d’Ivry, the area is also heaving with grocery stores, noodle bars, and tea rooms, while neon signs light window displays of succulent-looking Peking ducks, and the air is filled with the aroma of enticing spices and incense.

6. San Francisco

San Francisco’s bustling Chinatown (Photo: Andreas Wulff via Flickr / CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Spanning 24 square blocks, San Francisco’s Chinatown is second only to New York as being home to the largest Chinese community outside Asia. As you might expect given its size, the choice of things to see and buy is jaw-dropping, with everything from exotic emporia, temples, tea houses, restaurants, Chinese banks, schools, law offices, bookstores, laundries and factories all to be found here. The bulk of activity is centred around Grant Avenue, a large boulevard lined with stores and restaurants. Off of this avenue are the Broadway and Stockton Street, and spiralling from here, several tiny alleyways that make for pleasant casual strolls. For many, one of the highlights of San Fran’s Chinatown is a visit to the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company, creators of the famous American-Chinese sweets. Onlookers can watch as moist cookies are folded around slips of paper that mysteriously predict the future of customers – soon before being eagerly gobbled.

5. Singapore

A sculpture in Singapore’s Chinatown (Photo: _paVan_ via Flickr / CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Situated in the Outram district of Singapore, Chinatown is nestled between the imposing skyscrapers that characterise this small city-state off of southern Malaysia. Steeped in history and culture, large swathes have been designated as a national heritage site, meaning it has remained untouched for years. With its majority Chinese population, Singapore may seem an unlikely destination for a self-contained Chinatown, but it nonetheless remains home to its own bustling Chinese-dominated area comprising five separate districts, each with their own distinct Chinese identity. In Telok Ayer, located on the slopes of Ann Siang Hill, you’ll find picturesque places of worship, along with quirky shops, cafes and watering holes. Upscale Bukit Pasoh, meanwhile, is dotted with chic boutique hotels and fusion restaurants, as well as clan associations and cultural societies. Then there is Tanjong Pagar, a mish-mash of residential apartments, commercial buildings and nightspots. In Kreta Ayer, you’ll find heritage brands, street hawkers and eateries.

4. Toronto

A shopper peruses items in Toronto Chinatown store (Photo: vincelaconte via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Toronto’s Chinatown is split into six distinct areas, each featuring shops, restaurants, markets, and plenty more besides. Running west along Dundas Street and north on Spadina all the way up to College Street is the Canadian city’s original central Chinatown district, the largest and most popular, which teem with outlets that remain open late into the night. During the 1960s, this area also gave birth to other Chinatown districts, leading to the original Chinatown being demolished to make way for the new City Hall. Today an array of fruit and vegetable stands, Chinese herbalists and grocery stores can be found here. Festivities take place throughout the weekend, with all-comers welcome to watch traditional performances such as lion dances, or join Chinese arts and crafts workshops.

3. London

Giant lanterns light up the night sky over London’s Chinatown (Photo: Carolina Chiao via Flickr / CC BY 2.0 DEED)

With street names written in both English and Chinese and the tops of telephone boxes made to resemble Asian-style mini pagodas, London’s Chinatown pulls out all the stops to make everyone feel at home. It was back in the 1950s that the city’s Chinese community began to grow significantly, and it was following this mid-century influx that Chinatown was born, situated along Gerrard Street in the City of Westminster. Dining is the primary leisure activity of choice here, but there’s also an array of herbal and medicinal shops to browse. On weekends, a Chinese market draws large crowds, while Chinese New Year is celebrated in style with giant papier-mache lions parading through the streets.

2. Melbourne

A performance of the Dance of the Oriental Dragon in Melbourne’s Chinatown (Photo: a.canvas.of.light via Flickr / CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Following the discovery of gold in Australia, the mid-19th century saw swathes of Chinese immigrants descend on Melbourne, hoping to build a new life of prosperity. One of the first things they did was create a fraternal enclave where they could enjoy the kind of pursuits to which they had become accustomed back home. Whether it was feasting on authentic Chinese food, gambling or smoking opium, there was no doubt that the city was now home to its own small corner of China. Today Melbourne’s Chinatown has burgeoned, stretching between Swanston and Springs streets and with restaurants, bars, shops, arcades, noodle houses and grocery stores packed in cheek by jowl, many in their original low-rise brick buildings, retaining the area’s historic character and charm. But that’s not all. There’s also Chinese medicine and herbalist centres, bookstores, fashion boutiques and other retail outlets in arcades such as the Village Centre, The Target Centre and Paramount Plaza.

1. New York City

A street scene in New York’s Chinatown (Photo: Mobilus In Mobili via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

And finally we come to our choice for the world’s most authentic Chinatown. Most visitors to the sprawling New York’ district are caught out to learn that, once upon a time, the entire area encompassed a mere three city blocks. Today it spans around 40, and wandering through its maze like environs makes it easy to imagine you are in China itself, rather than the core of the Big Apple. Whether it’s early morning road sweepers or hedonists seeking after-dark fun, the district is a hive of activity from dusk till dawn. Many of New York’s Chinese residents also live here, and the homes, shops, restaurants and institutions cater not only to visitors, but people living their day-to-day lives.  Food, of course, is at the heart of the neighbourhood, and you can be certain that whatever is served up originated in a Chinese cookbook many thousands of miles away.