I could say that my nostalgia for the past is what spurs me to seek out Chinatown wherever I go, but I think that's only part of it. I don't go there for the same reasons my grandparents did; I grew up around the fringes of the neighborhood, and the insularity and security of their community never existed for me. They sought out Chinatown for the comfort of a place where people still spoke the same language they did, where they could simply feel at ease. In a still-strange country, it was a sort of homecoming. Hong Kong and China were places I would travel to, not from.
Though it's nice every once in a while to hear Cantonese and eat food that I know well—rice porridge and egg custard when I want to be reminded of my mom, soy sauce chicken when I think of my grandfather—my fascination with Chinatowns around the globe has more to do with being able to see how other Chinese communities integrate. In the thriving Chinatowns of Boston, San Francisco, and Vancouver, I find unlikely intersections of the new and the familiar. Recently, I heard about the emergence of a modern breed of Chinatown in Las Vegas's exurban sprawl—the master-planned "Chinatown Plaza" shopping mall as destination. A 21st-century enterprise that seems far from its roots, it apparently manages to maintain some of the intimate qualities of the traditional immigrant neighborhood. Chinese residents drive in from miles around to buy fresh produce at an oversize Asian supermarket, gossip at the hair salon, and browse in the only Chinese bookstore in Nevada.
I've never been to Vegas, but when I do go, you'll find me at the mall.
BONNIE TSUI is a former editor at Travel + Leisure. She is writing a book about Chinatowns around the world.