Route 66

Route 66

Route 66 is commonly known as few different names, from Will Rogers Highway, The Main Street of America to the Mother Road, each identifies the famous stretch of highway that extends from Chicago, Illinois through Santa Monica, California. Along the way, the route weaves its way through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

By Adam Naddsy

Photo credit: Adam Naddsy

When people think of Route 66, it often brings up memories and images of mom-and-pop shops that are a representative of uncomplicated times. Even today, many of the stores, motels, gas stations, cafes, parks, trading posts, bridges and roads are still standing along Route 66, available for people to experience the past and reminisce about old times.

People doing business along the route were thriving due to the growing popularity of the highway, and those same people later fought to keep the highway alive in the face of the growing threat of being sidestepped by the new Interstate Highway System.

The Gold Rush, The Model T & The Need For A Paved Road

Before Route 66 was even a thought, America was expanding and began to grow westward.  People were curious and wanted to know what was beyond the land that was right in front of them. There were vast unexplored lands beyond the Mississippi River and the American people’s imaginations ran wild with ideas of possibilities. There were no established trails yet, except the ones the mountain men blazed themselves as they followed the beaver along the traces left by the Native Americans.

By Bill Swingle

The introduction of the automobile changed the face of America forever. The arrival of Ford’s Model T in 1908 had a dramatic effect on the American populace, as automobiles became accessible to the common person. The automobile provided a new economic base that was the first of its kind. Now Americans started to travel. They were no longer confined to the short distances that a horse could travel in a day. Journeys that would take many days on horseback or wagon now took a mere few hours.


There is a sense of freedom that Route 66 provided to its earliest travelers and for others a sense of nostalgia. The “Super-highway,” as it was thought of in 1926, represented extraordinary freedom to travel across the American West. Cyrus Avery from Tulsa, Oklahoma was a realtor and owner of a coal company who began acquiring oil leases.  With the oil leases, it became essential to reach the desolate lands around him and the need for a roadway linking the Midwest to the western lands.

By Pete Zarria

Bell Gas, the other way in Tulsa. Photo credit: Pete Zarria.

Connecting cities along the path soon became a reality. Together with John Woodruff, an entrepreneur from Springfield, Missouri, these two envisioned this magnificent idea of linking Chicago to Los Angeles and began lobbying efforts to promote the new highway and bring prosperity to Tulsa as well as other points west.

U.S. 66 was first signed into law in 1927 as one of the original U.S. Highways, however it was not completely paved for another eleven years in 1938. Despite their efforts in composing this new highway, the depression came and halted all efforts to finish Route 66. It wasn’t until 1933 when the depression lifted, that thousands of unemployed men began working on paving the road again. Road gangs paved the final stretches of the road as well. While other East/West highways existed at the time, most followed a linear course, excluding the rural communities that depended upon transportation for farm products and other goods.

Avery was unyielding that the route had a round number. He proposed number 60 to identify it, but Kentucky delegates who wanted a Virginia Beach, Virginia to Los Angeles highway to be called 60, already claimed this route number. Avery ended up settling on 66, which had not yet been assigned.  Avery thought the double-digit number would be easy to remember and pleasant to say and hear.

The Dust Bowl

Traffic on the highway began to grow due to the geography it passed.  Much of the highway was basically flat, which made it popular among truckers driving through the states.  Additionally, the Dust Bowl in the 1930s brought about many farming families. They mainly came from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and Texas, heading west for agricultural jobs in California.

The Dust Bowl, also known as the Dirty Thirties, was a period of brutal dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the US and Canadian prairies during the 1930s; severe drought and a failure to apply dryland farming methods to prevent wind erosion, caused the phenomenon. The drought came in three waves, 1934, 1936, and 1939–40, but some regions of the High Plains experienced drought conditions for as many as eight years.

During the drought of the 1930s, the unanchored soil turned to dust, which the prevailing winds blew away in huge clouds that sometimes blackened the sky. These choking billows of dust, named “black blizzards” or “black rollers,” traveled cross-country, reaching as far as such East Coastt cities as New York City and Washington, D.C. On the Plains, they often reduced visibility to 1 meter (3.3 ft) or less.

The drought and erosion of the Dust Bowl affected 100,000,000 acres that centered on the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and touched adjacent sections of New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas.  The Dust Bowl forced tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms. Many of these families, who were often known derogatorily as “Okies” or “Arkies.” migrated to California.

Route 66 was the main road traveled during this time.  During the depression, it also gave relief to communities located along the highway.  The route passed through various small towns and, with the growing traffic on the highway, helped create the rise of mom-and-pop shops, such as service stations, restaurants and motor courts, which were all readily accessible to passing drivers.

Stories Of Route 66

Route 66 is filled with stories along each step of the road. However, one type of story that seems to prevail throughout Route 66 is the ghost story. There’s a fair share of haunted hotels, ghosts lurking in restaurants, and a few that simply seem to prefer to take a leisurely walk down old Route 66.

Haunted Luna Mansion In New Mexico

Although the Luna-Otero mansion is often know for its delicious steaks, hot chili, and great desserts, it is also known for its resident ghosts lurking about the Mansion. The marriages of Solomon Luna to Adelaida Otero, and Manuel A. Otero to Eloisa Luna in the late 1800’s united these two families into what became known as the Luna-Otero Dynasty.  They occupied the mansion until the Santa Fe Railroad wanted a right-of-way through the Luna property in 1880, the projected railroad tracks were planned directly through the Luna estate. In order to gain their right-of-way, the railroad agreed to build a new home for Antonio Jose Luna and his family.

By Graham Tiller

Luna-Otero Mansion Los Lunas, New Mexico. Photo credit: Graham Tiller.

When older generations died, the house was left in the hands of the remaining family members.  In the early 1900s control passed to Soloman’s nephew, Eduardo Otero. In the 1920s numerous improvements to the mansion were made, including the addition of a solarium, a front portico, and ironwork that bordered the entire property.  Eduardo’s wife, Josefita, also known as “Pepe,” was mainly responsible for these numerous efforts. Josefita fondly spent her days caring for her beautiful gardens and improving her fine home.

The mansion was eventually bought and renovated into a fine dining restaurant in the 1970s.  At that time, the ghost of josefita began to appear.  There are a couple of theories why.  The first is that she didn’t like the renovations.  Another theory is that maybe she wanted to hang around to make sure the new owners were doing a fine job on the home that she had spent so many years looking after.  She was often seen dressed in 1920s period clothing and either walking up and down the stairs or sitting in a rocking chair slowly rocking back and forth as well as in two former bedrooms.  It has been known that when one spirit appears another one often follows.  There have been reports of other ghosts residing in the mansion as well.

Suicide Bridge In Pasadena

The grand 1913 Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena, California not only amazed early travelers crossing this path, but also soon took on a more disturbing tone when people began to jump from the 150 foot bridge to their death. Within a decade of being built, locals had begun to call it the “Suicide Bridge.”  This also brought about tales that the bridge was haunted by those ill-fated souls.

By Cody R

Suicide Bridge in Pasadena, CA. Photo credit: Cody R.

The beautiful concrete bridge extends 1,467 feet across the Arroyo Seco and is known for its Beaux Arts arches, ornate lamp posts and railings.  When engineer John Drake Mercereau conceived the idea of curving the bridge, he created a work of art.

The first tragedy on the bridge occurred before construction was even completed. The first suicide occurred on November 16, 1919 and was followed by multiple others, especially during the Great Depression.  It is estimated that more than 100 people took their lives leaping the 150 feet into the arroyo below over the years.  One suicide, which was supposed to be a murder suicide, occurred on November 16, 1937.  When a down on her luck, hopeless mother decided to throw her baby off of the bridge, she then leaped off as well.  Miraculously, the baby was inadvertently thrown into nearby trees and survived.

According to the sagas, multiple spirits are said to roam the bridge itself as well as the arroyo below. Others have heard baffling cries coming from the canyon. One report tells of phantom man that is often seen wandering the bridge donning wire rimmed glasses. Other people have claimed to see a woman in a long flowing robe before vanishing as she throws herself off the side. The Colorado Street Bridge was part of Route 66 until 1940 when the Arroyo Seco Parkway opened.

The Trail of Tears

After the Indian Removal Actof 1830, tens of thousands of Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw Indians were driven from their homelands in the southeast United States to reservations in Oklahoma. They suffered from exposure, disease and starvation. Thousands died, which gave the name to their path, the “Trail of Tears” One man who lived near Jerome, Missouri, did not forget the Indians suffering. He spent years building them a tribute along Route 66.

By J Stephen Conn

Trail of Tears Historical Marker. Photo credit: J Stephen Conn.

One man, Larry Baggett, an eccentric elderly gentleman who lived just outside of Jerome along old Route 66, would often be woken up in the middle of the night from a knock on his door.  However, when he would get up to answer, no one would be there.  An old Cherokee Indian, who looked approximately 150 years old, visited Larry. The old Indian told Baggett that his house was built on the Trail of Tears and it was blocking the path.

The Indian explained how they were made to walk hundreds of miles and how the Cherokee had camped right near Larry’s home. Larry had already built a stone wall adjacent to his house before meeting the Cherokee man, but when they met, the Indian told him to put stairs there because the spirits were unable to get over the wall. Larry built those stairs to nowhere and when they were complete, the knocking stopped.  Baggett originally acquired the property with the intention of building a campground, but these plans were changed when his wife died. Instead he built a tribute to the Trail of Tears.  Locals and tourists remained intrigued about this monument along Route 66.

 Route 66 & Pop Culture

Although Missouri was the birthplace of Route 66, Oklahoma is probably the most famed location on the entire route.  There are many pop culture references that are set on Route 66 or events or stories that take place there.  For instance, n 1928, Oklahoma native Andrew Hartley Payne brought dignity to the state by winning the “Bunion Derby,” which is a 3,400-mile race from Los Angeles to New York that extended through much of Route 66. Oklahoma possesses the longest section of the original Route 66, which equals about 400 miles.

Additionally, several of the road’s most renowned travelers came from the state, including Woody Guthrie, Will Rogers and the fictional Joad family from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which gave the route its most recognized nickname. “66 is the mother road,” Steinbeck wrote, “the road of flight.”

By Alaina BuzasThere were also numerous songs dedicated to the famous Route 66. Bobby Troup’s song Route 66, which was recorded by Nat King Cole, the Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode and several others, advised, “Won’t you get hip to this timely tip/ When you make that California trip/ Get your kicks on Route 66.”  There was also the television series on CBS from 1960 to 1964 entitled, Route 66. The show followed Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) and Buz Murdock (George Maharis) on their job-hunting travels across America in their Corvette convertible.

Jack Kerouac also wrote of Route 66.  The main character, Sal Paradise, in his book On The Road, briefly traveled on Route 66 where it intersects Route 6 in Illinois, the road served as a symbol for members of the Beat Generation. Kerouac describes “the beatest characters in the country” swarming the sidewalks in Los Angeles. Among them, Kerouac notes, were the “longhaired brokendown hipsters straight off Route 66 from New York.

There are several other pop culture references as well.  For instance, in the film, “Rainman,” much of it was shot along Route 66 in Oklahoma with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman.  Super 8 Hotel in El Reno, room 117 was preserved because the director, Barry Levinson filmed scenes of both Cruise and Hoffman there.  Additionally, “Cadillac Ranch,” a song from Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” LP, was inspired by the roadside attraction near Amarillo, Texas.  Famous actors, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their honeymoon in the Oatman Hotel in Oatman, Ariz., on Route 66. It’s now a museum.

The Decline Of Route 66

Although the cultural and symbolic significance of Route 66 grew in the 1950s and 1960s, its physical presence began to fade. The “Family Vacation” started as a new American phenomenon in the 1950’s. Route 66 became a destination unto itself. With its caverns and caves, scenic mountains, beautiful canyons and sparkling deserts being heavily promoted by the U.S. 66 Highway Association, Route 66 became the ultimate road trip.

Cavern Inn Along Route 66; Peach Springs, AZ. Photo by El-toro

Cavern Inn Along Route 66; Peach Springs, AZ. Photo credit: El-Toro.

Oklahoma was the first state to deal the route its first official deathblow. In 1953, the Turner Turnpike (I-44) between Tulsa and Oklahoma City opened, bypassing 100 miles of the legendary Mother Road. Other states followed in Oklahoma’s footsteps, while the federal government’s new four-lane, straight-as-an-arrow interstate system gobbled up section after section.

The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 allotted funds for 41,000 miles of freeway to accommodate the exponential increase in automobile traffic. Since Route 66 forged an efficient, direct path from the Midwest to the west coast, Interstate 40 directly paralleled it through most of the Southwest, rendering most stretches of the older highway obsolete. The residents and businesses along Route 66 felt the effects of I-40 immediately.

One woman, Mirna Delgadillo, daughter of Route 66 barber Angel Delgadillo, recounted what happened in Seligman, Arizona.  She said, “Before the bypass, crossing the street was like taking your life into your hands, because there was so much traffic. And then after the bypass happened, we could lay in the street for hours and not worry about getting run over. Literally from one day to the next it went from being alive to being dead.”  Small towns whose economies had flourished on Route 66 tourism lost the majority of their customers overnight; many businesses were forced to close or relocate nearer to an I-40 interchange.

By Avi Dolgin

Grants, New Mexico. Photo credit: Avi Dolgin.

On October 13, 1984, the outdated, poorly maintained remnants of U.S. Highway 66 fully surrendered to the interstate system when Interstate 40 at Williams, Arizona, circumvented the final section of the original road.  The route was “replaced” by Interstates 55, 44, 40, 15 and 10.  However, in response to the deep need to preserve the rich resources of the historic highway, Congress passed an act to create the Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. The National Park Service administered the program, which collaborated with private property owners; non-profit organizations; and local, state, federal, and tribal governments to identify, prioritize, and address Route 66 preservation needs.

Chinatowns Of The World

Chinatowns Of The World

Chinatowns are located all around the world, from the Americas to Europe as well as Africa, Australia and Asia. These areas are historically known as any ethnic enclave of expatriate Chinese, Macanese, Taiwanese and Hong Kongese.

Spring Blossoms

Chinatown and Spring Blossoms Vancouver Island. Photo credit: Nick Kenrick.

It’s a district of any non-Chinese town, especially a city or seaport, where the population is primarily of Chinese origin. However, this definition has been challenged because some of these “Chinatowns” include pan-Asian, which could signify they might also be regarded as Korea town or Little India.

Binondo -The World’s First Chinatown

The oldest Chinatown in the world, established in 1594, belongs to Binondo, an enclave in Manila mainly populated by ethnic Chinese living in the Philippines. Historically, this was where the Spanish permitted converted sangleys, which is an archaic term used in the Philippines to describe and classify a person of pure Chinese ancestry, while mestizo de sangley was used to refer to a person of mixed Chinese and indigenous ancestry.

Binodo is located across the Pasig River from Intramuros. Binodo has symbolised a small Chinese town and is classified as the local “China Town.” The district is the center of commerce and trade for all types of businesses run by Filipino-Chinese merchants. Binodo was created by Spanish Govevernor, Luis Perez Dasmarinas, as a permanent settlement for Chinese immigrants who converted to Catholocism. The Spanish gave a land grant for Binodo to a group of Chinese merchants and artisans infinitely, tax-free and with limited self-governing privileges. If Chinese immigrants did not convert to Catholocism, they were expelled or killed. This is also the reason the Chinese mestizo population of Binodo grew swiftly.

BinodoToday, the Manila Chinatown is a blend of Chinese, Fillipino and Spanish cultures. Besides eating in Chinatown, the turnover of business here is most likely greater than anywhere else in the Philippines.

Chinatown Beginnings

In Southeast Asia, trading centers were primarily inhabited by Chinese men and their native spouses, which had long existed here. With the signing of the Treaty of Peking in 1860, it opened the border for free movement and emigration to other parts of the world increased rapidly in the 1860s. Many of the first emigrants came predominately from the coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian in southeastern China, where Cantonese, Hakka, Teochew and Hokkien were mainly spoken. As conditions in China have improved in recent decades, many Chinatowns have lost their initial mission, which was to provide a transitional place into a new culture. As a great portion of migration gradually decreased, the smaller Chinatowns have slowly decomposed, many times to the point of simply remaining a historical site and no longer serving as a place for ethnic territories.

Besides the Binodo Chinatown in Manila, there are other Asian Chinatowns that have a long history, which include Nagasaki, Japan and Hoi An in central Vietnam. These existed in 1600.  There is also Glodok, the Chinese quarter of Jakarta, Indonesia, which originated in 1740 as well as the Chinatown centered on Yaowarat Road in Bangkok, Thailand, which was established in 1782 and coincided with the founding of the city as well.

Chinese Migration

Millions of Chinese left their home country in the past to go and live abroad. Many of them set off to other countries out of economic necessity. In earlier centuries, the Chinese abroad were treated badly and seen as cheap workers. They had jobs in farming, as cooks on ships or as harbor workers. In the US, thousands of Chinese assisted in building the railroads that span the continent today. However, in previous times, the United States and other countries limited the number of Chinese who could enter the country.

Chinatown- Clay Street

Chinatown – Clay Street, San Francisco. Photo credit: Moments For Zen.

In the mid 1840s, China experienced a chain of natural disasters across the country. These resulted in famine, peasant uprisings and rebellions. At the same time, news spread to the Chinese of gold and opportunity in America. Many Chinese took this opportunity to migrate to the United States.

In 1850, when the Chinese settled in San Francisco, their work ethic was initially acknowledged by Mayor John W. Geary who held a ceremony for who he referred to as the “China Boys.”  They had superior farm laboring skills and developed laundry businesses. They were also skilled in the restaurant business, fishing and shrimping industries as well as leather goods manufacturing. However, as soon as these new business flourished, they weren’t always welcomed with open arms and in times of a weak economy, the Chinese labor force became a threat to mainstream society. They faced problems such as racial discrimination and repressive legislation, which inevitably drove the Chinese from the gold mines to a sanctuary where they were embraced for who they were. This neighborhood became known as Chinatown.

The Chinese were also denied several rights. They were prohibited by law to testify in court, to own property, to vote, to have families join them and to marry non-Chinese and to work in institutional agencies. In spite of these odds, the Chinese managed to persevere and create a vibrant, flourishing community of their own in what is known as “Chinatown.”

Notable Chinatowns Of The World

New York, New York

Due to the job slump in San Francisco, many Chinese were driven east to New York. Faced with increasing racial discrimination and new laws, which prevented participation in many occupations on the West Coast, some Chinese immigrants moved to the East Coast cities in search of employment. Early businesses in these cities included hand laundries and restaurants. Chinatown started on Mott, Park (now Mosco), Pell, and Doyers Streets, east of the notorious Five Points district. By 1870, there was a Chinese population of 200. By the time the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed, the population was up to 2,000 residents.

chinatown New York

New York City Street Scene Chinatown. Photo credit: Steven Pisano.

By 1900, there were 7,000 Chinese residents, but fewer than 200 Chinese women. New York is known as America’s largest Chinese community of over 150,000 people. Due to New York’s cramped nature, the Chinese were needed for their laundering skills. The first Chinese person noted to permanently immigrate here was Ah Ken in the 1840s; As a Cantonese businessman, Ah Ken eventually founded a successful cigar store on Park Row. Later immigrants would similarly find work as “cigar men” or carrying billboards, and Ah Ken’s particular success encouraged cigar makers William Longford, John Occoo, and John Ava to also carry out their trade in Chinatown, eventually forming a monopoly on the cigar trade. It has been speculated that it may have been Ah Ken who kept a small boarding house on lower Mott Street and rented out bunks to the first Chinese immigrants to arrive in Chinatown. It was with the profits he earned as a landlord, earning an average of $100 a month, that he was able to open his Park Row smoke shop around which modern-day Chinatown would grow.

By 1880, the growing enclave in the Five Points slums on the southeast side of New York was home to between 200 and 1,100 Chinese. A few members of a group of Chinese illegally smuggled into New Jersey in the late 1870s to work in a hand laundry and soon made the move to New York, sparking an explosion of Chinese hand laundries.

The Chinese Exclusion Act, from 1882 to 1943, was the only non-wartime federal law, which excluded a community based on nationality.  It was a reaction to rising anti-Chinese sentiment. This resentment was largely a result of the willingness of the Chinese to work for much less money under a great deal of worse conditions than the white laborers and the unwillingness to “assimilate properly”. The law forbade naturalization by any Chinese person already in the United States; bars the immigration of any Chinese not given a special work permit deeming him a merchant, student, or diplomat; and, most horrifically, prohibits the immigration of the wives and children of Chinese laborers living in the United States. The Exclusion Act grew more and more restrictive over the next decades, and was finally lifted during World War II, only when an extreme racist law against a wartime ally became a flawed option.

Today, Chinatown in New York, located on the lower east side in Manhattan, is the largest Chinatown in the United States. It also contains the largest concentration of Chinese in the western hemisphere. By the 1980s, it had surpassed San Francisco. However, in the last several years, it has been trumped by the lesser-known but larger community in nearby Flushing, Queens, New York.

Lima, Peru

Horoscopo Chino

Horoscopo Chino Lima, Peru. Photo credit: Sebastien A.

Lima, Peru boasts a Chinatown, often referred to locally as Barrio chino. It is centered on two blocks -the seventh and eighth- of Jirón Ucayali in downtown, a stretch almost unanimously referred to as Calle Capón, a name gained during the Spanish Colonial period as it was the location of the market for castrated pigs. In the 1850s, Chinese immigrants started to cluster in the area around the Central Market, then called La Concepción. The consolidation of an ethnic Chinese neighborhood was spurred by the presence, from the 1860s, of large commercial houses established by Chinese import companies from Hong Kong and California, such as the Wing Fat Co., the Wo Chong Co., or the Wing On Chong Co.

Within a brief time Chinese immigrants had established a number of Benevolent Societies and temples, often according to place of origin. For example, the Ku Kong Chao Association was established in 1868 by immigrants from rural Guangdong, the Pun Yui Society by Cantonese immigrants in 1887, and the Tungshin Society in 1898 by Hakka immigrants. The Chinese Central Benevolent Society, or Tonghui Chongkoc, was formed in 1882 to provide members with myriad services from legal counseling to burial insurance, and the establishment of a Chinese school.

Potrero Barrio Chino

Potrero Barrio Chino. Photo credit: Run Dont Walk.

Although there was a period of looting from Chilean military during the War of the Pacific that left the area in economic disarray, there were some large businesses that managed to survive. The neighborhood became a target of critiques by the Lima elites intent on cleaning up the city and of mobs incited by political candidates and racist stereotypes. In 1909 the government demolished part of the quarter, and the neighborhood was again attacked during the labor riots of 1918.

The 20th Century brought about a condensed Chinatown but it still retained its distinctive character. The overcrowding made this an ideal location for pickpockets and cut purses. Since the 1970s, along with this physical renovation, the rescinding of the ban on Chinese immigration contributed to a demographic and cultural renewal of the barrio chino as well. Like Chinatowns in other countries, Lima’s Chinatown is also a source of Chinese ingredients and a focal point of Chinese cuisine. There are over 6000 Chinese restaurants in Lima, called “chifas”, and some of the most prominent and respected of these are located in Chinatown.

Havana, Cuba

Havana’s Chinatown is Latin America’s oldest Chinatown. At one point, it was even the largest in Latin America. Due to the diminishing African slave trade after England’s abolition of slavery in 1833 and the decline of slavery in the United States, a labor shortage in Cuba led plantation owners to seek out workers elsewhere.

Havana Chinatown

Havana’s Chinatown. Photo credit: Andrea Williams.

Chinese immigration to Cuba began in 1847 when Chinese (Cantonese and Hakka) contract workers were brought to work in the sugar fields, bringing the religion of Buddhism with them. They were often referred to as coolies, a label that was used to refer to a person from Asia, particularly if they were from Southern China, the Indian subcontinent, the Philippines or Indonesia.  Hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers were brought in from China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan during the following decades to replace and sometimes work alongside African slaves.

The Chinese had strong reasons for wanting to leave China behind. China emerged as the labor source following deep social turmoil after the First and Second Opium Wars. Changes in the farming system, a spike in population growth, political dissatisfaction, natural disasters, banditry, and ethnic friction, (especially in southern China) led many farmers and peasants to leave China and look for work abroad.

About 120,000 Chinese male coolies entered Cuba under contract for eight years. Most were not married, but there was frequent sexual activity between black women and Chinese coolies.  The free Chinese practiced buying slave women and freeing them specifically for marriage. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Chinese men engaged in sexual activity with white Cuban women and black Cuban women, resulting in numerous children being born during this time.

Havana Cuba Chinatown

Havana Cuba Chinatown

These Cuban-Chinese began to develop a distinct community. At its pinnacle, in the late 1870s, there were more than 40,000 Chinese in Cuba. In Havana they established “El Barrio Chino” or Chinatown, which spread to 44 square blocks and was once the largest communities of its kind in Latin America. In addition to working in the fields, they opened shops, restaurants, and laundries and worked in factories. A unique fusion Chinese-Cuban cuisine merging Caribbean and Chinese flavors also surfaced.

Residents developed community organizations and social clubs, such as the Casino Chung Wah, founded in 1893. This community association continues to assist the Chinese in Cuba today with education and cultural programs. The Chinese-language weekly, Kwong Wah Po also still publishes in Havana. At the turn of the century, Cuba experienced another wave of Chinese migrants, which included countless coming from California.  However, by the 1950s, the Chinese population was declining after the Cuban Revolution.

Kolkata, India

India boasts only one Chinatown, which is located in Kolkata. Chinese people, principally ethnic Hakka from the provinces of Guangdong, Jiangxi and Fujian, have lived in Kolkata for at least 230 years, going back to the time when the city was the capital of the British Empire in India. One of the earliest records of immigration from China can be found in a short treatise from 1820. This record suggests that the first wave of immigration was of Hakkas but does not expand on the professions of these immigrants. According to a later police census, there were 362 Chinese in Calcutta in 1837.

Spice Sellers in Chinatown Market Photo credit Steve Browne

Spice Sellers in Chinatown Market. Photo credit: Steve Browne.

 These Chinese immigrants came to work in Kolkata’s busy port, and also became absorbed in manufacturing activities, particularly in tanneries, where they produced leather goods. There was a significant demand, for high quality leather goods in colonial India, which the Chinese were able to fulfill. This profession was off limits to most upper-caste Hindus, who devalued these duties and left the lower class muchis and chamars to take part in this profession. This also allowed the Chinese to monopolize making leather goods.

Although the Chinese population was quite small compared to India’s population as a whole, their contribution to India was still significant. They contributed in the food and beauty department. “Chinese chow” is a popular term for Chinese fried noodles that competed for a place among the popular bhelpuri walas and today, few eating places risk existing unless it also serves Chinese food.  Furthermore, the beauty parlours, which were once the sole expertise of Chinese women, now mark almost every corner and street in Indian cities and towns. The Chinese take the credit when it comes to the faces of Indian women. Additionally, licensed opium dens existed, which were run by native Chinese as well as a Cheena Bazaar where contraband was readily available. Opium, however, was not illegal until after India’s Independence from Great Britain in 1947.

Kolkata Chinatown Photo credit Sharon Schneider

Kolkata Chinatown. Photo credit: Sharon Schneider.

Once reaching heights in the tens of thousands with its own schools, social clubs and newspapers, Kolkata’s Chinese community has now diminished in population to no more than 5,000. Many Chinese in India fled the country in the aftermath of the brief Sino-Indian war of 1962. Many Chinese-Indians were also in military camps and prisons in northern India following that conflict. Those who were not imprisoned were faced with boundary restrictions, and some even had their Indian citizenships revoked. Many of the Chinese saw no future in India and decided to set out to the U.S., Australia and Canada, in hopes of a better life.

Melbourne, Australia

The Victorian Gold Rush brought many young Chinese men from South China to Australia.  In 1851, ships filled with gold diggers sailed from Hong Kong to Melbourne. Little Bourke Street was the hub of the Chinese community as more and more Chinese began arriving in Melbourne. This particular location was considered convenient for the immigrants, as it was a staging post for new Chinese immigrants as well as supplies en route to the goldfields.

The Chinese established themselves as storekeepers, importers, furniture-makers, herbalists and in the wholesale fruit and vegetable and restaurant industries. Christian churches were built and Chinese political groups and newspapers were formed next. Other members of the Chinese community who lived and worked elsewhere used Chinatown to congregate with friends.

Chinatown Gate Portland. Photo credit: Rosa Say

Chinatown Gate Portland. Photo credit: Rosa Say.

It is notable for being the oldest Chinatown in Australia. The boom forged ahead until the introduction of the White Australian Policy in 1901, when the Chinese, along with many non-European immigrants endured hardship under racist rule. However, after the policy was relaxed after World War II, Melbourne’s Chinatown was revived. During the 1970s and 80s, the discriminatory laws that were in place came to an end and immigration began to increase again.  Immigrants came from Indochina, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China.

At the same time, an increasing interest in dining out, and a taste for ethnic variety of cuisine, amongst the non-Chinese population of Melbourne stimulated the growth of over 100 Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. Furthermore, In the 1990s, the large number of overseas Chinese students studying at Melbourne University and RMIT University has brought a new market for Chinese-language cultural businesses and Chinese operated hair and fashion stores. Today, Melbourne’s historic three-story brick buildings remain home to Cantonese restaurants, groceries, herbal medicine shops and a museum that explores the community’s history.

Characteristics Of Chinatown

Architectural Styles

Chinatown is distinguishable by its many unique structures and animal statues. For instance, large red arch entrance structures known in Mandarin as Paifang are often seen when arriving to Chinatown, especially in more metropolitan areas. Often, these archways are complemented by imperial guardian lion statues on either side of the structure, to greet visitors. There are other Chinese architectural styles such as the Chinese Garden of Friendship, present in Sydney Chinatown and the Chinese stone lions at the gate to Victoria, BC Chinatown as well as a variety of other Chinatowns as well. One other example is Mahale Chiniha, the Chinatown in Iran, which contains numerous buildings that were built in the Chinese architectural style.

Chinatown Gate Portland Photo credit Rosa Say

The Paifangs typically have unique inscriptions in Chinese. Historically, these gateways were donated to a particular city as a gift from the Republic of China and People’s Republic of China, or local governments and business organizations. The construction of these red arches is often funded by local financial contributions from the Chinatown community. The size of these structures often vary, some spanning an entire intersection and others are smaller in height and width.  The materials used can be anything from wood, masonry to steel.

Language Signs

Chinese language signs are also another characteristic of the multitude of Chinatowns. Many use Chinese calligraphy on storefront signs and utilize bilingual street signs that are in both Chinese and English. In Washington DC’s Chinatown, storefront signs are obligated to have a translation in Chinese characters when the business is located in this district, whether the store is Chinese in nature or not. Local and national American chains, such as Starbucks coffee and CVS drugstores must conform to this rule.


Chinatowns are well known destinations to enjoy ethnic foods. Not simply Chinese cuisine, but Vietnamese, Thai, and Malaysian also have a place in the Chinatown experience. These restaurants serve a purpose as a major economic element as well as a social gathering place.  It’s known in many western countries that working in the food business is commonly the only type of employment available to poorer immigrants, especially those who cannot speak the native language of the place they inhabit.

In addition to traditional as well as more stereotypical Chinese restaurants, there are also many large, authentic Cantonese seafood restaurants, restaurants specializing in other varieties of Chinese fare such as Hakka cuisine, Szechuan cuisine, Shanghai cuisine and small restaurants with deli foods.

Chinatown Seafood

Chinatown Seafood. Photo credit: Howard Walfish.

Cantonese seafood restaurants are distinguished by their dining room layout and ornate designs. They focus on pricey seafood such as, Chinese-style lobsters, crabs, prawns, clams and oysters, which are all kept alive in fish tanks until it is preparation time. These restaurants did very well and became trendy in Hong Kong during the 1960s. Due to their popularity, more of these seafood restaurants began opening overseas. The menu prices are at a much higher level as well as the investment capital required to open and manage one of these restaurants, therefore these restaurants are more common in Chinatowns and satellite communities in developed countries and in fairly affluent Chinese immigrant communities, especially in Australia, Canada and the United States.

Chinatown seafood

Chinatown seafood. Photo credit: Howard Walfish.

The less expensive food is typically seen in Chinese barbeque deli restaurants, called siu laap, a noodle house or mein ga. These eateries are more unassuming in size and decor than the seafood restaurants. The food is more reasonably priced as well. Many of these types of restaurants can be identified by their displays of whole pre-cooked roasted ducks and suckling pigs hanging in the window.  Common foods served here include: wonton noodles, chow fun, Yeung Chow fried rice and rice porridge or congee. These delis also sell barbeque pork, tripe and chicken feet among other delicacies that are not as common to the Western palate.

Shops And Businesses

There are a variety of common goods sold and businesses present in Chinatowns across the world. Grocery stores and seafood markets make up a large chunk of the businesses. Whether it’s sidewalk grocers selling fruits and vegetables or actual indoor markets, there is never a shortage of these supplies. Many items are imported from East Asia and Southeast Asia. Some popular products include Thai jasmine rice, oolong teas, bottles of oyster sauce, Hong Kong soybean beverages, Japanese seaweed as well as Chinese specialties such as black duck eggs, bok choy and water chestnuts. Before the 1970s, many of these products could only be found within the Chinatown territory.

Besides the specialty foods, there are quite a bit of street vendors selling everything from clothes and newspapers to brand name knock offs. There are also stores that focus on Chinese medicine in the form of ginseng and herb shops. Additionally the Buddhist and Taoist religions are of prime importance in Chinese culture. There are stores that sell incense and funeral items, which provide material comfort in the afterlife of the deceased. Small paper replicas of meaningful belongings are also made, such as jewelry and houses. These items are symbolic and are ritually burned in a furnace.


Chinese New Year 1984

Chinese New Year 1984. Photo credit: John Dunstan.

Each year, in late January or February, Chinese New Year is celebrated immensely in Chinatowns throughout the world. In China, it is also known as the Spring Festival, the literal translation of the modern Chinese name. Chinese New Year celebrations traditionally run from Chinese New Year’s Eve, the last day of the last month of the Chinese calendar, to the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first month, making the festival the longest in the Chinese calendar.

Besides the biggest celebration occurring in China, the other top places to celebrate this festive time, include:  Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Singapore, Sydney, New York and London. From the Golden Dragon Parade in Los Angeles, the dance troupes, fire eaters and lion dancers in Singapore, to the dragon boat races and dragon ball in Sydney, there is much to be celebrated. The source of Chinese New Year is itself centuries old and gains significance because of several myths and traditions. Traditionally, the festival was a time to honor gods as well as ancestors.

Within China, regional customs and traditions concerning the celebration of the Chinese New Year differ widely. Often, the evening preceding Chinese New Year’s Day is an occasion for Chinese families to gather for the annual reunion dinner. It is also traditional for every family to meticulously cleanse the house, in order to sweep away any ill fortune and to make way for good incoming luck. Windows and doors are decorated with red color paper-cuts and couplets with popular themes of “good fortune” or “happiness”, “wealth”, and “longevity.” Other activities include lighting firecrackers and giving money in red paper envelopes.