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Curious Cbus: Why Is There No Chinatown In Columbus?

The entry into Philadelphia's Chinatown
Bruce Emmerling/Pixabay
Midwestern cities like Chicago can claim a Chinatown, so why can't Columbus?

Columbus is well known for neighborhoods like Italian Village and German Village with names that reflect European immigration to the area. Unlike other major cities in the country, Columbus does not have a neighborhood that reflects Asian heritage. One listener wrote into Curious Cbus to ask, “Why is there no Chinatown in Columbus, Ohio?”

This question is especially curious since Columbus boasts one of the largest Asian Festivals in the nation, with more than 100,000 attendees and 16 Asian communities represented. The city’s vibrant Asian culture is incredibly diverse and continues to grow, but it’s difficult to identify a particular geographical site that fits the historian’s definition of a Chinatown, i.e., multiple blocks of commercial and residential areas comprised of a primarily Chinese population.

Dr. Huping Ling, a professor of history at Truman State University, is a scholar of Asian American studies and has written extensively on Chinatown formation in the Midwestern cities of St. Louis and Chicago.

Ling explained that Columbus lacks the essential ingredients that have historically created a Chinatown. She said that immigration and industry play important roles. But the first and arguably most important factor for a Chinatown is location.

“To be big, Chinatowns have to have a good locality,” Ling said. New York City and San Francisco boast the nation’s largest Chinatowns and have one thing in common, coastal access. These cities’ ports made them destinations for immigrants seeking work and fortune.

San Francisco Chinatown 1898
Arnold Genthe, 1898
Wikipedia Commons
San Francisco's Chinatown boasted a large predominantly male population in 1898.

San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in the United States and how it developed illustrates the ways other enclaves formed nationwide. In the mid-1800s, San Francisco saw a large influx of Chinese immigrants seeking fortune during the California Gold Rush and working as farmhands and laborers building the Transcontinental Railroad.

“If anyone came from the Pacific Ocean they had to land in San Francisco first,” Ling said.

By 1880, 16% of San Francisco’s population was Chinese. This percentage signifies the second most important factor to creating a Chinatown, a large population. Ling noted that this is important for establishing any community.

“Being Asian, or Chinese, Japanese, or Jewish, or German, you have to have a sizable population or concentration in order to establish an ethnic enclave,” she said.

With the national passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants were prohibited from entering the country and existing Chinese in the U.S. were denied citizenship. The act stalled Chinese immigration for the next 60 years, one example of the discriminatory policies targeting the Chinese population who had become scapegoats for the country’s economic recession.

Willard B. Farwell/Wikipedia
This "Official Map of Chinatown 1885" shows how local government officials perceived San Francisco's Chinatown. It was included in a report conducted by a Special Committee "on the Condition of the Chinese Quarter."

The Exclusion Act points to yet another element in the formation of ethnic enclaves, reception. Racial prejudice played out on the local level as well through policies prohibiting Chinese immigrants from living beyond certain blocks of the city. Chinese were demonized by the media and exclusionary policies. Xenophobia also formed Chinatowns.

Ling is quick to remind us that while exclusion formed these communities, there were also benefits that came from the support systems within these areas. These tightly-knit neighborhoods eased the language and cultural barriers of being in a completely new country. Proximity and kinship also built community. Networks are the fourth essential factor in the creation of Chinatowns: a potential for growth of family relationships, social networks, and regional associations.

Historic Cleveland Chinatown.jpeg
Wikipedia Commons
Cleveland's Historic Chinatown Strip on the 2100 block of Rockwell Avenue.

The same factors that grew San Francisco’s Chinatown built others in cities across the United States, in places like Chicago, St. Louis, and even Cleveland.

As a landlocked city, Columbus did not have the location or population for a Chinatown during this era. Census data from the turn of the 20th century shows a population of just eight individuals of Chinese descent living in Columbus, Ohio in 1880. This made up 0.01% of the Columbus population. At this time, Columbus lacked any particular industry that would have enticed Chinese immigrants and the population increased very gradually to 130 in 1920.

Many of these early Chinese Columbusites ran laundry businesses. In 1889 the census revealed a total of 10 laundry businesses located in downtown Columbus. While Ling notes that laundries are signposts of entrepreneurship in Chinatowns, the city was missing other two important pillars, restaurants and grocery stores.

Dr. Yung-Chen Lu arrives to Columbus, Ohio with his family in the 1960s
Dr. Yung-Chen Lu
Dr. Yung-Chen Lu
Dr. Yung-Chen Lu and his family settled in Columbus, Ohio in the 1960s when Ohio State's Math Department hired Dr. Lu as a professor.

Dr. Yung-Chen Lu moved to Columbus, Ohio in 1969 to work as a professor in Ohio State’s Math Department. He has since advocated for health and social services in the greater Asian community and is dedicated to unearthing the history of the city’s Chinese population.

He and architect Eliza Ho further investigated this history of Columbus’s early Chinese population for the city’s Bicentennial Celebration in 2012.

Their research unearthed details about the Chinese residents of the city during the early 20th century. There was the opening of the first tea house in 1903, the first Chinese restaurant in 1904, and the first recorded birth of Chinese baby in Columbus in 1905 - a healthy 10 pound baby boy. But still, they saw no indication of Chinatown formation.

Asian American History Exhibit 2013
Eliza Ho
Eliza Ho and Dr. Yung-Chen Lu's research into the early Columbus Asian population informed this exhibit on Asian history in Columbus, Ohio in 2012. It on display at the main library in 2013 and Ohio State University's student union in 2015.

Ho was surprised to see that the biggest growth in population took place during the 1960s and 70s, with Chinese immigrants moving not for industry, but to become business owners.

In the mid-to-late 20th century, Chinese immigration involved movement to the suburbs, not just city centers. Populations were not only more spread out geographically, but they also became more diverse.

During this period, Ho said Columbus’s Asian population “started to branch out to include people from India and also Southeast Asia.” A big part of this new wave of immigration, Ho speculates, was Ohio State University, an institution that continued to attract diverse students and faculty.

Since the 1970s, the Asian population of Columbus has continued to grow and now boasts an especially vibrant Nepalese and Bhutanese population. Lu noticed the potential for a larger Asian coalition and founded the first Asian-American Community Service Council in 1994 and developed the city’s first Asian Festival in 1995.

In terms of a physical community, Lu believes if anything were to be built now, it would require a wealthy benefactor. He points to Cleveland’s Asia Plaza as an example, which he believes was made possible by wealthy Chinese entrepreneurs. The restaurant Li Wah provided a necessary backbone for the Asia Plaza, founded in 1988, he said.

Takashi Takenaka
Japan Marketplace
Mr. Takashi Takenaka is the founder and owner of Japan Marketplace, a cluster of businesses at the corner of Kenny and Old Henderson Roads that shares Japanese Culture.

While there is no physical Chinatown, there are signposts of Asian culture throughout the city. A cluster of businesses that points to a potential Asian hub is Japan Marketplace in the Kenny Center at the corner of Kenny and Old Henderson Roads.

The owner, Mr. Takashi Takenaka, moved to Columbus in 1986. He initially wanted to open a restaurant in The Continent, then bustling marketplace, but it was too expensive. He settled on a location that used to be a children’s clothing store since it fit in his budget and had ample parking. There he opened his first restaurant, “Restaurant Japan.”

In 2014, Columbus Business First reported that Central Ohio had the largest number of Japanese nationals living in the state. A big part of this was Honda’s presence in Central Ohio. The Japanese company has been in the neighboring Marysville since 1979 bringing in many Japanese workers to the area. Many of these workers and their families moved to Dublin, Ohio, according to The Columbus Dispatch. The population in Dublin by 2010 was 2.6% Japanese.

Takenaka’s restaurant with both Japanese and non-Japanese customers is continuing to grow into a thriving Japanese cultural center with a restaurant, grocery store, bakery, gift shop, ramen restaurant and sushi spot.

“I definitely want to introduce Japanese hospitality and culture to people… In Japanese this is called ometenashi,” Takenaka said. The plaza for him feels like a Japantown of sorts. “I feel it’s my home,” he said.

Asian American Meal Program (Columbus 1994)
Dr. Yung-Chen Lu
Dr. Yung-Chen Lu founded the Asian Senior Meal Program in 1994. The group traveled to Washington D.C. and is one of many organizations Dr. Lu created to assist Columbus's Asian population.

Lu aspires to accomplish similar feelings of home. He tried in 1987 to purchase four acres of land in Hilliard near the Mount Carmel Hospital to make space for an Asiatown of sorts. He imagined three phases of development: the building of housing for the population; the construction of community centers, supermarkets, and salons; and the creation of a nursing home for elder residents. Unable to secure the million dollars needed to buy the land, these plans never came to fruition. Still, Lu sees value in establishing this sort of community hub.

Ho also sees the importance of fostering a strong Asian community but believes it can develop naturally. She has two young children and through them, she sees the importance of thinking about the Asian community as something larger than place.

“The next generation of Asians, they’re going to be different from what we are stereotypically understood as, what we should look like, dress, like or eat,” she said. Rather than establishing a Chinatown, Ho said, “I would take a laissez-faire approach and say let it [these communities] grow organically.”

Ho’s thoughts resonate with the writings of Ling. In her article Reconceptualizing Chinese American Community in St. Louis, she notes that when ethnic groups become more integrated into the larger society economically and professionally, the need for a physical ethnic enclave dissipates. What rises in its stead is what she terms a “cultural community.” She added, “Cultural and social space, rather than physical space, constitutes the ethnic community.”

The Columbus Asian Festival share performances, cuisine, and culture from more than 16 different countries.

There may not be a physical representation of a Chinatown or Asian Plaza, but Columbus claims a strong Asian cultural community. Champions of Columbus’s Asian community continue to bring these cultural practices to light through community events like the Asian Festival, businesses and social groups.

Lu is constantly impressed by the strong cross-cultural Asian collaboration that occurs in Columbus. He sees it as unique and powerful.

“I want people to know that we work together so harmoniously and so well like a big family. I don’t see this happening anywhere else,” he said. “I’m proud to say we are in such a position.”

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