Is "Chinatown" an offensive term?
April 29, 2016 12:08 PM   Subscribe

Is using the term "Chinatown" offensive in the urban geography context?

I've recently moved to a new neighbourhood: Toronto's Chinatown. For some reason, I've felt weird proclaiming to people that I live "in Chinatown." I don't know if this is a real issue or something I'm just overthinking. Oddly, I don't think I would have the same hangup about saying I lived in Little Italy.

Context: I am a mid-20s white woman, explaining my living situation to coworkers/bosses at a law firm in casual conversation. I have Chinese family members (they do not live in the neighbourhood) but am 100% not Chinese myself. Toronto seems to broadly refer to this area as Chinatown and there is a website referring to it as such.
posted by hepta to Society & Culture (43 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You're overthinking.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 12:10 PM on April 29, 2016 [29 favorites]

If it's the name of the neighborhood, why would it be offensive? That's . . . just what it's called. You're describing a geographical area, not claiming that you yourself are Chinese just because you live there.
posted by ananci at 12:12 PM on April 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

You should be fine, but if you really don't want to say it, just give cross streets.
"Where's your new place?"
"Down by Dundas and Spadina."
posted by Etrigan at 12:13 PM on April 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

I've never in my life heard of anyone considering 'Chinatown' offensive, not even in passing, and I pretty much only hang out with super liberal people.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:14 PM on April 29, 2016 [7 favorites]

It gives me a flinch too, but it seems to be fine.

I grew up in a place where (had the town been large enough for any part of it to be described as such) 'Chinatown' absolutely would have been pronounced in a way to make it clear it was derogatory, and we had other parts of town that had similar names except the descriptor wasn't as neutral as 'China'. I assume that's why it makes me tense up.

(I also once went on a European package tour in which the Austrian guide commonly referred to the various groups on the trip as 'The Americans', 'The Italians', which was fine, and then 'The Mexicans' which always made The Texans blanch but nobody else noticed. Same issue there.)
posted by Lyn Never at 12:20 PM on April 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

The use of Chinatown would be offensive to me only if you, as an adult, were to repeat what my son asked (loudly) when he was 3: "Is this Chinatown? Is that why there's so many China people?"
I am, btw, Chinese-American.
posted by hhc5 at 12:23 PM on April 29, 2016 [11 favorites]

I have to say I much prefer the way we refer to our diverse Asian downtown area here in Seattle as the "International District."
posted by bearwife at 12:29 PM on April 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Depends on the city and the neighborhood.

It would be offensive if you moved to a city that doesn't have an officially designated Chinatown neighborhood, and you were living in an area with a lot of Asians and just dubbed it Chinatown because you're racist and wanted to point out apropos of nothing that a lot of Asians live in your neighborhood.

But if we're talking about something like New York Chinatown, San Francisco Chinatown, Los Angeles Chinatown, etc. that's just the name of a neighborhood.

Los Angeles also has officially designated neighborhoods called "Koreatown", "Little Armenia", and the like. In my experience these names are a source of pride and heritage for the immigrant communities that have traditionally called them home. I didn't find that NYC had quite as many ethnically identified neighborhood names, but immigrant communities here in L.A. seem to really dig it, and I'm cool with that.
posted by Sara C. at 12:30 PM on April 29, 2016 [22 favorites]

There is in a number of cities Koreatown and Little Italy...In NY The Lower East Side at one time was known as the area where many Jews lived--though not today--I had lived in Chinatown in San Francisco, though not at all Chinese, and of course the famous line from the film Chinatown: It's Chinatown, jake.
posted by Postroad at 12:32 PM on April 29, 2016

I have a friend who does not love the phrase Chinatown in relationship to her own neighborhood - because there are a bunch of Korean/Thai/Filipino/Japanese/Vietnamese stores and restaurants there, and she is Korean and thus feels like her culture is invisible.

That said, she uses Chinatown to describe where she lives because it's the ubiquitous name for her neighborhood.
posted by scrittore at 12:34 PM on April 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seattle has been somewhat uncomfortable with the moniker of Chinatown, which I used to think was out of some racial guilt about the name and what it might historically, but lately I think it's because calling it Chinatown might exclude other nationalities and ethnicities. Nowadays our "International District" does have pronounced Vietnamese sections (with a few "Little Saigon" signs here and there) and a Japanese sector (dominated by a superb Asian grocery/mall), as well as areas that're just a mix, and more areas I'm certain I know nothing about. We've got just about every East Asian ethnicity and nationality represented here. And yet the local underground train station there is called "International District/Chinatown" and is decorated with kites and paper dragons. I think we're over any reservations we had, for the most part.

It's Chinatown, Jack. Call it Chinatown. Few other neighborhoods are ever held to account for their names, including ethnic neighborhoods.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:35 PM on April 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Referring to the place you live as Chinatown can only be offensive if it's not actually called Chinatown (and is in fact based on your own observance of how many Chinese people live in your area) or if you append "ching chong" to the start of it.

As a Chinese American I give you permission to refer to the place you live by what it's called.
posted by Karaage at 12:40 PM on April 29, 2016 [8 favorites]

You are overthinking it a little, but I think your overthinking comes from an aware place.

First, you've got the Chinaman/Chinamen slur.

Then, there's the history of how Chinatowns became Chinatowns. Hint: Mostly, it was racism. Here's a good 99% Invisible episode on the history of some Chinatowns in the US. I'm pretty sure it doesn't mention Toronto, but given Canada's history with Chinese immigration, and the fact that Toronto's Chinatown has lots of the same not-really-chinese trappings, I'm sure it's similar.

All that being said: It's Chinatown, that's the name for it, there isn't really another one (maybe you could tell people that you live near Kensington Market, if you actually do). Lots of Chinese people live and work there and call it Chinatown and don't have a problem with it.
posted by sparklemotion at 12:43 PM on April 29, 2016 [4 favorites]

A little context: Toronto loves its neighbourhoods. Downtown Toronto also has, off the top of my head: Koreatown, Little Italy, Little Portugal, Greektown, East Chinatown (which always seemed to have more signs in Vietnamese to my eye but whatever), and Little India. I think those are all at least semi-official designations, in the sense that they are the names of the BIAs managing the neighbourhoods. So it's not just Chinatown with a neighbourhood moniker that describes the dominant ethnicity of the businesses (and residents, but less than it used to) there.
posted by quaking fajita at 12:43 PM on April 29, 2016 [8 favorites]

Thanks folks! I appreciate being set straight on this. I'll probably refer to it by intersection, but I'm glad to know I can call my neighbourhood by its name without offending people.
posted by hepta at 12:44 PM on April 29, 2016

In a Toronto context, I think Etrigan and quaking fajita have it. The banks have signs in Chinese. The store signs are in Chinese (and and Korean, Vietnamese, and a few other languages I haven't learned to recognize).

There are some neighbourhood terms here that are used more as slurs, but that isn't one of them.
posted by TORunner at 12:48 PM on April 29, 2016

I have to say I much prefer the way we refer to our diverse Asian downtown area here in Seattle as the "International District."

Just a note that you should not apply this label to places that actually do call themselves "Chinatown".

For one additional perspective, DC's Chinatown is pretty small, has very few remaining Chinese-American residents, and is basically being swallowed by the neighboring downtown office district. This has led to some giving it the tongue-in-cheek nickname of "Chinablock."
posted by schmod at 1:01 PM on April 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

99% Invisible: Pagodas and Dragon Gates might help you unpack some of the issues a bit.
posted by straw at 1:01 PM on April 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

Oh, it's fine - it's the name of the BIA, after all. Your concern is coming from a good place, but calling Chinatown Chinatown won't raise an eyebrow among Torontonians, even the really hangwring-y ones.

It's not as though you're using the term to refer to some other part of Toronto with a notable Chinese population, which would absolutely be epically offensive.
posted by blerghamot at 1:16 PM on April 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have to say I much prefer the way we refer to our diverse Asian downtown area here in Seattle as the "International District."

I think this would work very poorly in Toronto where 3/4 of the city would end up being "international district." Remember, more than half the population of Toronto is foreign born and at least another 25% are surely children of immigrants.

Koreatown, Little Italy, Little Portugal, Greektown, East Chinatown (which always seemed to have more signs in Vietnamese to my eye but whatever), and Little India.

Also, Cabbagetown (Polish), Little Somalia, Corso Italia (which is Little Italy in Italian, Italians went this route instead of the multiple-neighbourhoods-with-the-same-name route that Chinatown(s) took). Really, calling everything "The International District" would only lead to confusion. Does Seattle only have one ethnically-defined neighbourhood for this to work? I seem to recall Seattle having a large Portuguese-population, if I remember correctly.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 1:20 PM on April 29, 2016 [6 favorites]

In SoCal we have a Little Saigon, and this sign is at the exit from the freeway. I used to live there, and I've never heard anyone complain about it.
posted by Huck500 at 1:32 PM on April 29, 2016

As a long term well-known neighborhood name, I'd say calling it Chinatown is fine. If it's a far more informal/recent nickname I'd play it safe and only call the area by a formal name.

There's an area here in northern Virginia a Korean coworker laughs about, calling it 'Koreatown'; but A) he's Korean; B) he lives there and has family there. It's in reference to the relatively recent influx of Koreans and Korean-Americans; I however will only call the place by it's formal name on maps, Annandale.
posted by easily confused at 1:35 PM on April 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

If it's the name of the neighborhood, why would it be offensive? That's . . . just what it's called.

I live in a city with a neighbourhood called -- I am not even kidding -- Jew Town. The fact that is "just what it is called" doesn't make it OK. We (obviously) do not call it Jew Town; we call it "the Albert Street area." I would also find an alternative name for Chinatown as well. I might opt for the Chinese Quarter.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:41 PM on April 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

It's Chinatown, Jack. Call it Chinatown.

Sure you meant Jake.
posted by sideshow at 1:42 PM on April 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Dundas and Spadina is a pretty good alternative imo
posted by sid at 2:00 PM on April 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

I know white people who live in Toronto Chinatown and they say they live in Chinatown.

To make it roll off the tongue better you could say "I have a condo in Chinatown." (Rent an apartment, whatever. )
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:02 PM on April 29, 2016

Cabbagetown was Irish and Roncesvalles, named after a place in Spain, is the Polish neighbourhood. Because that's how Toronto is.

The only actual problem with saying "Chinatown" in Toronto is some might think you're talking about Pacific Mall in Markham, although the odds are low.
posted by GuyZero at 2:11 PM on April 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't know about Toronto but Chicago's Chinatown is literally named Chinatown. It's not some local flavor. There's a big plaque that says Chinatown and a bunch of Chinese people who call it Chinatown who live there. So generally no, I wouldn't say this is an offensive term.
posted by deathpanels at 2:22 PM on April 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

Definitely depends on the town. Some residents actively worked for these names. As recently as a couple years ago, for example, Japanese-American residents on the Westside of LA got the city to name their neighborhood "Sawtelle Japantown" (after years of being informally known as Little Osaka). San Jose years ago went through a debate as to whether to name an area "Little Saigon" or "Saigon Business District" which was primarily a debate among Vietnamese-American residents.

So I'd argue that depending on the situation, avoiding the name could be considered disrespectful as well (in a "you should call it what people want" sense). The history and current use of the name probably matters a lot.

(All of my comments refer to "official" names, not to names based just on who lives there. Los Angeles is full of official neighborhoods/districts with names like this and I have not been aware of significant controversies over the names, and everyone uses them regardless of their own ethnicity. It would be weird for someone to come up with some alternate name for Koreatown, or something, all on their own).
posted by thefoxgod at 2:29 PM on April 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

In Seattle, not exactly a PC backwater, the International District includes Chinatown, Japantown, and others, designated by official city signs.
posted by trinity8-director at 2:29 PM on April 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, calling any neighbourhood in Toronto 'the International District' would be laughably meaningless. I do think this depends on city and city history, and so I feel like the non-Canadians in this thread are kind of missing that context - Toronto has a massive ethnic Chinese community, and in Chinatown business is conducted in Chinese, businesses are all signed in Chinese, even the street signs themselves are also in Chinese. I've never called it or heard it referred to as anything else, and never used in a derogatory way (for reference - I am Asian (but not Chinese) Canadian, born and raised in Toronto, have lived in both Toronto's Chinatown and Koreatown).
posted by aiglet at 2:45 PM on April 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

Even in Italy, Milan's historically Chinese neighborhood is called by the English moniker Chinatown, so it's become an almost generic, international term.
posted by progosk at 2:55 PM on April 29, 2016

I'm Chinese-Canadian from the GTA. I have Chinese friends who've lived in Chinatown. Toronto's Chinatown is called Chinatown by everybody.

I would also find an alternative name for Chinatown as well. I might opt for the Chinese Quarter.
In Toronto, I would:
-have no idea where you were talking about at first
-wonder in the back of my mind all evening why you're being weirdly evasive about it
posted by airmail at 3:48 PM on April 29, 2016 [21 favorites]

I wouldn't hesitate to call Toronto's Chinatown, Chinatown.

Toronto does have a neighbourhood deemed "International Market" by the BIA and it's on the street signs. Personally I'm not a fan of that name and never use it.
posted by samhyland at 3:56 PM on April 29, 2016

Victoria, BC has the oldest Chinatown in Canada and the second-oldest in North America. It's something to be proud of. Nagasaki Chinatown is the oldest Chinese community in Japan. It's also something to be proud of.

It's not just a place, it's a community.
posted by My Dad at 5:25 PM on April 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

wonder in the back of my mind all evening why you're being weirdly evasive about it

This this this this this.

I wanted to touch on this when I first answered. There are well-meaning people like yourself who end up walking on eggshells when it comes to stuff like this. The thing is, many PoC can pick up on you doing that, and it makes them uncomfortable - as in, why are you treating me as though I'm super thin-skinned? When you're invoking rules of political correctness that the environment doesn't call for, it just feels patronizing and potentially brands you as a Person Who Doesn't Feel Comfortable Around PoC. I know this is not what you're going for, but I wanted to get this out in the open in case it helps you unpack your concerns.
posted by blerghamot at 5:55 PM on April 29, 2016 [13 favorites]

You're definitely overthinking it. Just call it Chinatown. It's going to be weird - and potentially offensive - to Chinese locals (because its something they're proud of or even try to promote if they have a business in the area) if you struggle with the name or try to replace the name with something else.
posted by Bwithh at 5:59 PM on April 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's worth noting in the Seattle case that the transit station was originally called "International District Station" but was renamed to the slightly more awkward "International District/Chinatown Station" after requests from the Chinese community (International District/Chinatown Station Ordinance).
posted by grouse at 6:27 PM on April 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have to say I much prefer the way we refer to our diverse Asian downtown area here in Seattle as the "International District."

It's a bit like referring to Rainier View* or Dunlap as Rainier Beach -- you're using the broader neighborhood name rather than the smaller more specific one. If you're talking to someone near your neighborhood, you live in Phinney Ridge or Delridge; if you're chatting with someone downtown, you live in North Seattle or West Seattle. The ID has Chinatown, Japantown, and Little Saigon in it. And yes, we have plenty of places where immigrants have and are settling around Seattle, but the ID has three specific neighborhoods named for their immigrants' international origins. (Ballard didn't get named after Norway, but is a center for Scandinavian heritage.)

Chinatown is where you live and please don't be so uncomfortable with that. It's a measure of pride to have your neighborhood named after your heritage (see Grouse's note above); be proud of living there and learn more about the history even though it isn't your own heritage.

*Sorry, sticking with what I know: Seattle examples.
posted by Margalo Epps at 6:43 PM on April 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've know a guy who can't even say words like blackboard without making it painfully obvious he is uncomfortable with the word black. Seriously, he mumbled his way through blackened tuna the other day at a restaurant.

Don't be like him.
posted by special agent conrad uno at 9:23 PM on April 29, 2016 [6 favorites]

In Toronto it's 100% ok to say Chinatown if you mean the neighbourhood around Spadina/Dundas (Roughly bordered by Kensington, College, McCaul, Queen)- and East Chinatown for the area around Broadview and Gerrard. And it really is a specifically Chinese part of town- the street signs are in Chinese, there's a modified neighbourhood gateway, and most of the businesses have Chinese signage. Calling that area "the Chinese District" or "the International District" would be weird and in fact it would almost sound almost a little hostile (more on that below).
(Credibilty factors: I'm a Torontonian, person of colour with Chinese relatives, lots of diverse and progressive friends, and I'm pretty up on my anti-oppression framework).

I'd just like to address a subtext in your question that stands out to me- it sounds like you might be hyper-uncomfortable calling things by racial identifiers-- like for instance, how some people noticeably get all guilty if they have to say a person is "black", and do verbal cartwheels to avoid it- "oh you know, that guy in the red shirt... who was medium height... who um, wore shoes" when they could just say "the black guy".

On the one hand I can read a lovely and humanizing impulse at work here- it's nice to see people for who they are as individuals, rather than to shorthand them by their race; and being super blunt about race all the time is weird too.

But on the other hand, race (or other demographics like body size, disability, sexuality, gender, whatever) are a part of who people are, and erasing those identifiers kind of erases the people as well. It's better to research and ask, use terms with respect and be willing to pivot as norms change, rather than to just avoid using demographic identifiers at all.

There's this whole school of aggressively-naive people who love to holler I DON'T SEE COLOUR, I JUST SEE HUMANS, YOU COULD BE BLACK OR YELLOW OR GREEN FOR ALL I CARE! to show how wonderful they are and actually I just get annoyed because I am the colour and shape I am, it's a huge part of my life, and it sometimes it causes problems like police brutality or sexual assault or whatever and these people are choosing to be willfully blind to it and pretend it isn't a thing, which is actually insulting and kind of sociopathic, and also I wish they'd quit comparing me with imaginary green people.

That attitude is not open-mindedness, it's actually white fragility (when white people- or people of any race who are buying into white-centric cultural norms- feel so weird and emotional around race that they can't have a convo about it without having some sort of a breakdown or tantrum or emotional overreaction).

To be clear-- you didn't do that, but I see a little gradient of the same mindset in there in that just mentioning ethnicity in a super casual accepted way seems to make you uncomfortable. So I wanted to address it.

Anyway your choice to ask this question here is great- you care, you researched, and you chose to do so in a community with some Torontonians, some Asian people, and some people up on their racial politics, all of whom can advise you if they choose, and ignore if they choose, which means you're not forcing them to do emotional labour, they can decide to if they want to. So Metafilter is pretty much a perfect way to address this question.

My add-on to all this is that, if what I said above about discomfort around race and other demographic identifiers rings true for you, it might also be great to open your mind to more diverse voices in general, so that just saying Chinatown doesn't feel so weird any more. Because there are big demographic-related problems to work on (like the aforementioned police brutality or carding or housing discrimination or the wage gap or any other form of systemic discrimination)-- and anyone who feels weird saying Chinatown is actually standing in the way of progress on all of those problems because their level is just too basic.

On Facebook, you could follow Love Life of an Asian Guy; he posts some good race commentary. In Toronto, Desmond Cole writes excellent commentary about race. Ta-Nehisi Coates is the current North American champion writer on race. And obviously I need to read more Asian writers myself!!

All that said, yes, I guess it's ok to call Toronto's Chinatown by intersection... but savvy listeners might pick up on the fact that you are avoiding saying Chinatown. And that kind of avoidant strategy pretty much only works for neighbourhoods, so I still think it's worth it for all of us to unpack our feelings about race, as it enriches the rest of life too.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:21 PM on April 29, 2016 [15 favorites]

[A couple of comments deleted. I know intentions are good, but let's try to stick more to the actual question rather than expand this to a more general discussion of problematic things that some people do / think, or making assumptions not stated in the post. Thanks.]
posted by taz (staff) at 6:11 AM on April 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding everything pseudostrabismus said.

Welcome to the neighbourhood! I am white and I've lived in Toronto's Chinatown for over 10 years.

There is nothing offensive about calling the neighbourhood by its name. And there's nothing unusual about white people living here — we're walking distance from three universities, the financial district and major streetcar/subway lines. You are doing a normal thing.
posted by sadmadglad at 2:21 PM on April 30, 2016

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