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City Living: Chinatown stays authentic despite changing city

In a city like New York where change is inevitable, Chinatown strives to maintain its traditions and culture.

In 2010, out of the 500,000 Chinese residents in the city, 47,000 lived in Chinatown, according to the U.S. Census. The city currently has the largest Chinese American community in the country.

Generations of families have passed through its narrow streets and many more are welcomed every year as it continues to attract Asian immigrants.

Its convenience really, Wendy Wong, 59, resident of Chinatown since 1969, said of why they come. A lot of new immigrants come and they dont speak the language [English] and this is familiar to them.

Within Chinatown there are distinct groups made up of people from several regions in China and other Asian countries such as Thailand, Korea and Vietnam. It is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Manhattan.

The first wave of Chinese immigrants in New York City started settling during the 18th century.

Around 1965, after the United States enacted the Immigration and Nationality Act allowing more immigrants from Asia to enter the country, the Chinese population grew considerably andChinatown began to prosper.

In the 1990s, Chinese immigrants continued to arrive in droves and spilled farther toward the Lower East Side. By 2009, the Chinese population expanded over to East Broadway, growing the neighborhoods boundaries with them.

In the last decade however, Chinatown residents have been moving out due to a lack of affordable housing in the area and high priced commercial real estate.

Apartment rentals in Chinatown can range from $1,850 per month for a studio to $2,700 or more for a one-bedroom. Commercial rents can go as high as $6,000 per month depending on the square footage of the place.

You dont make that kind of money, said Wong, referring to businesses struggling to the areas commercial rent prices. Im walking down the streets and go, wow, because a lot of the stores are changing.

Along Canal Street you will find only one Starbucks and McDonalds, as the residents prefer their traditional mom and pop coffee shops and restaurants.

Chinese people want their Chinese food, said Diana Moy, a team member at Living Free NYC, who grew up in Chinatown. They dont know about the Western things unless their kids bring it to them.

Throughout the more transited streets like Mott, Grand and Bowery are an array of restaurants, many showcasing their famous hanging Peking ducks in their windows. Bakeries serve treats like moon cakes and small shops sell fans or small frogs for good luck among other artifacts. Chinatown is considered a major tourist attraction. Hordes of tourists from all over the world traverse its web of streets and markets, ride by on tour buses, or participate in the areas annual festivities such as the Chinese New Year.

For former residents like Moy, it is a sense of home and the familiar that keeps them coming back to visit.

Its the people, said Moy. You go to a different neighborhood and its a mix. In Chinatown 90% is Chinese people and you feel like youre walking into an entirely different country.

Thats how much of the culture you see in the businesses, the smell of the food, the language and you get to be a part of that just by walking the streets.