Most Chinese did not live in Chinatowns. Chinatowns in North America were clusters of businesses, mutual aid organizations, family associations, restaurants, and rooming houses. “Chinatown” was an English name used by non-Chinese to refer to these business clusters. The Chinese themselves used the term “唐人街” (Tang People’s Street). For non-Chinese, Chinatowns were an exotic place, seemingly a little bit of China in their midst. Images of Chinatown often reflected anti-Chinese racism, misrepresenting them as dirty, disease-ridden opium dens and gambling houses. Even as Chinese food became popular with non-Chinese after the 1940s, the image of Chinatown as an exotic non-Canadian locale remained. In reality, Chinatowns were a unique feature of North American history, a creation of both the Chinese migrants themselves and the anti-Chinese racism they faced.  Chinese Canadian society went beyond these enclaves of community organizations and small businesses, but the enduring popular image of Chinese in Canada remains tied to “Chinatowns.”

 "Chinatown is an ill-defined perceptual area because its characteristics, structures, images, and townscape have changed over time ... A Chinatown whether old, new, or replaced is a unique component of the urban fabric of Canadian cities and part of Canada's multicultural mosaic," Chinatowns: Towns Within Cities in Canada by David Chuenyan Lai, p. 282-5.

Historian David Lai, who has collected information on almost every Chinatown in North America, generously donated about 80 boxes of his research materials to the Richard Charles Lee Canada-Hong Kong Library at the University of Toronto