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Cross-Cultural Perceptions of the Cultural Landscape in American Suburban-Strip Chinatowns.
This first study of suburban-strip Chinatowns as cultural landscapes was identified using the process shown in the flow diagram.
The types of Chinatowns currently found in America are: Urban; Suburban; and the newest of the three: "Suburban-Strip." Each has distinctive characteristics.
This first study of suburban-strip Chinatowns centers on how the inclusion of cultural motifs, symbols, and appropriate artifacts enhance their sense of place and value as cultural landscapes. The research framework includes built landscape, cultural identity, and sense of place.
The Atlanta region was selected for this research for two reasons. One, it has a large Chinese population. Two, the Buford Highway, called the "International Corridor" of Atlanta, has a diversity of establishments that cater to the Chinese community
Mixed-method approach combining case studies, visual preference studies, and qualitative methods (e.g., on-site surveys and key-informant interviews) was used to elicit the perceptions of visitors and store owners in two Atlanta suburban-strip Chinatowns located 1.17 miles apart from one another.
The survey instruments were prepared in both Chinese and English for the on-site survey. The questionnaires were distributed on-site to participants using systematic sampling during 2-hour periods in the morning, afternoon, and evening of August 19-21, 2006.
Additional information was obtained from two sources. Key-informant interviews were conducted with the managers of both sites, and pilot visual preference survey using non-Chinese graduate students and Chinese students and parents was administered.



Cross-Cultural Perceptions of the Cultural Landscape in American Suburban-Strip Chinatowns
Yun Cao, Student ASLA
Florida A&M University, Tallahassee. FL
Faculty Advisors: Richard C. Rome, ASLA, Alfredo B. Lorenzo, ASLA, Matthew Powers, ASLA, and Andrew Chin

"A nice reminder that themed places have true meaning to those who live there. The conclusions were very valuable. Good use of survey instrument."

— 2007 Student Awards Jury Comments

Project Narrative

Historically, Chinatowns serve as centers of social, economic and cultural activities for Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans. An emerging type of Chinatown is the suburban-strip Chinatown. Unlike its urban and earlier suburban counterparts, suburban-strip Chinatowns are non-residential, multi-functional centers, which mainly cater to the basic, utilitarian needs of Chinese communities. This is the first study of suburban-strip Chinatowns as cultural landscapes, as no similar studies were discovered in a comprehensive literature review.

Research Problem

The forms of cultural landscapes known collectively as “Chinatown” have evolved in North America since their inception in the 1880’s ‘Gold Rush’ period in the American West. Chinese immigrants today do not depend on an urban Chinatown as they did in the past. More affordable houses outside of the urban core provide for a better life and access to better community services to immigrants. The suburban “Chinatown” evolved in 1970’s in a number of major metropolitan areas. Newer Chinese immigrants chose to live in communities that are multicultural. Out of these new living conditions of current Chinese populations in North America, the suburban-strip Chinatown was born.

While the suburban-strip Chinatown has strong cross-cultural influences, they are often indistinguishable from traditional, suburban-strip shopping centers. The anonymity of such centers engenders a hurdle that faces suburban-strip Chinatowns in terms of their function as cultural landscapes. Such sites are easily ignored by academics and researchers who have failed to examine whether or not such centers serve as cultural centers for large numbers of suburban, Chinese nationals and Chinese-Americans much like their urban counterpart did for earlier populations.

There is a need for research showing if decorative elements of the physical environment will have measurable influence on the preferences and perceptions of shoppers, visitors, as well as store owners in suburban-strip Chinatowns. This research could lead to increased recognition of the impact of suburban-strip Chinatowns as cultural landscapes. Moreover, additional research is needed on how landscape elements can be used to enhance the sense of place of suburban-strip Chinatowns and thereby increase the satisfaction of users of the suburban-strip Chinatowns.

Relationships investigated

A major goal of this research is to elicit the public’s perceptions about suburban-strip Chinatowns. An additional goal is to identify the reasons users select suburban-strip Chinatowns over other venues. The final research goal involves the issue of including landscape elements to enhance the cultural identity and sense of place of suburban-strip Chinatowns. To address these goals, this research seeks to find answers to the following questions.

  • How does the built landscape influence the cultural identity of the suburban-strip Chinatown?
  • How can the use of cultural motifs in a landscape lead to stronger cultural identity and increased tourism?
  • What guidelines can be drawn that emphasize cultural motifs in landscape design as a means to establish identity and sense of place in the suburban-strip Chinatown?

Method of inquiry

To address the above issues, the research used a mixed-method approach. Techniques were combined from psychology and design evaluation (e.g., case studies, pilot visual preference studies) and qualitative methods (on-site questionnaires, key-informant interviews) to elicit and compile information about the perceptions of shoppers, visitors, and store owners on suburban-strip Chinatowns.

Results of research

  1. Results drawn from the responses to the questionnaire and pilot visual preference survey data indicated that the presence of Chinese motifs and Chinese garden features enhance the perception of spirit of place in suburban-strip Chinatowns. The data, however, also suggested that the absence of such Chinese motifs can diminish the sense of place to a degree where all cultural association is lost.

  2. Results drawn from observations by the researcher indicated that if facilities for social interaction are provided, social life do occur in the suburban-strip Chinatowns studied.

  3. Results from this research indicated that suburban-strip Chinatowns serve utilitarian functions similar to suburban-strip shopping centers. The research data strongly suggest that a suburban-strip Chinatown with a Chinese motif, Chinese-themed landscaping, and facilities for Chinese social activities offers more than just utility and functions as a cultural resource.

  4. Results from this research strongly indicated that not all suburban-strip Chinatowns are cultural landscapes; however, suburban-strip Chinatowns that meet the identifiable characteristics established as the criteria as defined in the literature review of this research are functioning as cultural landscapes.

  5. The provision of social and educational opportunities are important components for suburban-strip Chinatowns to serve as cultural landscapes in their community.


Based on the findings generated in this research, the following conclusion is evident. The creation of a built landscape that includes cultural motifs, artifacts, within an appropriate landscape, and one that provides spaces and facilities for social interaction and education, enhances the identity and sense of place in a suburban-strip Chinatown and makes such a strip center analogous to older Chinatowns in their cultural value to the community.

Future Research

The following list establishes a framework for additional studies that will enhance the knowledge of a new and emerging form of cultural landscape that is significant to immigrant populations.

  1. What specific Chinese cultural motifs and landscape elements best enhance the cultural identity of a suburban-strip Chinatown?

  2. How do cultural landscapes educate communities about themselves? How does a Chinese school, Chinese-language bookstore, or Chinese-language newspaper educate both children and adults in a community of their culture?

  3. How are utility, education, and recreation linked in the creation of a cultural landscape? What does each component contribute to the effectiveness of the whole, and what is the critical proportion of each?

  4. Do all cultural landscapes improve quality of life and provide a sense of place? Can suburban-strip Chinatowns that are without any Chinese motifs, artifacts, and related landscape elements still have a strong sense of place within the Chinese community?



Respondents perceived both sites as Chinatowns. However, those who indicated suburban-strip Chinatowns bring Chinese culture to surrounding communities through their ethnic motifs and landscaping were more likely to agree that one site is more of a Chinatown than the other.
The following five charts show the results associated with cultural landscapes as defined by Coleman's criteria for cultural landscapes. Results indicate that age and distance traveled are significantly associated with respondents' perceptions of suburban-strip Chinatowns as cultural landscapes.
Gender, age and frequency of visit influenced perceptions ethnic motifs' value to suburban-strip Chinatowns as cultural landscapes. While, frequency of visits, distance traveled and number of years in the U.S. influenced the belief they bring Chinese culture to surrounding communities.
Primary reasons for visiting suburban-strip Chinatowns include to "buy Chinese products," to "eat Chinese food," and to "visit Chinese environment." Analysis of desired changes to increase visitation produced three major categories: Economic Features, Social/Educational Features, and Aesthetic/Landscape Features.
Amongst the landscape elements investigated in the visual preference survey, the addition of an "Entry feature" produced the only statistically significant results.
Using principal component analysis, two main factors were identified that enhance the sense of place of both sites: landscaping which includes Chinese gardens, ethnic motif plantings and cultural elements, and utilitarian factor of larger variety of Chinese products and signage.
The results indicated that by including appropriate cultural motifs, artifacts, and landscapes, the threshold criteria for cultural landscapes can be reached in suburban-strip Chinatown. The research findings have wide implications on the social, economic, and cultural values of suburban-strip Chinatowns.
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