Author: Yier Ling

Program of Study: Master in Computational Social Science, Division of the Social Sciences (SSD)

Much to many people’s surprise, Chinatown has always been a mystery to me as a Chinese citizen. Despite the same descent and traditional culture I share with Chinatown residents, how they are nurtured and influenced by their local cultures has always confounded me: will they welcome me as a fellow brethren of the same root, or will they despise me with superiority from the comparative underdevelopment of China? With such ambivalence, I chose Chinatown as the first place to virtually explore. Later something popped out: on so many lampposts there were printed notices attached, saying “Great place to rent out” in either simplified or traditional Chinese, but no English-they were meant to be understood by only Chinese speakers, which would guarantee most of the tenants to be of Chinese descent. Ironically, the term “Great place to rent out” in Chinese is also the Chinese name for the musical Rent, which tells stories of tenants with various backgrounds.

A Chinese-only Notice. (Source: not available)

Consequently, with many rental activities operated through Chinese-only posts by the street, it is not astonishing to find that Curious City (2017), part of the Chicago news source, reported the absence of rental listings in Chinatown on rental websites despite the large population of residents in Chinatown. On the rental website Trulia, the area near Chinatown has much less listings than the Loop; once zoomed in, in the region of Chinatown there is only one listing above W Cullerton Street. The same applies to another rental website Zillow, where the Chinatown region is rather devoid of listings compared to neighboring regions clustered with listings.

Listings on Trulia. (Screenshot by author)

Listings on Zillow. (Screenshot by author)

At the same time, such a lack of listings is not unique to long-term rental market. On probably the world’s largest short-term rental website, Airbnb, there also exist less listings than surrounding areas beside Chinatown. Moreover, almost all hosts of these listings clearly signal that they are able to communicate in Chinese (some even wrote Chinese in the headings), which may be taken as a gesture to not completely turn down guests of other cultures and ethnicities, but indeed prioritize, prefer and hope to attract guests of the same oriental culture.

Listings on Airbnb. (Screenshot by author)

Such acts to promote business activities with certain clienteles, especially posting those Chinese-only notices in Chinatown, can be defined as discriminatory according to Fershtman et al. (2005), which states that discrimination refers to treating people differently according to their group affiliations. Under this circumstance, the difference is that these Chinese landlords in Chinatown use a language for their counterparts to understand when facing their ingroups, i.e., other Chinese people, while using a language their counterparts would not understand to communicate, or simply refusing to communicate, when their counterparts are their outgroups of other ethnicities. In other words, it could be taken as the difference in the levels of difficulty to communicate and rent accommodations in Chinatown between Chinese and other ethnical groups set by the landlords. As their outgroups include all ethnicities who do not speak Chinese, this can sometimes be seen as ‘reverse discrimination’ from the minority against the majority. Similar to discrimination in most cases, such discrimination is likely to harm the discriminated by worsening information asymmetry: a non-Chinese speaker may have to struggle, both mentally and physically, to procure accommodation in Chinatown if he/she wishes to live there. In the meantime, as indicated by Becker (2008) and Edelman et al. (2017) mentioned, there is also a price to pay by the discriminators. In this situation, the landlords are indeed foregoing possible opportunities to rent dwellings with higher rents to tenants from better socio-economic backgrounds but different cultures.

Like any other form of discrimination, it is always vital to think about the causes, and correspondingly, solutions. Discrimination in Chinatown rental market can be either taste-based, where the landlords simply loathe people of other ethnicities for no reason (Becker, 1957); statistical, where they are optimizing their decisions based on stereotypes (Arrow, 1972); or both. Regarding taste-based discrimination, such acts from Chinese landlords may be retaliations of racism and discrimination they received, especially among the elder generations. It is reported that US Chinese elders still receive injustice and discrimination (Dong et al., 2014), and past anti-Chinese agitations might impact on them more profoundly than the younger generations. Meanwhile, young Chinese people are also less likely to own properties to rent out than elders, which makes it possible for Chinese elders to vent their dissatisfaction through prioritizing Chinese. At the same time, these landlords may also discriminate to ensure their own benefits as they might think they would acquire a better sense of control with tenants of the same culture. This is supported by the Curious City (2017) report, which suggests that Chinese landlords discriminate in such a manner as they believe Chinese tenants would share the same norms with them, and thus they can coordinate better in renting properties. Such emphasis on shared norms can also be consolidated by the fact that it is easier for many tenants to successfully rent dwellings through certain networks of the landlords, which might be because kindred minds in the same networks are more likely to think alike. Again, akin to various cases of discrimination, taste-based and statistical discrimination are often indistinguishable from each other, and possibly there is a mix of both inside every landlord who posts Chinese-only notices.

Discriminating potential clients in the rental market could foster segregation, and perhaps it is one of the reasons why no part of Chinese culture, especially in the new era, seems globally overwhelming when K-pop and Japanese Anime are taking over the world. To tackle such discrimination, the Chinese community as a whole may lend a helping hand to educate the public about certain Chinese language and culture, apart from advising landlords to post bilingual notices. Landlords may also try to rent their properties on shorter terms to other ethnicities to possibly correct or erase stereotypes, which Chinese people as a minority should themselves dislike.




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Dong, X., Chen, R., & Simon, M. A. (2014). Experience of Discrimination Among U.S. Chinese Older Adults. Journals of Gerontology Series A-biological Sciences and Medical Sciences.

Edelman, B., Luca, M., & Svirsky, D. (2017). Racial Discrimination in the Sharing Economy: Evidence from a Field Experiment. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 9(2), 1-22.

Eng, M., 2017. Why Chicago’S Chinatown Is Invisible In The Online Apartment Market. [online] WBEZ Chicago. Available at: <> [Accessed 16 August 2020].

Fershtman, C., Gneezy, U., & Verboven, F. (2005). Discrimination and Nepotism: The Efficiency of the Anonymity Rule. The Journal of Legal Studies, 34(2), 371-396.