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East Asian immigrant entrepreneurs playing a big part in remaking Chicago

Unlike previous generations coming to Chicago, this one typically brings middle-class backgrounds, coming to the United States for college.

Property values in Chicago’s Chinatown continue to rise at a healthy pace, without excessive gentrification.
Property values in Chicago’s Chinatown continue to rise at a healthy pace, without excessive gentrification.
Colin Boyle / Sun-Times

Vicky Zhang is nervous, with good reason.

She and her partners Bobby Zhao and Richard Pan, all from mainland China, are opening Lao Jiu Men, a new Sichuan hot pot restaurant on South Clark Street in Chinatown. They’ve spent $900,000 on preparations including handsome furnishings imported from China.

Now, having postponed their opening for months due to the coronavirus but unable to delay any longer, they’re launching in the midst of a pandemic.

One more thing: Zhang is 21 and an undergraduate at Loyola University Chicago. Her partners, both 22, also are Loyola students. This is the first time any of them has started a business.

“I’m excited and also worried,” Zhang says. “I don’t really sleep.”

Other than the challenge presented by COVID-19, the venture isn’t as risky as it might seem. Lao Jiu Men is a franchise of a Toronto chain that provided startup advice. Hot pot, a popular cuisine in China now catching on in the United States, doesn’t require highly trained staff. Patrons prepare their own meals, boiling bite-sized bits of beef, shrimp and other foods in soup stock heated on an electric burner built into the table.

Zhang and her partners borrowed from their parents in China. Zhang’s father is a businessman who encouraged her to be an entrepreneur.

“My dad always asked me: Do you want to try something?” she says. “He said: Don’t be afraid of failure. You always learn something.”

An interior view of the Lao Jiu Men restaurant, designed by Variation Design.
An interior view of the Lao Jiu Men restaurant, designed by Variation Design.
Provided

Zhang and her partners exemplify a new breed of East Asian arrivals in Chicago, many from mainland China but also from Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau and Taiwan. Unlike previous generations of immigrants, who usually arrived with little money or education, these newcomers typically have middle-class backgrounds and come for college.

Those who stay after graduation often have access to expertise and capital from back home. Many have an entrepreneurial bent, in some cases picked up from their parents, and start their own businesses young. Like college graduates of any ethnicity these days, many live and work in the city.

Collectively, the new generation is invigorating the Chinese community and making its mark in Chicago business. Other examples:

  • Macus Hoh, cofounder of Variation Design, which planned the interiors for Lao Jiu Men, is a native of Singapore who got a master’s degree in 2012 from the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

After coming to Chicago to work at Skidmore Owings & Merrill and later Gensler, he started his firm in 2018 with partner Klarke Wang and now has offices in Chicago and Los Angeles. His firm has done work for the NEMA residential tower in the South Loop among other projects.

“There’s an openness in business here,” he says. “People judge you by the quality of your performance. I wouldn’t have been able to do projects on the scale I do now in Singapore.”

  • Linxin Wen, founder of Chowbus, a Chicago online food-delivery platform specializing in Asian cuisine from independent restaurants, got his bachelor’s degree in Shanghai after placing in the top 400 of 200,000 students taking the national college-entrance exam.

He arrived in 2013 to pursue a master’s at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Unsatisfied with the food delivery options, he launched his startup in 2015, now operates in 22 markets and recently raised $33 million in capital.

“I had two dreams from childhood — to come to the U.S. and to start my own business,” Wen says. “You can achieve anything if you are determined and open-minded. You need to dream big and step out of your comfort zone.”

The new entrepreneurs in Chicago are part of an increasing Asian presence. Asian Americans account for just 6% of the population but are the fastest-growing of the major ethnic groups. Between 2010 and 2018, the Chinese American population increased 20% in the metro area and 32% in the city.

Chinese immigrants are having their most visible impact in Chicago, which is virtually alone among major American cities in having a growing traditional Chinatown. And the Chinese American community on the Near South Side has spread well beyond its original boundaries.

As the number of East Asian immigrants in Chicago continues to grow (left map), property values have gone up in Chinatown (right) but not so quickly as to gentrify the area out of existence, as has happened in other cities.
As the number of East Asian immigrants in Chicago continues to grow (left map), property values have gone up in Chinatown (right) but not so quickly as to gentrify the area out of existence, as has happened in other cities.
Ed Zotti / Sun-Times

Some fear a run-up in property values spurred by nearby mega-projects such as The 78 might cause Chicago’s Chinatown to be gentrified out of existence, as has happened elsewhere, but so far that hasn’t happened.

Property values in the South Loop, north of Chinatown, have sharply increased. The increases in Chinatown have come at a healthy pace but more slowly. The same is true of neighborhoods to the south and west. A lively area crisscrossed by highways and railroad tracks, Chinatown has largely retained its working-class character.

Signs of change generally reflect investment by Asian Americans, often in overlooked locations. For example, Lao Jiu Men and several other Chinese restaurants are housed in a low-rise building on a nondescript stretch of Clark Street that backs up against Metra tracks, with vacant lots on either side. It’s a short walk from Chinatown and the South Loop.

A few blocks west, a new Asian retail mall called Jefferson Square is about to open in an industrial area on Jefferson Street near Cermak Road. The neighborhood looks desolate, but a Chinese developer has proposed a multi-building residential and retail complex across the street.

Elsewhere in the region, entrepreneur Eddie Ni, who built a business empire after coming to the United States from China in 1981, has converted a failing shopping mall in Aurora into Pacifica Square, which he says will be the largest Asian lifestyle shopping center in the United States. So far, he says it’s 90% leased.

Pacifica Square has shops and restaurants offering cuisine and other products from China, Japan, Korea, Thailand and other East Asian nations. Ni expects to attract a predominantly Asian clientele from a 20- to 30-mile radius.

“We’re not competing with Chinatown,” Ni says. “We’re helping to bring more people to Chicago to live here.

“People still want to move to the U.S. even after all that’s happened,” he says. “All Chinese have the American dream.”