The Grid: Exploring the Chinatown Neighborhood
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Welcome to the “The Grid,” the Chicago Sun-Times in-depth look at Chicago neighborhoods.
Today’s stop: Chinatown.
Located about three miles from downtown Chicago, Chinatown is a small, vibrant neighborhood filled with locals and tourists alike. From the towering bright red gate on Wentworth Avenue to tranquil Ping Tom Memorial Park along the Chicago River, Chinatown is a must-visit in Chicago. Most people come for the authentic cultural cuisine but there is much more to explore as you’ll see in this episode of The Grid.
Our story includes:
- The history of Chinatown
- Interesting places to visit
- Where to find the best food and drink
- Fun places to shop
This story on Chinatown is one in a series by the Sun-Times focused on the interesting people and places in Chicago’s many neighborhoods, intended for locals and visitors alike in hopes that all will be inspired to explore our city. We have engaging videos and a comprehensive story all curated by our Sun-Times audience team to help provide you with the most current and meaningful information about the important and best things to do in each neighborhood.
We’re proud to welcome Baird & Warner as presenting sponsor of “The Grid.” Leading our video adventure is Sun-Times program host, Ji Suk Yi.
Ji Visits Chinatown
Hearing the word “Chinatown” conjures up a distinctive image in most of our minds. For me, it’s a sensory explosion to visualize the architecture and to imagine the smells and sounds of the busy neighborhood. Of course, I immediately think delicious food! But there’s more to be found in Chinatown than what satisfies a hungry belly!
While most Chinatowns in the country are on the decline, Chicago’s Chinatown is growing in population, development and vibrancy. The neighborhood continues to welcome arriving Chinese immigrants, many from different regions of China that result in an introduction of traditions and foods that are new to our particular version of Chinatown.
Chicago’s Chinatown has the distinction of having stayed culturally Chinese in large part due to the influx of Chinese immigrants that continue to make the neighborhood home. Many other Chinatowns have become decidedly less Chinese due to gentrification. There are non-Chinese owned businesses in the neighborhood, but most, even then, are still owned by Asian Americans. Recently, there have been several Korean owned businesses that have made the scene. Regardless, it’s still mostly Chinese, while also warmly welcoming visitors wishing to experience Chinese American culture.
With more development, like the recently announced 168-room hotel on the horizon, the neighborhood and growing influx of non-Chinese businesses will have to grapple with finding the balance between change and tradition.
“Chinatown, naturally for decades has been I think encapsulated with physical barriers, that kind of kept it from gentrification. Now it’s an interesting (time)… we’re about to face some issues that nationwide other Chinatowns are going through with possible gentrification and tons of different (non-Chinese) influences,” said Milo Chan, Chinatown resident and manager of restaurant Go 4 Food.
Chinatowns came into existence because of forced and self-segregation due to discrimination, institutional or otherwise. As with many neighborhoods where a minority group was relegated and lacked resources, the community created informal networks to look after their own. Many of these informal social service organizations or societies acted as safety nets started during the Chinese Exclusion Act era when immigrants had to navigate complex immigration laws and find jobs in a hostile environment.
Chinatown isn’t officially one of the city’s 77 recognized communities but is considered part of Armour Square. The heart of Chinatown is found at the intersection of Cermak Road and Wentworth Avenue. This is known as “Old Chinatown” marked by the Chinatown Gate. There is also “New Chinatown” which includes the Chinatown Square and all the businesses and restaurants along Archer Avenue.
(Also, don’t confuse this with “New Chinatown” in the Uptown neighborhood or the new enclave of acclaimed Chinese restaurants in Bridgeport that foodies are dubbing “new Chinatown” as well. THE Chinatown has a new and old Chinatown in it. Still follow me? I hope so!)
To make things more confusing, the current location of our Chinatown in Armour Square wasn’t the first location for the neighborhood. The original location was around Clark and Van Buren. Let’s delve into a little background before I explain why it was relocated.
My favorite things by Linda Yu
- For dinner: Go 4 Food
- Dim sum place: Ming Hin
- For bubble tea: Joy Yee’s
- Best spot to visit: Ping Tom Memorial Park
- Chinatown Charity: Chinese American Service League, because they help so many immigrants
The history of Chinatown
According to the timeline exhibit at the Chinese American Museum of Chicago, by 1875 there were a lot of businesses owned and operated by the Chinese. This included 18 laundries and one tea shop at 35 W. Madison in the original Chinatown location in the Loop.
More Chinese fled to the relative safety of the Midwest after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. This law banned Chinese from immigrating to the U.S. – the first law to do so by race. This law would be revoked in 1943 (but with severe limitations until 1965).
Prejudice and racism grew on the West and East coasts of the country, stemming from racial, economic and cultural tensions. Most Chinese had come to work in the goldmines, build the transcontinental railroads and engage in laborious agriculture or factory work. With the completion of the railroad and downturn of the economy, there weren’t enough jobs to go around. This resulted in a rise of anti- Chinese sentiment from other non-Chinese American workers.
During the 1870s and 1880s, over 150 anti-Chinese riots erupted in the American West. An example of how serious the threats were is supported by the horrific act of violence in Wyoming during 1885 when a mob of white coal miners attacked their fellow Chinese workers in a dispute over unionizing and rights to work in the most lucrative area of the mines. The massacre resulted in the death of 28 Chinese men, some burned alive, scalped and mutilated, and the torching of almost 80 homes. Hundreds were chased out of town.
In 1889, anti-Chinese riots found their way to the Midwest, spreading to Milwaukee. A local newspaper had run a story that a Chinese laundry was running a sex trade operation despite several white women testifying they had gone to the laundry of their own free will. Because of the Exclusion Act many Chinese men could not be reunited with their wives resulting in Chinatowns being disporpotionately male before World War II. The high concentration of men created a pervasive stereotype of Chinatown as dangerous and seedy among many white Americans.
During the 1893 World’s Fair, China chose not participate in protest of the Exclusion laws, but local Chinese American residents used personal funds to create an impressive and elaborate Chinese village.
Most of these new residents were from the Taishan (Toisan) and Guangzhou regions of southern most China and spoke Cantonese. Moy Dong Chow was a dominant leader in Chinatown and a successful businessman that was instrumental in moving Chinatown to its current location in Armour Square.
In 1912, most all of businesses that comprised Chinatown moved from the Loop location to the current location in Armour Square. This neighborhood had predominantly been an Italian neighborhood.
In the 1990s, the old Santa Fe railroads north of the neighborhood were purchased to build Chinatown Square. To the south, many Chinese are acquiring homes that were formerly largely Irish in ownership.
Interesting places to visit
The Chinese American Museum is an awesome first stop on your visit to the neighborhood.The exhibits rotate and there are only a couple of levels open to the public so it’s not overwhelming. It won’t take much time and will give you a great foundation on the history of the neighborhood. It’s also free (although they happily accept donations in lieu of an admission fee)!
Just west of the Cermak Red Line station, you’ll find the Nine Dragon Wall, a reproduction of a wall located in Beijing. The wall depicts nine large dragons and over 500 smaller ones, depicted in auspicious colors. Dragons are considered culturally sacred and the number 9 is a lucky, magical number.
On Wentworth and Cermak, the Chinatown Gate marks the entrance of the “Old Chinatown” area of the neighborhood. Designed and built by Peter Fung in 1975, not much is known about the artist. (While I type, the city is currently straightening out the intersection of where the gate sits for traffic safety.)
Chinatown Square was completed in 1993 and is considered part of “New Chinatown.” It’s a two-level open courtyard with restaurants, salons, shopping and offices. There’s an open square where twelve bronze Chinese zodiac animal statues sit on individual pedestals.
The Chinese American Veterans Memorial honors local Chinese Americans that have served in foreign wars. The black granite memorial is easily spotted with the flags flying high above.
Originally the Chicago and Western Indiana Railroad yard, in 1998 the Chicago Park District transformed the area into beautiful green space with walking paths, trees, playground and a Chinese garden. There are also signs that direct you to a kayak launch where you can rent or launch your own kayak.
Ping Tom (1935-1995) was a notable civic leader and a leading force behind the park’s creation. A lifelong resident of Chinatown, Ping Tom formed the Chinese American Development Corporation in 1984.
In 2002, the Chicago Park District acquired five additional acres on the northeast side of the park. The park’s field house, named in honor of the late advisory council President Leonard Louie, was completed in October 2013.
When in Chinatown, take a moment to take in the Pui Tak Center. The 30,000 square foot building with intricate molding and distinctive Chinese architecture was the former On Leong Chinese Merchant Association building.
The On Leong Chinese Merchants Association was a network and society (or tong) that built Chinatown in Chicago. The members of the society were a group of businessmen that helped finance, conceptualize and support businesses and determined most of community planning. Because of discrimination and lack of government resources, the community looked after itself and built its own network and safety net.
The New Chinatown (although it is mostly home to southeast Asian cuisine and culture, in particular Vietnamese) location on Uptown’s Argyle Street was spearheaded by the Hip Sing Association. At the same time the On Leong Association recommended the business district move from the original Loop location to Armour Square, President Jimmy Wong of the Hip Sing Association purchased almost all of the property on the three block stretch of Argyle street in 1974 and recommended this location as the ideal location. Both associations helped to create two wonderful enclaves of culture and there are several Chinese restaurants still in Uptown’s New Chinatown.
Pui Tak Center is Chinatown’s only historical landmark. It looks very ornate and Chinese but I was surprised to learn that the building was designed by two Norwegian architects named Michaelson and Rognstad, who used a German architect’s book as a guide!
The Norwegian architects had never been to China, but the German architect had been! Luckily, his book documented copious notes and drawings of authentic Chinese architecture on his travels. Due to discrimination, no Chinese architects were licensed to do the work. The Norwegian architects designed two additional buildings nearby with the same ornate details, although it looks a bit “off” for those with a discerning architectural or cultural eye upon closer inspection.
In 1993, the Chinese Christian Union Church purchased the Pui Tak Center building from the federal government and created a community center. In addition to using the building for its youth and Mandarin language ministry, the church has education and music programs and provides assistance to new immigrants.
The Chinatown library branch is award-winning. Its distinctive facade of curving glass is a modern architectural addition to the neighborhood. The city invested $19 million into the two-story building, which comes from the same architecture firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, behind One World Trade Center in New York City and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
Traditional Chinese architectural elements were taken into consideration when designing the library, including traditions with feng shui along with interiors inspired by hutongs (narrow alleys) and courtyards. I must say, on the occasions I have been there, it is the busiest public library I have seen in quite a while.
Lunar New Year is one of the most anticipated celebrations all year long. While multiple celebrations happen in various location around the city in February, none are as well attended as the Chinese Lunar New Year Parade in Chinatown. There is the traditional dancing lion and dragon teams that travel along Wentworth Avenue from 24th Place to Cermak Road. There are marching bands, floats and around 30,000 people in attendance.
Every June, the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce holds the Chicago Dragon Boat Race for Literacy. A portion of the proceeds from the event goes to local schools and organizations. There are 32 dragon boat race teams which compete on the south branch of the Chicago River in beautifully decorated dragon boats, each with up to 20 crew members.
Also in the summer, the Chicago Chinatown Community Foundation hosts a Summer Fair in July with music, art and food celebrating Asian culture. There are martial arts demonstrations, traditional music performances and food and craft vendors. And of course, there’s a lion dance procession!
The Chinese American Service League has been an institution in the community for forty years! The non profit community based social service agency has been critical acclimating new immigrants and nurturing Chinese culture and traditions. They provide everything from education programs to job training for the Chinese American community and others, regardless of background.
Heritage Museum of Asian Art was founded in 2014 and showcases a wide range of art from various time periods and spanning many Asian cultures. There’s Chinese furniture and Asian pottery, ceramics, textiles and jade, just to name a few. There is also a research library. There’s a suggested donation of $8 for adults and $6 for seniors and college students.
There is one more museum to mention, although it is small, easily overlooked and doesn’t have a website. The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Museum is located at 2245 S. Wentworth Ave. The entrance is just an old door, although it is marked. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen was a medical doctor who turned into a revolutionary and overthrew the Qing dynasty in 1911, and he is considered “the father of the Chinese Revolution.” The museum is only open on weekends.
My favorite things by Ada Tong
- Chinese American Museum of Chicago, because it was a community idea to preserve the history of the Chinese American migration from the West Coast to the Midwest and it provides free art programming to the community
- My Place Restaurant for the budget-friendly meals — Where else can you buy a full entree and receive a free drink for under $6?
- Ping Tom Memorial Park. I love sitting by the willow trees next to the river, watch the dragon boat races, and admire the new “All as One” mural with traditional Chinese motifs and porcelain theme
- Tai Ho Yee Barbeque — they have the best BBQ roast pork in Chinatown
- Chinatown Summer Fair, a time for everyone to visit one of the most vibrant and thriving Chinatowns in the US
Where to find the best food and drink
Need to stick to a budget? Go to Chinatown. Need something late night? Go to Chinatown. It’s Thanksgiving or Christmas and you have nowhere to go or don’t celebrate? You get the drift. You already know all of this.
There are too many delicious places to eat in Chinatown. Consider this a curated guide from me, with input from all of the industry luminaries I’m lucky enough to galavant with, although I do frequent Chinatown, on my own, a lot!
It seems each restaurant has its own outstanding niche speciality. At times, I have done a solo food crawl just for one meal because I am craving a particular dumpling to go along with my favorite style of tofu, for example.
Also, one disclaimer: Trying to lump all Chinese food into one category is crazy. China is geographically humongous and full of different ethnicities, provinces/regions and dialects. Chicago’s Chinatown reflects the history of the people who decided to settle here and open up businesses, and in turn make their homestyle foods. I am not a Chinese historian, and to speak definitively on all the different types of Chinese cuisine, one would have to be — so please don’t hesitate to speak to your server when you sit down and order, ask questions, and if you feel adventurous, try something new! They’ll guide you through it and they’re the experts.
Open since December 2015, Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings has been operating from its new location on 2002 S Wentworth Ave., having graduated from a stall in the lower level of the Richland Center food court. These are crescent shaped delicacies, juicy and piping hot, made fresh to order — steamed, pan-fried or boiled to perfection. They can even accommodate your vegetarian friends! I also enjoy their cucumbers and peanuts to start. Plus, check out the delicious selection of hot teas.
I was first drawn to Go 4 Food years ago when I heard about this incredible lunch special they offered. The lunch menu has changed since then, but they still have very good lunch prices with generous portions. It’s elevated, fresh, Hong Kong fusion cuisine. My favorites include the seafood hot and sour soup, French fried beef tenderloin, the razor clam vermicelli noodles with an addictive garlic sauce and of course, the very freshest dungeness crabs – served smothered in chili or salted egg yolk.
For soup dumplings or xiao long bao, everyone says Hing Kee in Chinatown. You can watch them make it fresh right through the front window. My method for eating a soup dumpling: I bite the top off, where the swirl meets into the perfect fold, suck out the soup, and then carefully douse the black vinegar and ginger back into the dumpling opening I just created (this cools the stuffing while also ensuring a second soup sensation) and then pop the entire dumpling in my mouth. I do not care if I am not doing it right.
The aforementioned used to have the best pulled noodles but that distinction now belongs to Slurp Slurp. You can get your noodles either shaved with a knife (visually it looks like a wood worker catapulting slivers of wood from a block) or hand-pulled (a remarkable feat to watch — it looks like a combo of professional yo-yo tricks mixed with the cat’s cradle finger string game you may have played as a child, although I doubt millennials will know what I’m talking about). Slurp Slurp’s noodles are tasty in texture, and I usually choose the broth option rather than stir-fry.
For hot pot, go to Little Sheep Mongolian Hotpot. The atmosphere is incredible and it’s comfortable with wide booths that can easily accommodate a big group. Hot pot takes time, and you’ll be seated a while as you dunk your meat, seafood and veggies to cook them to the perfect tenderness, so it’s the ideal experience to share with friends.
For Sze Chuan cuisine, in the past I would have recommended Lao Sze Chuan. It’s still good but my go-to now for spicy, addictive, good burn is MCCB Restaurant. MCCB stands for Modern Chinese Cook Book. They have a dry hot pot option that you can order with as many protein and vegetable options as you desire. On the secret menu, there is an entree called “I See Fish” — it’s freshly fried fish but with a twist. The fish is filleted and the meat is mixed in mala spice but then, the fish carcass is deep fried once more. You can gnaw on the crispy bits of digestible bone and fins, along with making sure you get the fish cheeks!
“In a way, there’s really no such thing as Chinese food because each region is different and each cuisine is different,” said Mabel Menard, Executive Director of the Chinese American Museum of Chicago. “Dim sum, the term is Cantonese. It means to dot the heart. It makes you happy and it’s small bites but it is Cantonese food.” Menard also shared a secret with me – her mother always said that the measure of good dim sum is in the har gow and siu mai – the wrapper should be paper thin and delicate and the shrimp plump and juicy.
Dim sum recommendations include MingHin Cuisine, which has been the running favorite for many of my friends. I’m a big fan of their short rib with honey sauce along with their various dumplings.
For a splashy atmosphere, including a beautiful room with chandeliers, head over to Cai. They have to-die-for delicious egg yolk buns. I feel completely transported when I am having dim sum here because the room is so gigantic and the carts are whizzing by.
Dolo, another favorite for dim sum, occupies a smaller space with less tables but is a more modern, sleek affair. There are no carts here but the upside is that your food spends no time on a cart being wheeled from table to table. Their har gow is perfection.
If you want a fruit smoothie with boba, head to Joy Yee Noodle — they literally have every variety possible. And if the line to the take-out window in summer is any indication, they clearly are a fan favorite and know what they are doing.
BBQ King House doesn’t have great ambiance, but go there for barbecue you can take home. I’ve picked up roast duck to take to a picnic or house party and it’s always a big hit. They have great duck, chicken, pork ribs, and the more exotic as well.
Go to old school bakeries Chiu Quon Bakery and Saint Anna’s Bakery. Both have their loyal followings for buns, pastries and tea. Newer tea shops include Kung Fu Tea and Hello Jasmine. TBaar has tea and rolled ice cream. Ingredients are smashed and mixed into ice cream that is spread thin on a cold metal plate and then rolled into paper thin scrolls of ice cream. Just a few doors down, Legend Tasty House also has an extensive menu of the Thai rolled ice cream with an assortment of toppings.
If you’re around late night or need a bite after staying at the bar for last call, head over to Chi Cafe. The bright, fun atmosphere will help wake you up and the food is surprisingly good and consistent for a spot that is open from 8 a.m. to 4 a.m.!
A lot of Korean restaurants are in Chinatown. The newest one is Daebak Korean BBQ — you can cook your own barbecue and the restaurant is set up with good ventilation chimneys so you don’t smoke your neighbor out. The panchan is plentiful and their seafood pancake is thicker and heartier than I’ve seen at other Korean spots.
Also, there’s Korean fried chicken chain Bonchon Chicken. This is an uber chain straight from South Korea and they are known as wing specialists.
If you’re in the mood for ramen, head over to Strings Ramen. Their noodles are delicious — I enjoy the consistency and texture and they have a wide array of broths so you can customize the level of heat and the heartiness of your broth flavors. Surprisingly I’m always drawn to the oden bar and sashimi bowl, particularly their spicy scallop bowl which tastes like one giant spicy scallop hand roll.
If you want a place to sing your heart out, then head over to Sakura Karaoke Bar. If you’d like a little more privacy, then head over to PopKTV Karaoke, where you can rent out a private room to belt our your tunes just for you and your friends. Just be sure to have your go-to song picked out!
My favorite things about Chinatown by Jacob Yeung
- As a 2nd-generation Chinese American raised in a smaller Midwestern city, the first thing I noticed and fell in love with in Chinatown is the community. A lot of the residents are working-class immigrants, many of whom work in the service industry just like my mother back home in Flint, Michigan, who values hard work and has made a modest yet comfortable life in the United States.
- Chinatown has a lot of home gardens that grow uncommon Chinese vegetables, including my favorite bittermelon. If you stroll down the alleyways, you’ll see the gardens thrown up using upcycled materials. It really speaks to the resourcefulness of immigrants and desire to make Chicago feel like “home”, as many gardeners have have migrated from rural parts of China.
- Chinese markets are a great place to explore and find new foods. Many people may be thrown off upon entering because it’s not what they’re used to, but if you poke around enough you’ll definitely find something new that’ll hit the spot. A great place to start is the snack aisle.
- It’s easy to think of Chinatown as a place you go to with a set of agendas, like eating and visiting Ping Tom Park, but the true essence of it lies within its details. As a photographer, I’m drawn to notice the interesting combinations of floral print ensembles worn by senior women or the old and new architecture representing various phases of growth in Chinatown.
Places to shop
My favorite candy shop where you can buy every flavor of the hard-to-find imported Kit Kat is Aji Ichiban. Just remember those baskets are small for a reason! It doesn’t take a lot to rack up quite a bill just for your sweet tooth.
AJ Housewares has been a long favorite for any type of souvenir, cookware, clothing or trinkets. I also love everything in Champion Books and Gifts! So, so cute!
There are many shops that sell herbal medicines and tea. Some of the best are Yin Wall City, Sun Sun Tong Company and Tea King Garden. A friend in-the-know recommended Lisa’s Herbal Corporation. The proprietor is a fourth generation herbalist and has quite the following.
Korean Beauty and Judy’s Cosmetics have a wide variety of beauty creams, treatments and make up. There are also several beauty salons and massage clinics available as well.
China Place Liquor City is great to stop in to look for something to take to a restaurant that’s BYOB.
Hoy Poloi Gallery has all types of whimsical and unique sculpture and artwork that’s great for gift giving.
Chinatown transports you. It’s traveling without a passport and without spending a lot of money. When you’re in Chinatown you’re in awe of the history behind the community and reminded of the great American immigrant story that transcends race and culture. Chinatown can challenge your comfort zones (like trying that new dish you’ve never had) or remind you of the comforts of home. Hope you’ve enjoyed my personal picks but just remember, this is about exploring for yourself. I always discover something new every time I go! I hope you’ll discover something new and let me know! P.S. You can also take organized tours that focus on food or culture or architecture. See you next time on The Grid!
This new Sun-Times video series showcases the best of Chicago’s neighborhoods (and suburbs!) by turning a spotlight on the people, places and things that make our city one-of-a-kind. Look for a new video episode each Wednesday on the Chicago Sun-Times website. #thegrid. We hope you will watch, read and share all of The Grid stories!
The Grid neighborhood guides
- Episode 1: Logan Square
- Episode 2: Andersonville
- Episode 3: Pilsen
- Episode 4: Hyde Park
- Episode 5: Ravenswood
- Episode 6: Printers Row
- Episode 7: Roscoe Village
- Episode 8: Bronzeville
- Episode 9: Rogers Park