The Chicago area’s multi-ethnic mix provides unceasing delights for those interested in other cultures, though some are easier to explore than others. Among the most accessible, the sights and sounds of Asia are just a short distance from home in Chicago’s Chinatown.
History: Chinese immigrants began moving to Chicago from the Pacific Coast in the 1870s, pressed by rising anti-Asian attitudes in the West. Some 500 had settled on South Clark Street before 1893, when opportunities offered by the World’s Columbian Exposition attracted a new wave of immigrants from around America.
Anti-Chinese bigotry rose in Chicago in the early 20th century, prompting landlords in the Chinatown then centered on Clark and Van Buren streets to jack up rents. The community shifted south to the neighborhood around Cermak Road and Wentworth Avenue, where Chinatown today welcomes visitors with the now-shabby yet still colorful Peter Fung gateway. Erected in 1975, it’s inscribed in Chinese, “The world belongs to the people.”
Most early Chinese settlers in the Midwest originated in southern China — Canton’s Guangdong Province — but since World War II, Chicago has attracted many immigrants from elsewhere in mainland China as well as Taiwan and Hong Kong. Today, metro Chicago has the third-largest Chinese population in America, so you’ll hear Mandarin and Toishanese as well as Cantonese in Chinatown.
What’s there: Chinatown remains a working and a residential neighborhood. Chicago’s Chinese-American population numbered more than 32,000 in 2000, with 33 percent living in Chinatown and adjacent neighborhoods. New housing is under construction, and Chinatown’s population is rising.
As a result, the neighborhood offers more than 70 restaurants, 15 bakeries, eight banks, 20 grocery stores and other shops. In addition, it holds two schools, a branch library, two churches, a Buddhist temple, two parks, two museums and a colorful street life.
What to see: Caged off with iron fencing, the ornate, green and red Cermak-Wentworth Pavilion, erected in the 1990s partly with funds from the Taiwan government, apparently serves mainly to promote the Chinatown Parking Corporation, who donated the land, and whose sign listing prices stands in front of it.
Nearby, the beautiful Nine Dragon Wall plays a notable role for Chinese traditionalists. The 36-foot, glazed-tile wall’s colorful, sculpted draconic icons block bad feng shui (energy) flowing from the Dan Ryan Expressway feeder ramp. The wall replicates a famous Forbidden City landmark built to show the supremacy of China’s Ming and Qung emperors. “It’s one of only six in the world,” says Ed Mazur, who conducts Chinatown tours for the Chicago Greeter program. The Chinese artisans who crafted Chicago’s wall in 2004 fired its tiles in the historic imperial kilns.
Now a religious and cultural center, Pui Tak Center, 2216 S. Wentworth Ave., with its pagoda tower, was built in 1927 by architects Michaelson & Rognstad as headquarters for the powerful On Leong Merchants Association. Glazed tiles depicting flowers and animals cover the facade of this lovely Western fantasy of Chinese style, a Chicago historic landmark. The decorative tiles came from Teco Pottery Company in Crystal Lake. On Leong lost the building in 1992 when the federal government seized it after a gambling raid led to the prosecution of 11 Chinatown businessmen.
Across the street, Won Kow Restaurant, 2233-2239 S. Wentworth Ave., another Michaelson & Rognstad project, possesses similar open balconies and motifs. Up steep stairs on the second floor, the restaurant, Chinatown’s oldest, has been dishing up dumplings and noodles since 1927. Dragons wind around the pillars of a third Michaelson & Rognstad building, 2238 S. Wentworth Ave., yet another striking example of charming, faux-Chinese ornamental tile work and architecture, today housing the Emperor’s Choice Restaurant and the Moy Association.
Inside the unassuming exterior of the International Buddhist Friendship Association, 2249 S. Wentworth Ave., a gorgeous trio of larger-than-lifesize golden Buddhas sit placidly. Take a peek in any time from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, or drop in for the chanting and vegetarian lunch beginning at 10:30 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
The plaza outside Chinatown Square, near Archer and Wentworth avenues, holds 12 bronze zodiac sculptures from China, open, salmon- and teal-colored steel pagodas and four friezes depicting Chinese inventions of printing, paper, gunpowder and the compass. Nearby, a 38-foot, 100,000-tile mosaic, made in China and assembled here, depicts the Chinese experience in America. Posted maps list the businesses inside the adjoining shopping mall.
Designed by Chicago architects Harry Weese and Associates in 1993, the open-roofed mall itself is rather forbidding, as all the shops face inward, showing ugly metal garage-type doors to the street, and you enter its poorly lit interior through relatively small doorways flanked by jail-like gates. Persevere, however, because some of the best restaurants in Chinatown lie within.
At Ping Tom Park, 300 W. 19th St., you’re surrounded by Chicago as a transportation hub. From the park, you can see two sets of railroad tracks, including a rare, 1915 vertical-lift bridge crossing the Chicago River South Branch; as well as both the red and orange lines; the Dan Ryan Expressway; an unusual single-leaf drawbridge on 18th Street, not to mention the river itself, where dragon boats race in the summer. Named for a community leader, the 12-acre park with an open Chinese pavilion was carved from a disused rail yard in 1998. Four dragon columns guard the entry.
The neighborhood’s most contemporary building, Kam Liu Center, 2141 S. Tan Court, built in 2004, houses the Chinese American Service League (called “Castle” for its initials by everyone in Chinatown), the community’s leading social service agency. Studio Gang Architects’ striking, yet understated structure drew a host of architecture awards for its steel-lattice sunshade and luminous, diamond-shaped titanium tiles.
Museums: Celebrating its first anniversary and still a work in progress in the 1896 Quong Yick building, the volunteer-run Chinese-American Museum of Chicago, 238 W. 23rd St., (312) 949-1000, concentrates on the experience of Chinese immigrants and their descendants in America.
The current exhibition, “Silk and Wood,” running through July, showcases recent acquisitions, with clothing such as donor Catherine Chin’s richly embroidered traditional Chinese wedding dress and a woman’s three-piece outfit with opera coat, sent from Hong Kong with a college student who studied here in the 1960s. “Her mother thought she would have a social life,” said Grace Chun, the exhibition’s curator.
A wooden clothes rack commissioned by a Chinese businessman upon setting up housekeeping in 1912 and a pyramidal wooden barber’s stool from the early 19th century offer graceful examples of the Chinese way with wood.
Open 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Fridays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, the museum charges $2 admission, $1 for children, students and seniors.
The one-room, third-floor Dr. Sun Yat Sen Museum, 2245 S. Wentworth Ave., (312) 842-5462, opened in October 2002. Founded by the Chicago branch of Taiwan’s Nationalist Party, it pays tribute to the original president of the Republic of China, who paid Chicago three visits in 1910 and 1911. Exhibits include photographs, copies of documents and portraits of Sun and Abraham Lincoln. It’s open noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Donations are accepted.
Restaurants: In the mornings, especially on weekends, there are always long lines at Phoenix, 2131 S. Archer Ave., (312) 328-0848, one of the best restaurants for dim sum served in a traditional way from carts. Cantonese for “heart’s delight,” dim sum are small plates of steaming dumplings, hot buns, crispy fried tidbits and more customarily eaten for breakfast or lunch with tea. Servers wheel up to your table and display their delectable dishes, and you point at what you want. It’s an easy way to delve into this fare, since you get to see what you’re ordering, and waiting to see what comes next is always exciting.
If you know your dim sum, Happy Chef Dim Sum House, 2164 S. Archer Ave. in Chinatown Square Mall, (312) 808-3689, offers excellent dim sum (first-rate dumplings!) with shorter waits, but less adventure, since you check off what you want on a menu.
Always crowded, Joy Yee’s Noodles, 2159 S. China Place in Chinatown Square Mall, (312) 328-0001, serves large portions of tasty, inexpensive, pan-Asian dishes and a vast variety of fresh fruit drinks. It’s among Chinatown’s best places to sample “bubble” tea or “boba” drinks studded with chewy blobs of tapioca, an Asian craze they claim to have introduced here. However, the constantly whirring blenders make dining here something less than a restful experience.
If you love chilies, head for LaoSzeChuan, 2172 S. Archer Ave. in Chinatown Square Mall, (312) 326-5040. Unique in Chinatown, the zesty cuisine of Chef and owner Chef Xiao-Jun “Tony” Hu, who stars in a cooking show on local Chinese TV, offers real depth of flavor both spicy and mild. Don’t miss the fragrant, succulent tea-smoked duck.
Moon Palace, 216 W. Cermak Road, (312) 842-2390, specializes in the cuisine of Shanghai. Be sure to try the xiao long bao, savory, soup-filled dumplings, a Shanghainese specialty.
Penang, 201 S. Wentworth Ave. (312) 326-6888, is Chicago’s only Malaysian restaurant.
Shopping: A very contemporary art and gift shop, Hoypoloi Gallery, 2235 S. Wentworth Ave., Chicago, (312) 225-6477, stocks work from more than 150 artists across the country, including art glass, jewelry, contemporary art, gift items and a few Asian pieces.
Find traditional Chinese statuary, wood carvings and jewelry at Oriental Art Imports, 2239 S. Wentworth Ave., (312) 328-0888.
The In Shop, 239 W. Cermak Road, (312) 225-0090, sells those sexy cheongsam dresses, frogged jackets and other Chinese-style clothing.
For lovely jade pieces and gold pendants in Chinese designs, stop into Evergreen Jewelry, 2263 S. Wentworth Ave., (312) 808-0730.
Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Co., 2247 S. Wentworth Ave., (312) 842-1171, offers a huge selection of Chinese teas, with freshly brewed samples available.
Aji Ichiban, 2117-A S. China Place in Chinatown Square Mall, (312) 328-9998, offers exotic Asian candy, chocolate, and dried fruit and fish, usually with samples available to try. Check out the candied ginger, green mango or rose strawberry.
Saint Anna Bakery and Cafe, 2158 S. Archer Ave. in Chinatown Square Mall, (312) 225-3168, is one of Chinatown’s best bakeries. Pick up some barbecued-pork buns or egg tarts to take home.
Two large Chinese groceries, Chinatown Market, 2121 S. Archer Ave. (312) 881-0068, and Richwell Market, 1835 S. Canal St., (312) 226-9611, are among the more accessible places to stock up on live seafood, noodles, tea and many other Asian foodstuffs. A little off the beaten track, the larger, less cramped Richwell also has an in-house Chinese barbecue counter and a full-service bakery.
If you need a wok (the best ones are cold-rolled steel), a bamboo steamer or any other Chinese cooking tool, the cramped but fascinating Woks ‘n’ Things, 2234 S. Wentworth Ave., (312) 842-0701, is the place.
Downsides: Chinatown offers no visitors’ center and few conveniences for tourists. Most businesses reserve restrooms for paying customers, and many shopkeepers speak limited English. Because of its easy accessibility, the neighborhood can sometimes be plagued by panhandlers from elsewhere in the city.