History of Chinatown
Chinese culture is nothing short of fascinating. From the intricate language to the deeply rooted history and detail in customary practices, it is a without a doubt a splendid culture worth every effort it has maintained to preserve it.
Chicago is fortunate enough to have a piece of the rich culture in Chinatown, an area on the near South Side and a larger part of the Bridgeport community.
Immigration to Chicago
The Chinese first came to American in search of opportunity. There was economic hardship in China, and the promise of work lured some across the Pacific. Most settled in California and worked on the Transcontinental Railroad. When it got completed in 1869, many didn’t want to go back to China, and instead decided to find a way in this new land. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 meant the small population of Chinese that were already here wouldn’t increase, and unwelcome feelings were beginning to break out. Chinese immigrants experienced discrimination along the west coast and many of them fled the violent uproars breaking out in San Francisco and Los Angeles. They headed east and settled in cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
The transcontinental railroad provided them a relatively easy way to move across state lines to Illinois as it spanned 1,907 miles and connected the west coast at San Francisco Bay with the existing railroad network in eastern United States at Council Bluff, Iowa.
When we think of Chinatown, most of us think of the area in Armor Square, by Cermak and Wentworth. That’s the area that is officially recognized by the city, and what we’ve always experienced. However, that wasn’t Chicago’s first Chinatown. When the Chinese originally arrived in Chicago they settled around Clark Street, between Van Buren and Harrison, in the Loop. By the late 1800’s Chicago only had approximately 600 Chinese residents, but 25% of them settled there. The community was slowly growing in size and by 1900 had reached over 1,200. Many organizations started to grow and prosper including an affiliate of the national Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. It’s an old organization that has chapters all over in the world, in any place where there are large amounts of Chinese people.
But it didn’t take long for them to be on the move again. Increased rent prices, discrimination, and disagreement in the community led them to relocate. In 1912 the On Leong Merchants Association led the move further south to Armor Square.
The On Leong Merchants Association was a tong society and one of the first cultural organizations the Chinese had in Chicago. Commercial success was important for the community to survive, and the move to the new neighborhood presented opportunity. To start, they constructed a building along Cermak Ave that could support stores, apartments and their headquarters. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that Chicago would see the beginning of major developments in Chinatown.
Racial discrimination continued to be a part of the American culture at the time and, as a result, some Chinese community leaders were not able to secure the 50, ten year leases they needed. They were eventually able to gain them, but only with the use of an intermediary, H.O. Stone Company. From there the On Leong Merchants Association building was born in 1926. The building was designed by Christian S. Michaelson and Sigurd A. Rognstad after Jim Moy, then director of the Merchants Association wanted to make a visual statement of the Chinese presence in the City. The two architects designed a building that would serve as an immigrant assistance center and would include a school, a shrine and office space; it was Chinatown’s city hall. Today the building still has a shrine, and meeting rooms with an added library.
Finally settled in to a place they could safely call home, Chinatown was making a mark as an authentic Chinese neighborhood in the city. Although today living quarters are crowded, Chinatown was full of shops and restaurants that began to appeal to tourist who wanted to experience authentic Chinese culture. Next to the Merchants Association building on Cermak and Wentworth stands a beautifully decorated gate that reads “the world is for all” in Chinese inscription. In the late 1980s, a group of Chinatown business leaders saw the potential for a lot of growth in the area and bought 32 acres of property north of Archer Avenue from the Santa Fe Railway and built Chinatown Square by Archer and Wentworth. Chinatown Square is a tourist attraction for the neighborhood. The two-level mall consists of restaurants, beauty salons, law offices, and is also surrounded by 21 town houses; its architecture includes a pagoda structure and 12 statues representing animals associated with Chinese zodiac.
Developers built additional residential construction, one of the most impressive of them being the Santa Fe Gardens, a 600-unit village of townhouses, condominiums and single-family homes. Ping Tom Memorial Park, located on the bank of the Chicago River was constructed in 1999 as an added feature. The park has a Chinese-style pavilion that is rumored to be the most beautiful in the Midwest.
There are now more than 65,000 Chinese residents in the neighborhood making Chicago’s Chinatown is one of the largest neighborhoods of its kind in the United States. It has a vibrant and energetic culture that is reflected in the area’s many specialty shops, authentic cultural cuisine and signature landmarks, like Ping Tom Memorial Park and a Buddhist Temple.
What makes Chinatown so valuable to its inhabitants is the strong sense of community; for Chinese individuals in the neighborhood, it is what connects them to China itself. There are several organizations in place that work towards preserving a tightly knit community. The Chinese Softball League of Chicago, for example, organizes a summer softball league. The Chicago Chinese Cultural Institute promotes social and cultural events, while the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce helps promote small businesses in the area. The people of Chinatown work not only to preserve their culture, but to celebrate it as well. Festivals occur in Chinatown year-round; there is the Chinese Autumn Moon Festival, held annually, to celebrate the day when the moon is the brightest. You don’t want to miss what Chinatown has to offer; they can party with some of the best around! Make sure to stop by and enjoy all the wonderful food, sights and sounds that the neighborhood has to offer.