Chicago: a city of immigrants and the communities they live in. This is what makes our city distinctive. We come from far and wide, melding into the character of the Second City, while retaining our ethnic heritage. So come along as we explore: Chinatown. Follow along on social media all week long as Choose Chicago invites you to get to know Chinatown.
Most Chicagoans know where Chinatown is located: Cermak and Wentworth. However, many would be surprised to find that this location is Chicago's second Chinatown! The original Chinatown was located on Clark Street, between Van Buren and Harrison. Walk down that stretch now and there is nothing to let you know that this area was Chinese, with one tiny exception: La Cocina Mexican Restaurant.
Take a look at the sign. Notice that it looks like a Chinese Pagoda? The previous restaurant, closed down in the 1980's, was the areas last Chinese restaurant. La Cocina just repurposed the sign!
So what happened? Why the move further South? Let's take a look. Although there were Chinese resident in the city before the Great Chicago Fire, the first acknowledged resident was T. C. Moy. Mr. Moy arrived in Chicago from San Francisco in 1878. Finding Chicago fairly hospitable, he settled in the Clark and Van Buren community, and wrote to friends and family back in China, encouraging them to come to Chicago.
Come they did! Almost 80 people by the end of the year. By 1890, there were 567 Chinese in Chicago. The Chinese culture was considered very strange. In order to bridge the gap, entrepreneurs opened restaurants. The first was King Yen Lo, in 1902, at the corner of Clark and Van Buren, right above a saloon owned by the colorful First Ward Alderman Michael " Hinky Dink" Kenna. This was opened by businessman Chin Foin. Although not large King Yen Lo was a success and catered to the non-Chinese after-theatre crowd.
But the restaurant that really changed things opened in 1906, and was located on Randolph, just West of Dearborn, King Joy Lo, Chicago's first Chop "Sooy" restaurant.
This was a much bigger venture, and was the brainchild of Kang Yu Wei, a Chinese reformer and political exile:
The prominent location, in the heart of the Randolph Street entertainment district, made it a first for Chicagoans. They flocked to the restaurant to try the many "exotic" dishes. Chin Foin was the manager.
Despite this success, rising rents around Clark and Van Buren, as well as rising discrimination, forced the Chinese community to relocate. In 1912, the On Leong Merchants Association, purchased property in the area around 22nd Street-now Cermak Road-and Wentworth. The areas previous ethnic groups had been Italian and Croatian.This area soon became the hub of the Chinese community, and by 1930, it was almost exclusively Chinese.
In 1926, as a sign of the growing prosperity of the community, the On Leong Merchants Association contracted two Norwegian architects, Michaelson and Rognstad, to design a headquarters for the Association. When it opened in 1928, it was considered one of the finest Chinese-style buildings of any Chinatown in America. It also became the unofficial "city hall" of Chinatown:
Michaelson and Rognstad also designed two other buildings in Chinatown around this time the Won Kow building and the Moy Association building:
Won Kow, opened in 1928, is the oldest continuously operated restaurant in Chinatown.
The Moy Association building is considered one of the most striking buildings in Chinatown.
The community continued to grow and prosper, especially after the founding of the Peoples Republic, on the mainland, in 1948. Thousands of refugees fled to Chicago.
In 1975, as a further enhancement to the community, the Friendship Gate was erected over Wentworth Ave. It has served as a reminder of the warm welcome extended to all visitors.
In the late 1980's, 32 acres were purchased and a new commercial district on Archer Ave, Chinatown Square, opened. This added numerous additional businesses to the community. Santa Fe Gardens, on old railroad land, added an additional 600 housing units.
To highlight the importance of Chicago's Chinatown, a Nine Dragon wall was erected on Cermak Road, in 2003:
It is one of only three replica's located outside of China, and highlights the national spirit.
Chinatown Chicago was recently rated as the number 3 Chinatown in America! This recognition shows the vitality of the community, as it continues to move into the 21st century. So next time you're hungry for Chinese, forget take-out, head to Chinatown for the authentic thing!