For almost 50 years, Chicago’s Chinatown gate has stood on South Wentworth Avenue, extending a warm welcome to visitors and holding the promise of a safe haven for those who call this community home. The phrase “天下為公” is hand-painted onto ornamental tiles: “The world is for all.”
Many Chinatowns were created out of a need for survival. What are commonly reduced to tourist destinations with foreign, exotic delicacies are really immigrant success stories, despite the trials of 19th century persecution and contemporary economic and social turmoil. Today, Chinatowns in major cities like New York, San Francisco and Boston suffer from gentrification, and many others in mid-sized cities like Cleveland have been divided in the midst of highway construction and city development.
Meanwhile, Chicago’s Chinatown has continued to grow in both geography and Asian population. Between 2011 and 2020, the total number of Asian residents in Chinatown increased by 31%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Today, Grace Chan McKibben, the executive director of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community (CBCAC) in Chicago, says the greater Chinatown community’s Asian population totals to around 35,000.
Chicago wasn’t the first destination for most Chinese immigrants, but it quickly became an escape for those seeking better quality of life. The first Chinatowns were founded on the West coast during the mid-19th century, when Chinese immigrants began settling in pursuit of the gold rush. Despite being paid less than white workers, Chinese workers were still blamed for taking away jobs and driving down pay.
Anti-Chinese discrimination and violence, from murders to arson, were commonplace. Official testimonies and government reports etched the “cunning,” “unscrupulous” nature of the Chinese into stone. This pushed workers to begin migrating east; the first Chinese immigrants settled in downtown Chicago in the 1870s, according to the Chicago Historical Society.
President Arthur then signed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the first American policy that restricted immigration based on race. Unable to culturally or economically assimilate and without the means to return home, Chinese immigrants relied on clusters to survive. They protected themselves by retreating into their own enclaves while legal and social constructs shut them out.
Even then, their communities were fragile: Chicago’s Chinese immigrants were forced out of their homes along Clark Street due to rising rents and anti-Chinese sentiment, relocating to Chinatown’s current location on the South Side in 1912.
Social norms shifted after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in the mid-20th century and the idea of the model minority came around. The public began seeing Chinatowns for what they really were: culturally vibrant enclaves where everyone is welcome — where the world is for all. Chinese populations in these neighborhoods soared, especially in well-established communities in San Francisco and New York, fueled by unrest amidst the rise of communism in China.
While immigration could no longer be restricted on the basis of race, Chinatowns faced the new threat of gentrification. From 2000 to 2010, the share of the Asian population decreased in New York, Boston and Philadelphia’s Chinatowns, according to a report by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. They blamed rezoning and development projects for accelerating gentrification.
“Most Chinatowns in North America are not growing or are decreasing in population because they’re very close to the financial centers of the cities that they’re in,” Chan McKibben said. “As these areas grow, our residents get pushed out because of more expensive housing or more businesses coming in.”
Having visited several other Chinatowns in the U.S., Ben Lau, executive director of the Chinese American Museum of Chicago, noted the decrease in local Chinese restaurants, tourists and a lack of social services in those Chinatowns.
“They have a new Chinese community, but it’s not the old Chinatown anymore,” he said.
Local leaders attribute Chicago’s Chinatown’s growth in the face of the national declining trend to the resources, culture and opportunities that have been poured into the community.
“There are very strong institutions in Chicago’s Chinatown, which helps in terms of making it close-knit and making it possible for new immigrants to find resources and services easily,” Chan McKibben said.
Nicole Lee, alderperson of the 11th Ward, which includes a portion of Chinatown, added that these “anchor institutions” — the CBCAC, the Chinese American Service League, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association — provide so much value to the community that “people continue to want to live there.”
While institutions provide social services, facilities and recreation provide liveability. In 2013, a fieldhouse was opened in Ping Tom Memorial Park, with facilities like a swimming pool, gymnasium and fitness center easily accessible to the Chinatown community. A branch of the Chicago Public Library was opened in 2016 on South Wentworth, catering to the area’s predominantly Asian residents. The library provides not only a beautiful architectural space, but also resources for Chinese-speaking visitors to learn English, take tai chi classes and read Chinese-language books.
Beautification also makes the Chinatown area welcoming and culturally unique. Artists recently painted murals under the 18th Street bridge and in Ping Tong Memorial Park, marking the space with a distinct Asian presence.
“Art is important so that people feel that this is the space they can belong to, and that it is one they can be proud of,” Chan McKibben said.
Murals like these reflect a tight-knit community with a deep commitment to and respect for Chinese traditions.
“Chinatown is not just a tourist attraction,” Lau said. “People use both English and Chinese, not just to greet tourists but also to greet local Chinese community members like seniors who cannot speak English.”
This balancing dynamic can also be found during the holiday season, with celebrations for the Mid-Autumn Festival and the Dragon Boat Festival attracting both tourists and locals alike.
The community is also an insular one, according to Lee and Chan McKibben. While this may be another reason why Chinatown has been able to fortify its roots, this strength can also be a vice.
“We like to keep to ourselves and mind our own business,” Lee said. “What I would love to see evolve is a sense of neighborliness. To appreciate the differences that we have… and have some sort of community interest in mind.”
Lee believes that basic acts like knocking on a neighbor’s door or helping someone with groceries can play a role in honoring and strengthening traditions and cultures, and, in turn, continue to ward off gentrification.
According to Chan McKibben, another factor behind why Chicago’s Chinatown can continue to grow is because it has what she calls a “continuous path.”
“Folks are spreading out as opposed to leaving the area completely to go somewhere else,” she said. “There is more space to move into while still being contiguous.”
With more affordable housing along the Archer bus route that runs through the greater Chinatown area, it is easier for residents to stay.
Local landlords also tend to lend property back to local businesses and to rent units back to the Chinese residents, according to Lau.
“Friends with relatives who just arrived from China or from Hong Kong, they have connections, and [landlords] will rent those units to them,” he said.
Lee’s appointment as alderperson in March is another step toward preserving Chinatown’s rich culture in itself: she is the first Asian American woman and Chinese American to serve as an alderperson in Chicago.
“People see representation and visibility as hope,” Chan McKibben said. “So being able to see a person in an area that’s predominantly Asian American is very important.”
Chicago’s Chinatown is neither the smallest nor the largest; it is easy to overlook. Yet, it has continued to flourish when other Chinatowns could not and remains an anchor in the Chicago community at large, promising a welcoming community “for all."