“Doors open on the right at Cermak-Chinatown…”

Stepping off the Red Line, Chinatown immediately hits me. That char siu smell. Cantonese karaoke. “Fai Dee La.” Archer traffic. “想吃什么?” Car stereo K-pop. “Quiero probar dim sum!”

If all that input isn’t enough, as I descend the stairs, above me hangs a multi-coloured mural. At its center is the Chinese character for luck, 福 (fú). To most non-Chinese passersby, they probably won’t notice that the character is actually written upside down. The significance? The Chinese character for “upside down” is 倒 (dào). Which, coincidentally, sounds just like the character for “to arrive” 到 (dào). So when your luck is upside down, 福倒家, your luck has arrived, 福到家. Here, 家 (jiā) is the character for “home.” Especially during Lunar New Year celebrations, to ensure maximum luck absorption, people eagerly paste upside down 福 signs on their doors.

The first few times I saw the CTA mural, the giant “luck” character stuck out like a sore thumb. I used to think, good job CTA, let’s use another cultural tradition to orientalise Chinatown. It reminded me of “Asia on Argyle” and that L stop’s obnoxious oriental awnings. But during the pandemic, I moved closer to Chinatown. In the last couple years, what was once a tourist destination for me has turned into a place of struggles, stories, and friends. The longer I call this place home (家), the more differently I see the CTA 福. 

The early days of COVID-19 paralysed businesses and emptied streets. People confused fearing the “Chinese virus” with fearing Chinese food. And as pandemic-related crime and unrest bubbled up nationwide, surveillance cameras popped up on every other house from Tan Court to 24th Place. Maybe we accidentally left the door open for bad luck.

In the meantime, restaurant tables sat empty, yet their stoves burned hot. Church pews gathered dust, yet volunteers stuffed the halls with supply donations. The day-to-day hustle died down, yet Chinatown refused to give in. This place is filled with people who crossed oceans, people who adapted, people who achieved. We set new roots. We built upon yesterday’s generation. Chinatown is the beginning, the end, happiness, sadness, a break from life, a way of life. Perhaps there is one word that best sums all this up—home. 家。   

We are a force to be reckoned with, especially as the neighborhood’s post-lockdown revival continues. Chinatown isn’t too far from Chicago’s geographic center—just about five miles east of it, to be exact. And on weekend afternoons, the square, Ping Tom Memorial Park, and Wentworth Avenue feel like the city’s social center. It’s the only place I know in Chicago where Black and brown teens dance to K-pop next to white tourists taking selfies next to elderly Cantonese men playing chess next to a paletero ringing the bells on his cart. Not bad for a neighborhood in one of America’s most segregated cities. 

Bless this CTA luck mural. Let it keep bringing in the good times. I eagerly welcome 福到家. But when luck doesn’t arrive, you can be absolutely sure that the people of Chinatown will make their own.

Cermak-Chinatown Red Line Station, 138 W. Cermak Rd. 24/7.

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