Pui Tak Center. Photo Credit: Sarah Joyce
Pui Tak Center. Photo Credit: Sarah Joyce

Best of Chinatown 2020

Anita Gist-Jones’s family has called Archer Court home for three generations. She served on the Local School Council and sat on the board that successfully fought for a new Chinatown library. Anita was honored in People Matter’s “Black Heroes in Chinatown” celebration in January for her work as a parent volunteer, bus monitor, and lunchroom supervisor at Haines Elementary School, where students are currently doing remote learning.

My mom, she brought me and my brothers up here, in Archer Court. As kids, we loved to go to all the festivities they had going on in Chinatown. We just loved Chinatown—just walking through, looking at the different gift shops, being able to purchase the little toys and little snacks.

It’s a place that you wouldn’t want to leave. So as we got older, my mom moved, and I was able to still hold the unit at Archer Court, so that was great. Then of course I began to have my family. I have two girls and a boy, they all attended Haines school here in Chinatown, myself too a graduate from Chinatown.

I kind of built the same foundation with my family and my children. We began to come through Chinatown—I go there for the parade, and just to be a part of where we live, because we always wanted to know our neighbors. That’s what I feel about Chinatown, I feel that it’s a place that you can get to know people, people who will connect you with different people. Just to be able to walk from your building, walk right into a place where you feel like you’re in China, but you’re really still in Chicago—the attractions for me as a little girl was out of sight, so I knew that I wanted to introduce it to my family.

When I was pregnant with my youngest daughter, I came to Haines school to volunteer. I was able to connect with the principal and assistant principal, which gave me a position which I still hold today. I’ve been here seventeen years plus, so I’m so proud of that. It was always my dream as a little girl to be either a teacher or a daycare provider, so working at Chicago Public Schools has been a great opportunity for me to start that later on in life when I am blessed with a home that I can do so.

My best part of Chinatown is Haines school, and also marching with Haines school through Chinatown during the parade. I love it, that’s my favorite.

It has been a little sad. Walking there now, it kind of just looks like we are just at a standstill right now. I never saw Chinatown as not busy as it is now. It kind of makes you feel, “Oh wow, will we ever get back to our old selves?” 

We love to go up there and get coffee, and I always see all the seniors there sitting down, eating their breakfast. You kind of miss those things. You see the parents there and the kids, and they’re like, “Hey, Ms. Jones!” So yeah, that’s kind of been missed. 

At this point, in this time, you need some uplifting. With Chinatown, we live in a community where you kind of want to get involved. You don’t know what you’re getting involved in unless you get in there. Like my grandma used to always say, you will never know until you just step out on faith and go for it. (As told to Tammy Xu)

Neighborhood Captain Tammy Xu is a contributing editor and fact-checking director for the Weekly. She lives in South Loop with her husband and plants and writes about software development for Built In.

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Best Cross-Town Unity March

Asian American Christians for Black Lives and Dignity March

Marching. Photo Credit: Sarah Lam
Photo Credit: Sarah Lam

On June 28, 2020, marchers gathered in Ping Tom Park for the Asian American Christians for Black Lives and Dignity march. Raymond Chang, president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative and campus minister at Wheaton College in the western suburbs, initially approached Chinese Christian Union Church (CCUC) and Bronzeville’s Progressive Baptist Church with the idea to hold a prayer march as a response to the killing of George Floyd. In each of their hundred-plus year histories, CCUC and Progressive Baptist had never collaborated, but Chang wanted the march to show that the divide between the Asian and Black communities could be bridged. Chris Javier, a deacon and youth counselor at CCUC, said, “The heart of this was that Asian Americans were not going to be silent anymore, that we were going to be more supportive….We wanted to demonstrate that support to the Black community.” 

News of the upcoming march generated a mixed reaction in the Chinatown community. Many people were excited, but within the CCUC congregation, Javier said, “People were asking, ‘Do we hate the police now? Is this what we’re saying now?’ ” And in the greater Chinatown community, people brought up Huayi Bian and Weizhong Xiong, who were killed in Chinatown in February by a young Black assailant during an attempted robbery—an incident that had angered many people in the community. Javier continued to hear the questions: “Where was the church when the two were murdered? Do you love Black people more than your own people?”

The organizers of the march carefully planned the procession in acknowledgment of the community’s range of responses. The prayer march consisted of four prayer stations to pause, reflect, and pray together: the march started at Ping Tom Park, continued to the Wells and Cullerton parking lot near the site of where the two men in Chinatown were killed, then to CCUC and the Progressive Baptist Church.

Around one thousand marchers and over one hundred congregations united the day of the march. The prayer march at Ping Tom Park started with a prayer, a speech from Chang on the problem of the insufficient progress around racial justice, and ended with an eight-minute and forty-six second kneeling in remembrance of George Floyd. Silently, marchers walked to the Wells and Cullerton parking lot. 

Grace Chan McKibben, executive director of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community (CBCAC), a non-partisan, non-religious nonprofit that focuses on civic engagement and community mobilization, led a prayer at the parking lot with Ally Henny from The Witness: A Black Christian Collaborative.

Then the march traveled down Wentworth Avenue towards Chinese Christian Union Church. As the marchers chanted “No justice, no peace” through the Chinatown Gate, there were mixed responses from onlookers. 

Javier noted, “There were three experiences happening here. Some were terrified by the march. Some saw it as a chance to voice their support—I’m looking at teenagers, young kids, people from all walks of life chanting together. And it was a day that others felt supported.”

Jamal Johnson, an associate pastor from Progressive Baptist Church, spoke at the CCUC station. He felt frustrated by being “yet again in this position of having to grieve more Black lives,” but felt the march was a positive experience. 

“The event was an opportunity to call into accountability in the church,” Johnson said. “So many times when these things occur, as a Black man, as a Black preacher of the gospel, it can seem as if we’re in this alone, and it didn’t feel that way that day.” 

At Progressive Baptist Church, the final station, marchers heard from Pastors Charlie Dates of Progressive Baptist Church and Watson Jones III of Compassion Baptist Church. 

Reflecting on Chicago’s history of redlining and segregation, Chang said, “We wanted to say no more to these artificial divides. This is the first step of many, which we hope will continue to bridge our communities.” 

Johnson continues to feel optimistic about the unity between the communities. “I believe there is still a lot of work to do, as far as achieving the goal of racial reconciliation in the church,” said Johnson. “To see other believers of other ethnicities, backgrounds, and cultures lock arms with African American Christians to march symbolically in unity—not in the name of politics or culture, but in the name of our Lord Savior, Jesus Christ—that’s where my optimism comes from.” 

“We need to be in community [together], to go outside our community to build bridges, so we can go learn,” Javier said. “It was powerful.”

Chang, Chan McKibben, Javier, and Johnson all agreed that building relationships is key in continuing the conversation. Javier is in the process of connecting with The Chicago Partnership, a group dedicated to building relationships between churches in Chicago’s deeply segregated city.

CBCAC is organizing and facilitating anti-racism workshops geared to first-generation Chinese American adults, which cover topics such as the differences between prejudice and structural racism, the historical discrimination of Asian Americans and other races, and how to build solidarity. Chan McKibben said, “This is important to start building an understanding of other races and to build solidarity while explaining the historical and systemic racism in the U.S.” 

The march sparked a dialogue within the Chinatown community about the complexities of race. “Working with Chinatown on racial issues, it’s been a heartbreaking, painstaking process,” Javier said. “Where the change can start is by hearing people out, seeing where their needs are, and addressing those concerns.” (Mallory Cheng)

Chinese Christian Union Church, 2301 S. Wentworth Ave. (312) 842-8545. ccuc.net

Progressive Baptist Church, 3658 S. Wentworth Ave. (773) 268-6048. progressivechicago.org

Coalition for a Better Chinese-American Community. cbcacchicago.org

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Best Essential Delivery Service

Chinese American Service League

Unlike nearly all of Chicago, the Chinese American Service League (CASL) wasn’t caught off guard by the pandemic. In January, weeks before the first known coronavirus death in the States, the organization was already preparing for potential scenarios, says Winnie Lam, CASL’s manager of senior wellness and independence. 

We’re lucky they did. Over the past forty years, CASL—named the Best Multifaceted Cultural Center in 2015 BoSS—has come to play an indispensable role in Chinatown, supporting residents with employment, housing, childcare, and healthcare. In March—when businesses closed, workers went on furlough, and public life came to a standstill—CASL’s foresight allowed it to maintain this dizzying array of public services without interruption. 

Since the first lockdown, the organization has operated completely remotely, offering programs such as Zoom dance classes and a virtual gala. In recent months, CASL has ramped up their presence at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center, hired new staff, and spearheaded an Alzheimer’s support program. But the full impact COVID-19 has had on the elderly was something that couldn’t be anticipated.

Before the pandemic, CASL’s adult day service program provided about a hundred seniors with meals. But the caregivers who did wellness checks and home visits elsewhere saw firsthand how seniors’ quality of life had declined. “The need became very apparent—that there are hundreds of Chinese seniors that are going hungry, are terrified, that won’t open their doors,” says marketing and communications officer Elizabeth Bishop. 

So on April 13, CASL launched the senior meal program, which provided three meals every weekday to an additional 300 seniors. With support from volunteers, staff, and local businesses that dropped off “pallets full of bok choy” and other supplies, CASL has managed an incredible feat: by its estimates, delivering 4,500 traditional meals to seniors every week for the past thirty-two weeks.

An undertaking of this scale required as much help as possible. Fortunately, CASL was able to hire alumni from their own culinary training program for support. This was a bit of a role reversal: CASL’s cooking classes usually teach western cuisine in tandem with English courses, in order to help students land jobs in kitchens outside Chinatown. But with the students’ help, hundreds of seniors received “fresh, healthy, and culturally appropriate meals during a time of widespread food insecurity,” said Phillip Thigpen, the head instructor of the culinary training program. 

According to Bishop and Lam, Chinatown residents’ fear was palpable at the start of the pandemic. “We thought there was paralysis before, when people didn’t want to leave the community—now they [wouldn’t] even open their doors, and understandably,” said Bishop. 

But thanks to workers’ efforts, CASL hasn’t just gotten through the pandemic, but brought new neighbors into the loop. According to Thigpen, the senior meals program will be a permanent part of CASL going forward. 

CASL came into existence with a potluck nearly forty years ago, and even now, continues to change lives with food. It’s essential work if there was ever such a thing. (Christopher Good)

The Chinese American Service League, 2141 S. Tan Ct., (312) 791-0418. For more information see caslservice.org.

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Best Pandemic Unemployment Hotline in a Chicago Landmark

Pui Tak Center

Puitak Center. Photo Credit: Sarah Joyce
Pui Tak Center. Photo Credit: Sarah Joyce

For more than a quarter century, the Pui Tak Center, located beside the neighborhood’s iconic gate, has served new immigrants and the Chinese community in the historic city landmark On Leong Merchants Association Building that has been described as Chinatown’s city hall. The church-based community center offers a number of programs, the most popular of which are its English-as-a-second-language (ESL) classes.

But when the coronavirus pandemic spread around the world, the community it served faced new challenges.

“Our students were losing their jobs at Chinese restaurants and at hotels downtown,” Pui Tak Center executive director David Wu said. “They were getting laid off and at risk of losing their houses.”

But the Illinois Department of Employment Security online application for unemployment benefits only has built-in language support for English, Spanish, and Polish. 

Speakers of other languages struggled with being able to apply,” Wu said.

He asked ESL transition coordinator Grace Jin to launch a program to help Pui Tak Center employees apply for unemployment insurance benefits.

Initially, during the lockdowns at home this spring, much of the Pui Tak Center’s unemployment assistance efforts were online. The center held webinars to help its already registered clients apply for benefits and posted translations of the state’s online unemployment filing process on its website. Jin recruited and trained volunteers to help people with their online applications, troubleshoot issues, and guide those without any devices to file claims using Pui Tak Center computers.

“Basically, we translate as much as we can so they can apply on their own,” Jin said. “But if they still have problems they can call us.”

Thus far, the program has served 717 clients. Wu estimates it’s helped them claim $8-10 million worth of benefits during the pandemic.

“We also provided 450 households with food and groceries,” he said. “But we could never provide the millions of dollars for food and groceries that unemployment [benefits] did. The unemployment [benefits] really helped with rent, utilities, and groceries, to ensure the people here in Chinatown will survive.”

Chinatown has been especially hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, Wu said. The number of unemployment claims filed by Asian Americans in Illinois skyrocketed from 2,473 in February to more than 38,419 in May, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

“That’s a jump of 1,550 percent. That’s higher than every other ethnic group,” Wu said. “So many Asian Americans work in the most vulnerable industries, in hotels and restaurants.”

Jin said that in many cases, both husbands and wives lost jobs while raising children. Lately, more people have been returning to work, but high unemployment remains a stubborn issue. 

“A lot of the restaurants and hotels are not hiring back very quickly,” Wu said. “Unemployment is still going to be a problem.”

The Pui Tak Center has just been adapting its services to the needs of the community during these times.

“We help our community with the different problems they face, but this was not a very common service that was needed until the mass layoffs during the pandemic,” Wu said. “But every nonprofit has pivoted some services during the pandemic, such as by moving classes online. It’s important to be a safety net for the community—and that can mean shifting your program model.” (Joseph S. Pete)

Pui Tak Center, 2216 S. Wentworth Ave. Monday–Thursday, 8am–7:30pm; Friday 8am–5pm; Saturday 8am–5:30pm. (312) 328-1188. puitak.org

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Best Class for Learning to Talk to Family Members

People Matter

This summer, People Matter held its first Community Language Program, offering classes in Cantonese and English to the Chinatown community. People Matter, which is based in multiple Chicago neighborhoods, is an organization working toward uplifting communities through civic education, service, and advocacy. Their six-week-long pilot language program attracted thirty-two students from different age and ethnic groups and was led by teachers born and raised in the community. In addition to teaching the languages, the People Matter program also helped connect students from different generations and cultures. The students built a close-knit community, where senior students learning English would talk with younger students in the Cantonese class about topics as diverse as shopping, how to write to elected officials, and communicating with their family members. 

Aside from cross-generational connections, People Matter’s programming also seeks to build cross-racial conversations. In Chinatown, People Matter’s Tackling Anti-Blackness in Chinatown (TACC) subcommittee held a variety of programs to educate community members about anti-Blackness within the Asian American community. Since People Matter’s founding in 2019, it has also been celebrating Black community members in Chinatown ceremonies, with the next celebration slated for January 2021.

As part of the civic education work, TACC also offers anti-Blackness workshops, including comprehensive teach-ins about addressing anti-Blackness for schools and corporations, and recently held an eight-week anti-Black racism class for individuals and organizations in Chinatown. 

Along with their regular programming, People Matter also adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic in innovative ways. They have surveyed Chinatown residents about initiatives the community wants to see by canvassing and phone banking—as of November, they have gathered more than 300 responses. To help members address their concerns during the pandemic, People Matter is also holding free COVID-19 testing in three sites in Chinatown, Pilsen, and Bronzeville. People Matter’s mission is to “address the problem of people not having input in their own community’s future,” and the organization’s future programming is helping to uplift the community through continued education, service, and engagement, both in-person and virtually. (Yiwen Lu)

People Matter. peoplematter.one

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Best Food Drive for Building Solidarity

Chinese Christian Union Church Food Drive

On April 14, 2020, Chinese Christian Union Church (CCUC) set up a COVID-19 Response Fund to provide its members, the Chinatown community, and surrounding neighborhoods with PPE, food, and other material items. The initial goal was to raise $10,000, but they have so far raised over $18,000. 

“It’s a beautiful picture of Chinatown coming together and taking care of our people and ministering to them in one of the darkest times,” said Chris Javier, a deacon and youth counselor at CCUC.

Initially, the food distribution program packaged 250 bags at each food drive. With the collaboration of local nonprofits and others such as the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, Economic Strategies Development Corporation, state Representative Theresa Mah’s office, Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, Pui Tak Center, and local Chinese grocers such as Phoenix Bean Tofu Starlight Market, now over 450 bags are distributed during each food drive. Most recently, under a partnership with Molina Healthcare, the food distribution has served as sites to receive flu shots and COVID-19 tests. CCUC is also establishing a permanent COVID-19 testing site in Allen Lee Plaza, directly outside the church. 

Grace Chan McKibben, executive director of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, noted that volunteers came from the greater Chinatown area and from the Pilsen community.

“This is one of the first times different folks from these communities were working on a common project,” Chan McKibben said. “This was great in building solidarity and an understanding of each other.” 

At the time of publication, CCUC has stopped food distribution and will be focusing on next steps in supporting Chinatown community members. (Mallory Cheng)

Check CCUC’s Facebook page, facebook.com/ccuc.chitown, for future updates. You can donate at ccuc.churchcenter.com/giving, under COVID-19 Relief. For general inquiries, visit english.ccuc.net.

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Read an In Memoriam for Chinese-language newspapers serving Chinatown here

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