Photo by Samuel Rong

They outnumber bubble tea shops and dim sum spots. They’re on busy streets and side streets. Their signs might be written in English, or right-to-left. They are not open to the public, but if your family is from China, you might already be a member of one of these exclusive clubs.

They are Chinese family associations. The one Gene Kong belongs to, the Soo Yuen Benevolent Association, has existed in Chicago since 1924. It was first founded in San Francisco before chapters began springing up wherever Chinese people settled. “The Chinese started moving east,” Gene said, laughing as he added, “As opposed to Americans, [who] moved west… A lot of these family associations started out in the west coast.” 

Soo Yuen’s office is up to the ceiling in sunworn family association photos. In many of them, people are bunched shoulder-to-shoulder in their Sunday best at chapters in California, the Philippines, Cuba, China, and more. Some chapters appeared large enough to populate a small village. Beside those frames on the wood-paneled walls are photos of Hiram Fong, the first Chinese-American senator and candidate for president. 

“Back then those Chinese people, most of them were men—it was a bachelor society back then—they came to this country looking for work. So these family associations, if you’re lucky and your surname fell in that category, you can go to them for assistance… Maybe you need an address. How do you send money back? You get letters sent to here,” he said, referring to the association offices. “This was kind of their official address back then, before P.O. boxes.” 

Family associations provided social services and helped recent immigrants get their footing in America. Nowadays, those services are carried out by professionally staffed nonprofits such as the Chinese American Service League and Pui Tak Center. “Right now it’s mostly a social club. They have income, so maybe just have a little party for the Chinese New Year.”

“It was real simple back then. I’d go to school here, Haines School or St. Therese… We grew up around here, we went to school here. During the summer when school’s over, we’d see our friends during the summertime. Nowadays, it’s not like that now. Kids that go to school with them may be out somewhere else… They don’t see their classmates because they’re all scattered.” 

Gene grew up in the generation where Chinatown had no nearby parks, but they would play at Haines when it used to have a baseball yard. “Before, Chinese people wouldn’t go to White Sox. A lot of discrimination back then.” He also remembers going to the library when it used to be across the street from his family’s association. There’s even a picture of it in one of the association’s old publications, which is written almost entirely in traditional Chinese. 

Gene excitedly showed us to the small office den and pointed out their charter as well as all the important people and politicians who have paid visits. Then, he shared some words of advice about civic engagement.

“You younger people should always vote regardless. Remember in politics there’s no good or bad. Voting is the reality of lesser of two evils. The simplified Chinese version [of the character for ‘party’] means friend… Jesus had a friend: Judas. Betrayal comes from within.” 

When asked about his thoughts about the growing representation of Asian Americans in local government, Gene seemed ambivalent. “It’s good to have this. The problem is, in my opinion, are we ready for this? Just because you’re in politics, there’s always that unseen hand behind them. I hate to sound cynical about this, but are they actually working for us? This is still Chicago, a lot of the old guard is still there. They’re not gonna give up right away to you. Don’t get me wrong, I love my own people. But in the same token… little, old factions, that’s the hardest part… unity is hard. There’s no messiah returning from heaven.”

He was intensely pragmatic, but nonetheless incredibly supportive of young people getting involved in politics, just as he once was. He claims he’s voted every year since he was eighteen. 

Like for many visitors to the area, the best thing about Chinatown for Gene is the availability of comfort. Chinese, Asians, and non-Asians alike have claimed something homey about stepping into these busy, fragrant corridors, perhaps not knowing that each bite of food is flavored with the past and our own love for Chinatown. “Best of Chinatown for me is being able to go across the street and get a wonton noodle. Even if I had money, I’d probably still live here. I worry that if I move out, this is my identity. I’m just so used to it.”

Phan Le is a Bridgeport resident and a Chicago Chinatown history enthusiast. 

  • Best CTA Welcome Sign: Cermak-Chinatown Red Line Station

    “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.

  • Best Melodies of Mainland China: Mr. Huang aka Trumpet Man

    My neighborhood has a distinct soundscape—made up of voices conversing (or often arguing) in Cantonese or Mandarin, drivers honking at double-parked cars, and the crunch of stepping on boba tea cups. So when I heard the sound of a trumpet coming from Chinatown Square, I had to investigate.

    Whoever was playing had an obvious mastery over the instrument. The trumpet played the melody over an instrumental backing coming out of a loudspeaker. The musical genre surprised me. It wasn’t classical, jazz, mariachi, or anything else you’d expect from the instrument. It was communist music. Or rather, Chinese propaganda music, and it delivered the most sentimental of punches to my gut.

    I was back in my childhood home an ocean away, as a second grader, standing out in the schoolyard. Lined up with the rest of my classmates, we waited as the school intercom finished playing that familiar tune. Then the usual slogan chanting began.

    “中国共产党万岁!中华人民领袖们万岁!Long live the Chinese Communist Party! Long live our great leaders!”

    Engrossed in memory and music, I approached the trumpet player, a man in his sixties. He introduced himself as Mr. Huang. “Do you recognise this song?” he asked me, grinning from ear to ear.

    Mr. Huang was playing an old patriotic tune called 我的祖国, or in English, My Motherland. It was most notably played in a 1956 film about Chinese involvement in the Korean War, with soldiers singing as they longed for home. The lyrics paint a picture of China’s natural beauty, from wide flowing rivers to majestic mountains.

    “These songs are nostalgic,” Mr. Huang said. “So many people tell me my music brings them way back. Even those who’ve been in the US for such a long time, they don’t forget these songs.”

    And at sixty-eight years old, he associates these songs with growing up during the Cultural Revolution. Some of his favorites are 没有共产党就没有新中国 (Without the Communist Party, There Is No New China) and 我的中国心 (My Chinese Heart). Of course, in today’s climate, such political music is bound to raise eyebrows.

    “Others tell me these songs are too anti-American,” Mr. Huang said while emptying his spit valve. “So I diversified! Now I play a lot of Chinese pop music. I even take requests!” 

    In college, Mr. Huang immersed himself in the arts: acting, singing, emceeing—if it involved being on stage, he did it. He badly wanted to play an instrument and fell in love with the trumpet. Watching him play and listening to him talk, it feels like a perfect match. His voice carries an exuberant intensity, much like the shrill of vibrating brass. He enthusiastically points out each new song that plays from his speaker. “You should look this one up!” “Your parents would definitely know this one!” “This one was a total hit! Great love song!”

    Mr. Huang came to the US a few years ago to help take care of his grandchildren. One COVID lockdown later, like many other Chinese living here, he found the process of going back a complicated one. So now his daily routine includes taking his grandchildren to school, cooking for them, and when he has time, playing the trumpet. 

    I have been listening to his music for more than a year now. I don’t know the names of all the songs but recognize almost every melody. Like Mr. Huang, I am also itching to go back to China. My grandparents are aging, and each year that passes feels like a year lost. China seems impossibly far away. But the trumpet, however briefly, brings me just a bit closer.

  • Best Neighbor to Pay It Forward: Nancy Liang

    Coming from China to the United States for the first time in 1998, her first stop was Chicago. A Chinese language teacher, Ms. Nancy Liang, in her early 50s, did not speak English, making her unable to integrate into the respective communities, not to mention striving to achieve self-reliance on this unfamiliar soil.

    The language barrier constitutes a major obstacle that would stand in a way of finding a career and accessing needed services for newly arrived immigrants. Luckily, local non-profit organizations like the Chinese American Service League and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association were able to bridge this gap.

    Nancy received ardent support from these organizations. “Before I was able to find a job, I was proactively engaged in various community events. I wanted to spend that time learning as much as possible. All events were free-of-charge, which offered a great platform for the fresh off the boats. I could not imagine how hard our early days in the States could be without their help,” she said. 

    “Among these various services provided by the local non-profits, employment services supported me the most. The connections I made while leading a National Senior Citizen Day event landed me a goal-matching job as a Chinese language teacher at a neighborhood non-profit organization”, Nancy recounted. Unlike other immigrants from her hometown who work in blue-collar jobs with long hours, Nancy is more educated, with thirty years of experience in teaching. “I worked there for ten years, educating Chinese-American children about the Chinese language and culture, before retiring.”

    After retirement, Nancy continued her lifelong journey in the education field. She started volunteering at the local elementary school where her grandchild went. She volunteers as a teaching assistant who helps make lesson plans, checks students’ homework, takes care of young scholars, and assists in after-school and extra-curricular activities. To Nancy, education means more than just gaining knowledge, but rather learning to contribute to society and the needy, and develop community service as a habit. “I am always delighted to see my students grow and have formed their own families, and still remember me after all these years,” she said while showing us photos of her students and their families.  

    “One thing we noticed in Chinatown is that there are not many younger generations who would like to volunteer their time and contribute to the community. ‘Why is that?’ we asked. Sometimes it is not because they do not want to make contributions, it is rather because they do not have that time to spare. Volunteering work is a luxury for families that have a hard time making their ends meet, especially in this immigrant community. Paid work is of utmost importance for folks in their prime time,” Nancy said. “I truly believe what they say ‘what goes around comes around,’ my family and I benefited so much from Chinatown, this belief keeps on motivating me to give back to the community while I have time and energy, and I always tell my kids to do the same.”

    Ordinary citizens like Nancy receive little recognition but make great contributions to future generations of immigrants. Nancy is now a hunched senior citizen in her seventies, her physical strength and health are no longer as good as in the old days. However, to the best of her ability, she will continue her work for the community that had supported her family the most in their first days in the United States, to help senior neighbors in the building where she lives to access social service and educate our youth on the importance of serving the community. One of her greatest anticipations for Chicago Chinatown is to have a neighborhood high school that offers bilingual education. Hopefully, Nancy’s dream will soon become a reality.  Just like the Chinese saying goes, they who live the longest see the most “家有一老,如有一寶.” Elderly heroes are treasures to our communities, as they offer useful advice that benefits and influences younger generations.

  • Best Intersection for a Modern Roundabout: Intersection of Archer/Cermak/Princeton

    Often I’m incredibly grateful for how Chinatown was designed and preserved. I have read and listened to stories about how community members had gathered at local restaurants to spend hours planning and, sometimes, arguing, about parks, parking lots, and pagodas. Yeah, pagodas. In 1980, a giant pagoda was proposed to be built in the middle of Cermak and Wentworth, along with “friendship gardens.” It all may seem trifling, but their efforts have had a cosmopolitan impact. In post-pandemic times, Chicago’s Chinatown continues to be an attraction for people all over the world. Through its ups and downs, it’s safe to say that Chinatown seems to be doing well. In fact, maybe a little too well.

    Pick any weekend. Parking lots overflow with cars, restaurants with people, and trash cans (and bushes, sidewalks, flower pots) with discarded boba cups. So many boba cups. The problems only multiply when events, like the annual Chinatown Summer Fair, pop up. On this hot and muggy weekend, cars are stuck bumper to bumper while the roads are blocked off by barricades, giant inflatable bouncy slides, and volleyball exhibitions. 

    How can we improve the infrastructure to better suit a cultural hub that has evidently outgrown its shell? For as long as Chinatown continues to be a tourist destination, cars are here to stay. Perhaps the ideal solution is not to expand car capacity but rather improve car flow.

    The six-way intersection of Archer, Cermak, and Princeton is one of the neighborhood’s central valves and seems like a good place to start. It has long red lights, impatient drivers, and frightening left-turns. It’s a driving experience that leaves a lot to be desired.

    Enter the modern roundabout. Okay, hear me out. The modern roundabout is not the confusing, high-speed merry-go-round that trapped the Simpsons during their vacation in the UK. And, I promise, they’re not that hard to understand. Critics might argue that roundabouts are confusing because it’s easy to miss your exit. While a reasonable concern, people driving through traditional intersections still make this error regularly. 

    Oh, cursed roundabouts—however will we reverse your trickery? Well, by completing another revolution. Since drivers are already moving in a circle, they have the option to drive straight, turn, or turn back without having to drive around a block or make abrupt and dangerous turns. 

    Roundabouts are not only more convenient for drivers, they’re safer. Instead of using traffic lights, modern roundabouts utilize a system of yielding. It forces drivers to slow down and watch out for others, which results in fewer collisions and fatal accidents for all road users. This is what I like most about the roundabout: it changes driving habits without coercion and fines and increases driver vigilance.

    Roundabouts are also superior to standard traffic light intersections in terms of efficiency and environmental sustainability. According to the Illinois Department of Transportation’s page on roundabouts, they cost less to maintain and minimize time wasted at red lights during off-peak hours. They can accommodate trucks and large vehicles, too. Best of all, these benefits result in lowered costs to the community. 

    It would be easy to convert this particular intersection because each way is either one or two lanes. Left turning lanes, because there are no left turns in a roundabout, can become pedestrian refuge islands. This also provides an opportunity to create visual interest in the giant empty space where the roads meet. Maybe Chinatown can finally have that giant pagoda after all. 

    Roundabouts are not only for the benefit of motorists; well-designed ones can protect pedestrians and cyclists, too. Like with anything else, roundabouts will have trade-offs and accessibility challenges should be considered with careful research. 

    Chicago has been alight with controversy about the 2021 speeding ticket law, with no clear indication whether the benefits outweigh the costs. I’m not a traffic safety expert, but I do want safe roads for everybody and more efficient and environmentally friendly city planning. Circular intersections are cool, but there should be no expectations for a magic bullet or quick results. Rather than rely on disparate and, ahem, roundabout methods to improve congestion in Chinatown, Chicago can turn to many tried and true design and policy solutions from all over the world.

  • Best Place to Picnic and Be Married: Ping Tom Memorial Park

    Just after sunrise, pairs and trios of Chinatown residents enter Ping Tom Memorial Park. As we walk and stretch, the tiger lillies unfurl. The prairie is dense with yellow, purple and orange blooms. By midmorning, children leap out of their strollers and clamber onto the jungle gym. By noon, meditative wanderers perch on rocks by the river. Low slung and extra long tug boats putter upriver heaped with mounds of sand. If we’re lucky, we see the ancient bridge house lift into the sky. At the height of the day’s heat or chill, we retreat to the circle of protective southern trees and listen to the trains bleat. Come evening, couples from all over Chicago marvel at the immense and intricate murals in the park. They stroll and hold each other as the panoramic view of downtown starts to glitter on the darkening sky.

    In Ping Tom Memorial Park, a certain slope is often dotted with picnickers, perhaps slicing bread and butter, but more likely munching on some of Chinatown’s unparalleled takeout (such as Yummy Yummy Noodle’s bitter melon with egg, or Ken Kee Restaurant’s pork intestine). On this hill one chilly day last November, my brother ducked the wind to take photos as his wife wedded my partner and I. The century-old St. Charles Air Line Bridge bore witness to our chattering vows. Later, we said cheers over steaming hot pot.

    Ping Tom Memorial Park is steps from our home. My partner and I walk there nearly every morning, sometimes separately and often together. We loop around that hill on our way to the red bridge from which I once spotted a turtle sunning itself. That is an auspicious sign for endurance and longevity, I think. In any case, I rise in the mornings to walk and slowly stretch and slightly dance alongside my fellow Chinatown residents, before the rest of Chicago makes their way toward the serene Ping Tom Memorial Park.

    Ping Tom Memorial Park, 1700 S. Wentworth Ave. 6am–10pm.

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