Chicago’s Chinatown is changing. Geographically, the area can be divided into two parts: the long, familiar stretch along South Wentworth Avenue, and the somewhat brighter section surrounding the Chinatown Square mall, directly to the north. A recent increase in investment is apparent—the southern half in particular has hitherto unimaginably glitzy stores opening up alongside, or in place of, the older restaurants and kitsch shops.
The languages one can expect to hear walking around are changing too. For a long time, Chicago’s Chinatown, the second-oldest in the U.S., was a largely Cantonese (loosely, Southern Chinese) area. These days, however, its language is increasingly Mandarin (again loosely, Northern)—and maybe its culture as well. These changes may not be immediately obvious to the casual visitor, but their impact is deeply felt; there’s a fresh and also anxious feeling in the air. The new is metabolizing the old: perhaps this is responsible for the area’s recent surge in signage denigrating the Chinese Communist Party, but that’s just speculation.
Most people know Chinatown primarily for its cuisine and distinctive architecture—each admittedly enticing. But narrowing one’s focus invites the risk of missing out on some of the neighborhood’s other features, which, though less immediately welcoming, are not any less worth exploring. A few tourist-friendly mainstays seem to attract most of the traffic, leaving many of the true gems more-or-less undiscovered.
We’ve aimed to broaden the scope a bit, then: we’ll touch on a few food places that remain relatively undiscovered, and a few miscellaneous other options for those seeking out cultural enrichment. But of course, Chinatown is a lovely place to simply walk around, and for the most part inviting, even when a language barrier might suggest otherwise.
BEST TINY MUSEUM
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Museum
Easy to miss, this odd, somewhat fusty old single-room museum is dedicated to Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of what is now known in many quarters as Taiwan. For what it’s worth, the museum sports a particularly beautiful entry staircase. It keeps unreliable hours, often other than what’s marked, but it’s worth making it inside. There are many relics and a fairly complete narrative of the life of Dr. Sun, though (depending on who is on duty) the guide may be unable to explain anything in greater detail. Some of the exhibits are in German or French without English translations, but in some way this adds to the charm. There’s something sort of mysterious and also inspiring about the place: a well organized but seldom tended narrativization of events in a man’s life that someone thought it very important to memorialize. This ROC (Taiwan) museum is somewhat ironically situated, almost directly across the street from the Maoist monument that is Lao Hunan, but our investigations turned up no evidence of turf wars ever having taken place. There are reading materials that cannot be taken off the premises, a guestbook, and no gift shop. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Museum, 2245 S. Wentworth Ave. Saturday-Sunday, 1pm-5pm. Free. (312)842-5462 (Linus Recht)
BEST SINGULAR CULTURAL EXPERIENCE YOU CAN ALSO GET DRUNK AT
This is a Chinese-style karaoke parlor (KTV) located on the second floor of the Richland Center. For the uninitiated, KTV goes by a somewhat different procedure than what is common in the States. Instead of singing in front of a group of strangers, you rent a private room with a few friends (rooms are available in a few sizes: for twelve, twenty, twenty-five, or thirty-five plus). Each room has a karaoke machine, and these tend to have every song one can imagine, with an especially large number of East-Asian choices. This particular KTV is well-outfitted, modern, mostly clean, and has all the crazy lighting you could want. Alcohol and other drinks are available for purchase, as is food, much of it seldom used as party food elsewhere in the U.S. (meat skewers, squid, etc.), and most of it reasonably overpriced. The setup may sound somewhat tame, but it can lend itself to a pretty crazy night. Know what you’re getting into. Best enjoyed with a party of at least ten. Private rooms fill up quickly on the weekends, so making a reservation at least a day or so in advance may not be a bad idea. If the private rooms are all full, one can sing in the neon-lit lobby until a room becomes available. Pop KTV, 2002 S. Wentworth Ave, second floor. Daily, 2pm-2am. Rooms $48/hour, rate increases after 2am. $15/person minimum to sing in lobby. (312)225-2828. (Linus Recht)
BEST SUBTERRANEAN CHEAP EATS
Here we have a somewhat out-of-the-way underground food court with a distinctly foreign feel. Those who have been to China will recognize the layout immediately. Very clean, though somewhat echoey. Small booths ring the room, most of them restaurants, with a few other random stores thrown in; with respect to these latter, individual mileage will vary. The food, however, is some of the cheapest, quickest, and most eclectic available in Chinatown, and the setup makes it very easy to try a little bit of everything. If pressed, you could easily eat to satiation for around $5. This may be a location best for initiates, as some of the restaurants don’t have English signs, but newcomers should not be intimidated. Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese food are all available at press time, though there seems to be a somewhat high turnover rate for new shops. A kabob shop with a red, Chinese-only sign is particularly worth visiting—try the lamb skewers. The takoyaki (Japanese fried octopus balls) at a neighboring stall are also highly recommended. The Richland Center is rarely very crowded, and something of a hidden gem. Richland Center, 2002 S. Wentworth Ave. Monday-Friday, 9am-6pm; Saturday-Sunday, 10am-4pm. $5-$15. (312)225-2828. richlandgroup.com (Linus Recht)
Enlightenment Temple (Chanh-Giac-Tu)
This is a real, take-your-shoes-off Chán (Japanese: Zen) Buddhist place of worship, with large and intricate statues and shrines, as well as reading materials in both English and traditional Chinese. The entryway leads the casual visitor straight into a rather dinky (though well-stocked) gift-shop; presumably this is as much to divert tourists from the central chamber as it is to hawk merch. There are some nice books, figurines, incenses, and related ephemera available for purchase, but the real attraction is the main room. It is quite beautiful, the air thickly scented and quiet; there’s plenty to look at, and those interested can meditate or peruse the literature. The amount of English you can expect the monk on duty to know is somewhat variable, but everyone is friendly. The shrines are often vacant and free for examination. Of course, those interested in attending Chán services need look no further. When services are in session, wanderers are obviously not as welcome. International Buddhist Friendship Association: Enlightenment Temple (Chanh Giac Tu), 2249 S. Wentworth Ave. (312)881-0177. ibfausa.org/EN (Linus Recht)
As you enter Lao Hunan, you’re confronted by the Maoist paraphernalia adorning the walls: to the left, the words “SERVING PEOPLE” appear in English and Chinese, framed by the smiling face of the Chairman himself. Then there’s the fact that the wait staff are all decked out in Red Army uniforms. Gimmicky though the decor may be at first glance, Lao Hunan is no-nonsense when it comes to the food—it comes in mere minutes and is unfailingly delicious, quite spicy, and cheaper than most of the supposedly more glamorous Chinatown offerings. Particularly recommended are the famous stir fried lamb ($15), salt and pepper fish fillet ($14), and Sichuan string beans ($9). Portions range from large to enormous and dishes are meant to be shared. The usual bubble tea and sweet drinks are available, but overall they’re nothing special. Upon examination, the restaurant’s decorations don’t seem to be politically motivated after all: on the Hunan wall of fame, there are Taiwanese politicians as well as mainland cultural heroes. The apparently Maoist theme, then, stems primarily from the fact that Mao himself was from Hunan province; and, as the name of the establishment would indicate, this is a Hunan-centric restaurant above all else. Lao Hunan, 2230 S. Wentworth Ave. Sunday-Thursday, 11am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-10:30pm. Meals $10-$20. Delivery and pick-up available, delivery minimum $15. (312)842-7888. laohunanonline.com (Linus Recht)
This truly excellent bakery has an extensive menu, superb drinks, and the lowest prices around. True to its name, it has great cream puffs, buns, sandwiches, and soups presenting varying levels of Chinese-ness. Some items may appear a bit intimidating to those less familiar with the culture, while others are more innocuous; the vast majority are priced at or around one dollar. One would be well advised to spend a few dollars trying various things on the menu, as nearly everything is rather good, and many items are of the sort one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. Milk teas and other drinks are also available, and by and large come without fault. The staff is friendly if occasionally brusque. Seating is ample; nevertheless, the store is often crowded around lunchtime. It is frequented by locals and surprisingly undiscovered by outsiders. At the risk of belaboring the point, the food here is not only good and unusual, but also very cheap. This makes it an ideal place for a low-stakes culinary adventure. Tasty Place, 2339A S. Wentworth Ave. Monday-Sunday, 7:30am-9pm. $1-$10. (312)225-5678 (Linus Recht)
Nam Bac Hang
I spotted a blue-eyed Siamese cat peeking its head out of the shop door at 243 West Cermak. Above the cat was a sign: “Nam Bac Hang.” Entering the tiny shop, I saw rows of boxes with Chinese characters written on them, and glass jars filled with mushrooms and dried herbs. Locals were walking up to the counter asking for tea and formulas for their colds and allergies. Curious, I asked a young man standing nearby about the nature of the shop; he told me it was owned by his father, Long Huynh, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine whose family traces their healing lineage back to the days of the emperor in ancient China. See feature-length story. (Caroline Haughton)