Chicago’s Chinatown is the center of Chinese life in the city. While gentrification has watered down many of the ethnic neighborhoods in the city, Chinatown still goes strong and continues to grow.
Historic Chinatown runs a few blocks down Wentworth Avenue from Cermak Road. It’s entered through the Chinatown Gate, which was built in 1975. Behind it is a street full of restaurants, shops, and family association buildings.
Family associations were set up by Chinese immigrant families in Chinese neighborhoods all over the country. They were important organizations designed to help immigrants and members of the community find work, housing, make family connections, and build friendships. One of the most impressive of these buildings is the Moy Shee Dong Kungsaw Family Association Building at 2238 S. Wentworth.
On Leong Building
The most spectacular building in Chinatown is just inside the gate. The On Leong Building was built in 1927 by the On Leong Merchants Association. They helped transition the move of the Chinese community from their first neighborhood in the Loop (on Clark between Van Buren and Harrison) to the current Chinatown. The Pui Tak Center, which occupies the building today, functions as a social service agency. When walking past the building, pay attention to the colorful ceramic elements.
Two churches are located in the historic Chinatown area. The first is the Chinese Christian Union Church at the corner of Wentworth and 23rd. It was founded in 1915 and has been in its current location since 1927. It holds services in different Chinese dialects. The other church is the St. Therese Chinese Catholic Church on Alexander. Its history shows how the neighborhood has changed over the years. The church once served the area’s Italian residents by performing services in Italian, then in Croatian when it made the transition to a Croatian neighborhood, and now Chinese. Two Chinese lions sit out front and the crucifix behind the altar was donated by Al Capone’s mother.
The Chinese-American Museum of Chicago is located on 23rd Street. This small but modest museum gives an excellent overview of Chinese immigration to the United States and has a nice film presentation about Chinese culture and growing up Chinese in America. A suggested donation of US$5 keeps the museum running. Check the official website for operating hours.
The Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum on Wentworth is open on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5pm. It’s dedicated to the founder of the Chinese Republic and chronicles his time as a boy in Hawaii, the 1911 Chinese Revolution, and his death in 1925.
Chinese Pavilion and Nine Dragon Wall
On the way to the Cermak-Chinatown Red Line station, there’s the Chinese Pavilion and Nine Dragon Wall. The Nine Dragon Wall is one of only three outside of Beijing. Over 500 dragons are represented along with nine larger and more colorful dragons.
Chinese American Veteran’s Memorial
To the west at the corner of Cermak and Archer is the Chinese American Veteran’s Memorial, dedicated to the thousands of Chinese Americans who have served in the United States military.
Along Archer Avenue is Chinatown Square. This modern strip mall was built in 1993 and features a square with statues of zodiac symbols. A mosaic in the square tells of the accomplishments of Chinese immigrants in America and uses over 100,000 hand-cut glass tiles.
Ping Tom Memorial Park
Finally, there’s Ping Tom Memorial Park. It’s a 12 acre park on the banks of the Chicago River, featuring walking trails, a Chinese garden, and pagoda. It opened in 1999 and is named after Ping Tom (1935-1995), a businessman and community leader.
The annual Chicago Dragon Boat Race on the Chicago River takes place in the park. There are also Chinese dragon columns at the entrance to the park. Some columns just like them have been placed at major intersections throughout Chinatown. North of the 18th Street bridge that spans over the park, there are some nice views of the skyline.
Triple Crown Restaurant
For lunch, I stopped into the Triple Crown Restaurant. They serve dim sum all day, but I opted for a lunch special and had a spicy Mongolian beef. It came with rice and green tea and cost under US$10.