Chicago Chinatown

Bustling with shops and restaurants, Chinatown is a lively attraction for anyone visiting the Windy City. For ethnic food and specialty souvenirs, make a stop south of the Loop to see Chicago’s Chinatown.

Chicago Chinatown History

Chicago’s Chinatown was formed in the 1920s when Chinese-owned businesses began moving from the Loop to Chicago’s South Side near Cermak, Wentworth and Archer avenues. Just south of downtown Chicago and north of the White Sox stadium, both of which are included in the Armour Square community, Chinatown is easily accessible by public transportation including the CTA Train Red Line to the Cermak-Chinatown stop, four bus lines: #21, #24, #44 and #62 and the Chicago Water Taxi on weekends.

Chinese immigrants first began to arrive in Chicago from the west in the late 1800s, after the Gold Rush and the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Facing discrimination in the west, these ex-railroad workers were able to establish stores and Laundromats in Chicago, later moving into the restaurant business. In the 1950s, communist revolution in China and a relaxation of U.S. immigration laws brought another surge of immigrants. Today, Chicago’s Chinatown is the fourth largest in the U.S. However, it is the second most populous in residents and workers.

Chicago Chinatown Architecture

Chinatown Gate, installed in 1975 on the intersection of Wentworth and Cermak, welcomes visitors into Chinatown’s main avenue down Wentworth. Modeled after a wall in Beijing, the four characters across the gate reads, “The world belongs to the commonwealth,” a popular saying in the 1920s. Just beyond the gate, the Pui Tak Center, at 2216 S. Wentworth, looms over the busy avenue with towering pagodas and detailed oriental design. Built in the late 1920s by the On Leong Merchant Association, a multi-branch association spanning many states, the Pui Tak Center was one of the U.S.’s first major Chinese architectural works. Today, the Pui Tak Center (pui tak means to cultivate virtues) operates as a church-funded community center. The building was designated a historical landmark in 1993 and won a preservation grant in 2007.

Churches play a big role in Chinatown. St. Therese’s Chinese Catholic Church at Alexander Street and Wentworth features stone dragons and ornate chandeliers. Chicago gangster Al Capone was once a parishioner. Chicago’s Chinatown is also home to a Buddhist temple on Wentworth.

Chinatown Square, a newer section at Cermak and Archer sometimes refered to as New Chinatown, was completed in 1993 and presents an open, two-tiered marketplace with bridges and pagoda towers. Outside the square, murals depict Chinese American history and bronzed statues of zodiac animals surround a performance stage for special events.

Chicago Chinatown Attractions

Just outside Chinatown by the CTA train station, a Nine Dragon Gate lends passersby strength and good fortune. Dragons are powerful creatures in Chinese mythology, and the number nine highly auspicious. Chicago’s Nine Dragon Gate is designed after a sophisticated model in Beijing’s BeiHai Park, with intricate carvings of nine big dragons and more than 500 smaller ones.

For quieter afternoons, Ping Tom Memorial Park offers a view of the Chicago River from a Chinese pagoda, playground and 12 acres of land for strolling and picnicking. The Chicago Water Taxi docks at Ping Tom Memorial Park May to October seven days a week. It is the most scenic way to travel from downtown to Chinatown though you will have to walk 3–5 blocks from the park to Chinatown Square or S Wentworth Ave. An annual Chinese New Year Parade is held in Chicago Chinatown coordinated with a Miss Friendship Ambassador Pagent.

Chicago Chinatown Cuisine

Chinese food is a major Chicago Chinatown attraction. Phoenix Restaurant and Shui Wah Chinese Cuisine, both along Archer, as well as Three Happiness, 2130 S Wentworth, all offer extensive dim sum selections. Dim sum, a southern Chinese tradition of “morning tea,” features delicacies ranging from shrimp dumplings to chicken’s feet.

Chef Tony Hu’s highly rated chain of three Lao, “old,” restaurants in Chinatown Square offers authentic tastes of China’s eclectic dishes, from Lao Beijing’s Peking duck wraps, to Lao Shanghai’s vegetarian bean curd, to Lao Si Chuan’s spicy hot pot. Bakeries also offer samplings of Chinese desserts, such as savory buns and turnip cakes, and pastries sweetened with bean paste. Moon cakes, a traditional Moon Festival treat, are also served.

Tea is the beverage of choice in China. Along with a comprehensive pan-Asian menu, Joy Yee’s Noodles, in Chinatown Square, also offers quick-serve bubble teas made with fresh fruit and topped with jellies, ice cream or frozen yogurt. Acclaimed manufacturer Ten Ren Tea also has a store at 2247 S. Wentworth selling both brews to bring home and made-to-order drinks that carry the flavors of China.

by Quinn Chin