At the corner of Cermak and Wentworth, a landmark gate transports visitors from the metro Midwest to smells, sights and sounds of the Far East. It’s a filter-free foodie haven for the insta-influencers to Asian architecture aficionados.
Chinatown in Chicago, like other big city Chinatown communities, captures a culture that attracts tourists and pays respect to the neighborhood’s original residents.
Chicago’s Chinatown originally was located downtown in the early 1870s. Historians say early Chicago Chinese immigrants moved to its current South Side location in 1912 after being forced out by rising rent and, at the time, anti-Chinese sentiment.
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A century later, Chinatowns across the U.S. are still strongholds for cultural attractions. But even before the pandemic, the Asian American Legal Defense reported a drop in the Asian populations in Chinatowns across the country, except Chicago.
“If you’re in Manhattan, and Philadelphia, San Francisco, you’re blocks from the financial district, and so we’re more of a normal community,” said David Wu, who serves as executive director of the Pui Tak Center, Chinatown’s only historical landmark. “But all those Chinatowns – Boston, DC – they’re losing population because it’s hard to be a community in the middle of downtown.
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“When I started working, Chinatown had about 12,000 people,” Wu said. “Ten years later grew to 18,000 by 2010. It was 27,000 and now it’s over 30,000 in this wider area called greater Chinatown.”
The U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent report shows just that: the Asian American population in Greater Chinatown more than doubled in three decades.
“Chinatown has had amazing growth in the past 30 years,” Wu said. “Now you have bubble tea and you have much ice cream, and there’s a new set of country printers bringing different flavors and tastes in regional food to Chinatown and, and that’s what makes Chinatown a really interesting place.”
Wu attributes Chicago’s Chinatown growth compared to other cities to better resources for the community it serves.
“It’s growing also because people are deciding to stay,” Wu said. “So the community is expanded because we’re close to downtown, it’s convenient. Businesses have been developing and flourishing.”
Census data also show Chinatown’s AAPI population isn’t the only standout statistic. Asians are now the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in Chicago – numbers showed a 31% increase.
“It’s great to be a part of a community that’s growing and thriving,” Wu said. “And even though we have challenges, you know, there’s a lot of hope for Chinatown. That it will be even more welcoming for immigrants for our seniors, a place for our youth to grow and develop.”
For Wu, this possibility for him allows for not just a seat at the table for equality through representation, but for equity and justice through representation – and a continued burgeoning Chinatown growth beyond attractions and building community.
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