By Marwa Eltagouri
One of the first things Chinese immigrant Sau Fung Lam did upon arriving in Chinatown 24 years ago was go to the local grocery store to try to buy an apple.
She approached the grocer and opened her mouth, as if the English words she didn't know would, by some miracle, slip out. They didn't. So she instead formed a circle with her fingers and thumbs, a gesture the grocer seemed to understand.
She was handed a large onion.
Since Lam moved from East China to Chicago in the early 1990s, Chinatown has flourished from a community that was partially Chinese where residents mostly spoke English into one where Lam can easily communicate in Chinese. Most businesses, restaurants and agencies operate bilingually, since the majority of residents speak a Chinese dialect, and nearly 65 percent are foreign-born, experts say.
At a time when traditional urban Chinatowns in Manhattan, San Francisco, Boston and Philadelphia are fading due to gentrification and changing cultural landscapes, Chicago's Chinatown is growing larger -- becoming what experts say could be a model for Chinatown survival in the U.S. In Chicago, where several neighborhoods are no longer defined by the immigrant or ethnic groups that once occupied them, Chinatown is an exception, having anchored the area centered around Cermak Road and Wentworth Avenue since 1912.
Local leaders say it has avoided gentrification because Chinese-Americans value a sense of belonging and choose to stay in the neighborhood. Few Chinese move out, and if they do, they sell their homes back to the Chinese.
Between 2000 and 2010, Chinatown's population increased 24 percent and its Asian population increased 30 percent. Asians make up nearly 90 percent of the neighborhood's population, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data. Experts also say that of all the foreign-born Asians living in Chicago's Chinatown, nearly 10 percent arrived in the last three years -- a stark contrast to New York and San Francisco, where immigrants no longer fuel Chinatowns.
Walk through the Chinatown Gate and south on Wentworth, and you may see young Chinese professionals gathered at dim sum restaurants, clusters of Chinese children skipping to the playground for recess or hear a Chinese drama echoing from a dated television at the back of a bakery. The neighborhood allows Lam, now 81, to live comfortably in Chicago without having ever learned English. She spends her days eating at Cantonese restaurant MingHin Cuisine, buying savory turnip cakes from Hong Kong Market and singing alongside her sister in a Chinese choir on Wednesdays.
"I never think of Chinatown disappearing in Chicago," she said through a translator who works for a Chinese social service agency. "If that happened, it'd be very inconvenient. Life would be difficult."
It's unlikely Chicago's Chinatown will succumb to national trends, experts say, and projections show the greater Chinatown area growing. Bordering neighborhoods have already seen an influx of Asian families moving in: Between 2009 and 2013, Bridgeport's Asian-American population grew from 26 percent to 35 percent, while McKinley Park's grew from just under 8 percent to 17 percent, according to an analysis of census data.
Recognizing the national decline of other Chinatowns, city planners and local organizations are committed to investing in it, which could be why the neighborhood is thriving. In 2013, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning announced a plan to preserve Chinatown's cultural identity by improving public education and elderly care, bolstering transportation infrastructure and creating more public parks.
And in August, the city opened a two-story, $19.1 million branch of the Chicago Public Library on South Wentworth. The building, with a steel and glass frame that forms a vessel of natural light, has both an architectural and civic presence, and has attracted about 1,500 people a day. It caters to Chinese-speaking patrons, as many residents turn to the library for English classes.
The tight-knit fiber of greater Chinatown led to a historical feat in this year's March primary. Theresa Mah, D-Chicago, who faces no challenger in the November election, is poised to be what she and others think is the first Asian-American to serve in the Illinois General Assembly.
"It wasn't until changes in immigration laws that there was an increase in the number of people who were citizens, and eligible to vote," Mah said. "My hope is that an increase in population will mean more representation."
Decline of Chinatowns in U.S.
Smaller Chinatowns, like that of Washington, D.C., have been diminishing for decades, and are now identifiable by just an ornate welcome gate or pocket of Chinese restaurants. And in the last few years, the large, traditional Chinatowns in San Francisco and Manhattan have decreased as well.
Chinatowns first formed after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. The law barred Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S., though exceptions were made for merchants and scholars, said Huping Ling, a history professor at Truman State University who focuses on Asian-American studies. The Chinese already living in America suffered violent racism and discrimination, and were unable to assimilate into the country's social or economic fabric. Without the means to return to China, they relied on urban clusters -- Chinatowns -- to survive.
The act was repealed in 1943, though there was an annual quota of 105 new entry visas, and the ethnic Chinese were still banned from owning property or businesses. It wasn't until 1965, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act, that racial immigration restrictions were lifted, Ling said. The country's Chinese population in America soared in the following decades, especially in Manhattan and San Francisco, ushered by the rise of communism in mainland China.
With the resulting economic growth of Chinatowns and boom in the Chinese restaurant industry, it wasn't long before Chinatowns began to be viewed as tourist destinations.
Chinatowns have historically been home to poorer immigrants, who don't speak English and have few marketable skills, Ling said. This continues to be the case in Manhattan, though the number of jobs available for these immigrants, such as restaurant jobs, is declining. Immigrants who are more well-off tend to turn to the suburbs or newer Chinese enclaves in Brooklyn or Queens, occasionally visiting the traditional Chinatown to attend church or buy groceries, Ling said.
In San Francisco's Chinatown, the nation's oldest, there was a 19.3 percent drop in Asians from 2000 to 2010, though the number of Asians living in the core fell by only 3 percentage points, according to an analysis of census data.
"You can see a pattern starting to form, and eviction and housing cases tell the rest of the story," said Cindy Wu, deputy director and planning commissioner at Chinatown Community Development Center in San Francisco.
Chicago: The exception
Chicago differs from Manhattan and San Francisco in that it doesn't have as high of a demand nor as tight of a supply of rentable apartments, according to a study released in 2015 by New York University and Capital One. But experts and local leaders agree that Chicago's Chinatown could also be thriving because of its commitment to Chinese traditions, which makes it attractive to both Asians and non-Asian visitors.
Nancy Wong, 62, moved to Chicago in 1988 from Hong Kong out of fear the autonomous territory would join mainland communist China. She's since opened a flower shop on Archer Avenue, near Chinatown, and regularly visits Chinatown to work with clients.
She believes Chinatown's numerous services and agencies for immigrants and Chinese speakers are what make it attractive. There are plenty of elderly housing options, employment training services and English classes, often taught at local churches. Residents' primary use of Chinese for business helps prevent the neighborhood from existing as just a tourist attraction.
"Some young people even work or live in Chinatown just to learn Chinese," she said.
When Chinatown Square, a two-story outdoor mall, was introduced to the 2100 block of South China Place in 1993, the community buzzed about the possibility of gentrification, said Bernie Wong, the president of Chinese-American Service League, a social service agency that provides child education programs, employment training and elderly services.
"But I still don't see gentrification, it's mostly Chinese," she said. "And it's not just about having a Chinese neighbor. In Chinatown, you belong to organizations. You belong to social groups."
Chinatown's population is on the rise, and from 2000 to 2010, it increased from 5,830 to 7,254 people, with the Asian population increasing from 4,969 to 6,447 people.
In 2013, city planners announced a plan to develop more housing, public parks and road improvements in Chinatown. The library was completed last August, and in 2013, a boathouse and fieldhouse were added to Ping Tom Memorial Park, on the banks of the Chicago River.
Another key component of the plan is improving workforce opportunities and public education. About 78 percent of Chinatown residents speak Chinese at home, and of that population, more than three-quarters report speaking English "less than 'very well,'" according to a May 2015 report from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which oversees land-use and transportation planning for the region. Half of Chinatown residents are employed in three sectors: the food and hospitality industry, health care and social services, and manufacturing, according to the report.
City planners hope to create more job opportunities for the Chinese community by expanding on the Chinese-American Service League's current adult job training programs, by coordinating English as a second language training and new job programs at the City Colleges of Chicago.
Residents have also expressed a desire for better public high school options. The neighborhood's two high schools, Tilden and Wendell Phillips Academy, have low Asian attendance, at 1.7 percent and 0.4 percent, respectively, according to that metropolitan agency report. This suggests most Chinatown high schoolers choose not to attend neighborhood public high schools -- something city planners want to address.
The possible development of a 62-acre stretch between 16th Street and the northern end of Chinatown also has Ald. Daniel Solis, 25th, hopeful a new public high school could be built on the space. The area could also be developed for commercial and residential use, he said.
As alderman for nearly two decades, Solis believes the success of the area lies in its residents' dedication to the traditions that make the neighborhood vibrant.
"That's something that's not only unique to my ward, but also across the city," he said. "The Chinese don't need to be driven from their community, they just expand it."
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