The Story of Chinatown
If you walk through Chicago’s Chinatown, you’ll see red and green––colors symbolizing good luck and prosperity––just about everywhere in the neighborhood near Cermak Road and Wentworth and Archer avenues. But the original Chinatown was different than the one Chicagoans know today. It was located near Clark and Van Buren streets in what is now the Loop.
The original Chinatown was created in the 1870s as Chinese immigrants took the newly built transcontinental railroad (constructed by thousands of Chinese laborers) and escaped the racial prejudice of the West Coast, where many had initially settled. The railroad took laborers as far as Iowa, where many connected to other railroads to continue on to Chicago. At the time, immigration laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 severely restricted the number of Chinese allowed into the country, so much so that Chinese men actually outnumbered women in Chicago 1,713 to 65 by 1910, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. It was around that time that Chinatown relocated to its current location.
When the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed following World War II and further laws were passed in the following decades that eliminated overt racial discrimination in immigration policy, Chicago’s Chinese population began to expand, and Chinatown further developed. In the 1980s, a group of Chinese American business leaders purchased land left vacant by Santa Fe Railway and built Chinatown Square, an outdoor, two-story mall with shops and restaurants. In 1991, the city developed the land behind the mall along the river into Ping Tom Memorial Park, named for the man who led the initiative to build Chinatown Square.
Today, Chinatown has dozens upon dozens of restaurants and celebrates the Lunar New Year and other holidays with parades. In 2015, the Chicago Public Library built a new, 16,000-square-foot branch by architect Brian Lee of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill with “feng shui-influenced interior design.” The neighborhood, which is part of the Armour Square community area, is served by the Cermak-Chinatown Red Line stop.
Neighborhood Spotlight: Pui Tak Center
With its upturned roof and ornate terra cotta elements, the Pui Tak Center is a historic and bold architectural statement on Wentworth Avenue in Chinatown. But because of harsh anti-immigrant laws, there were no licensed architects of Chinese descent in Chicago when it was built. It was actually a pair of Norwegian architects, Christian Michaelsen and Sigurd Rognstad, who designed the building. The building has often served as a support center for immigrants. Over its at time complicated lifespan, the Pui Tak Center has offered English classes, homework tutoring, medical services, and has served as a spiritual center.
The 30,000-square-foot building opened in 1928 under the name On Leong Merchants Association Building, named for the group for which it was built. The Tong Wars––rivalries between fraternal societies, or tongs––were sometimes known to have played out in the building and the surrounding neighborhood. The On Leong Merchants Association was one such tong that came to the neighborhood in the decades prior to its building’s construction. In 1988, the building was bought by the federal government after it was discovered that it was housing a secret casino. It was vacant for five years.
In 1993, the Chicago City Council designated the building as a Chicago landmark, the only one in Chinatown. In that same year, the Chinese Christian Union Church purchased the building and gave it its current name. In Chinese, “pui tak” means to build character or virtue. It is once again providing social services to the immigrant population of the neighborhood.