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Behind the Scenes of Chinatown’s Oldest Bakery, Which Makes More Than 100 Products By Hand Daily

Jack X. Li
Backers prepping dough and cooking fillings.
Chiu Quon Bakery is the oldest bakery in Chicago’s Chinatown, and makes over 100 different goods fresh daily. Photo: Jack X. Li for WTTW

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Early every morning, the skilled bakers of Chicago’s Chiu Quon Bakery prep dough, cook fillings, shape breads, steam and bake buns, and carry out all the other myriad steps required to prepare the over 100 different baked goods and foods made and offered daily at the bakery. Many of the employees have been at Chiu Quon for decades; their years of experience are evident in the fast-paced rhythm of their work.

Photographer Jack X. Li visited the bakery and its two full kitchen areas to get a glimpse behind the scenes of the Chinatown stalwart.

Chiu Quon is the oldest Chinese bakery in Chicago’s Chinatown, and while it remains a beloved institution, neither it nor its neighborhood have been static.

Woman working behind the bakery display case.

Founded in 1986 by Pui Yip (pictured right) and Cora Chiu with recipes that Pui Yip brought from Hong Kong, where he learned the trade, it is now run by their daughter Joyce Chiu (left) and her husband William Chan.

Joyce Chiu and her husband William Chan.

The bakery has had several locations along the main stretch of Chinatown’s Wentworth Avenue over the years. Its current home at 2253 S. Wentworth has fresh branding and signage, but its buns, tarts, and dim sum specialties are still made by hand everyday.

The front of the Chiu Quon bakery.

In a downstairs kitchen and prep area, bakers like Lian K. prepare the dough for Portuguese egg tarts, which Joyce Chiu says are one of the bakery’s best-sellers.

Lian K. prepares the dough for Portuguese egg tarts.

Chiu says that the skills to do this labor-intensive work are developed over many years of practice.

Cutting out tart circles from rolled out dough.

She fears that traditional methods could be lost when this generation of bakers retires. "We are teaching new people, but, I hate to say it, at some point, this process will have to be more automated.”

Stacks of cut out dough and small pie tinsMan pouring filling into prepared dough in tins.

Cakes and steamed buns, such as these being prepared by Guo L., Xiu L., Yanna L., and Pei Z., are also made in the downstairs kitchen.

Bakers preparing steamed buns.
Woman filling buns.
Baker removing tray of cooked buns from steamer.

Bakers including Zhuo L. repeat the process of making varied treats throughout the day, with the final bake occurring around 1:00 pm. After that, they start preparations for the following day.

Trays of shaped dough waiting to be baked.
Baker piping a topping onto braided dough.

Most baked items and dim sum specialties, including these egg custard buns being filled and shaped by Yi M., are prepared in an upstairs kitchen that is also always humming with activity.

Egg custard buns being filled and shaped.

Chiu Quon is perhaps most famous for its BBQ pork buns, which contain pork that is marinated for several days before being cooked and added to the center of fluffy dough by hand.

Baker puts a tray of BBQ pork buns into the oven.Trays of cooked breads cooling and unbaked loaves.BBQ pork bun torn apart to show the filling.

The BBQ pork buns are loved by Jamie, who grew up near Chiu Quon and now shares its treats with her son Peyton. His favorite item is the pineapple sweet bun.

Mother and son looking at baked items in the display case.

Chiu Quon has been an integral part of many Chinatown residents’ daily routines for decades, including community leader and longtime customer Gene Lee. “My grandsons love [Chiu Quon’s] buns,” he says before heading out with a box full of treats. “The quality is always here.”

One of the owners of Chiu Quon shaking hands with a patron inside the bakery store.

The bakery reflects the intergenerational makeup of the Chinatown community in both its customers and its ownership, as well as the ways in which the neighborhood has evolved over the years.

Several people stand in line waiting to place their order.

Joyce Chiu gradually saw her role in the operations of the bakery expand after she returned from college. She eventually took over the duties of running the bakery from her parents. "I was a kid here, and I would see kids come in, and now they're grown up like me and we have kids. It's just this very beautiful full circle," Her voice fills with pride as she continues, "This community and this bakery, it's so unique."

Inside of bakery store showing a display case filled with decorated cakes.

She witnessed firsthand the long, stress-filled hours that her parents worked when she was younger. While she's grateful for what her parents did, she and her husband William know that they want to run Chiu Quon "in a way where we're not exhausted," she says. “We’re very fortunate that we even get to think about mental health and time off. It’s something that our parents never had.”

Wall of bakery showing menu as well as numerous photos and awards

According to Joyce, one challenge of running a business that's been around for decades has been trying to cultivate a more sustainable way to run the bakery. She wants to improve conditions for her staff, but often has to balance that with the community response to things such as price increases or reduced hours. She says that she is always thinking of the impact on the community, and “making price increases is not something we take lightly.”

Baker pushes in tray of items into holding rack with stacks of boxes on the side.
"We're very conscious about what we put out, and I feel like that makes a difference", she says. "There are a lot of opportunities for businesses to cut corners and I feel proud that we don't."


Baker placing goods into box using tongs.

She hopes that the thoughtful ways in which she and William have tried to grow Chiu Quon's business will be part of the legacy that they are eventually able to pass down to their own children.

Closeup of several cooked egg tarts.

Social media has helped bring a more diverse clientele to the bakery, Joyce says. Over the course of a typical afternoon rush, there were groups of customers from a variety of neighborhoods, cities, and even a family that had traveled internationally to Chicago and decided to make Chiu Quon one of the stops on their vacation.

Person holds half-eaten BBQ pork bun with other treats in front of him in a travel container.

Anthony and Roxy visited on their way back to Minneapolis from Canada. They always stop in Chicago during the drive, but had never been to Chiu Quon. “We got enough to feed fifteen to 20,” Anthony says with a smile.

Two patrons showing their purchases.

Chiu Quon's increasingly widespread customer base is a reflection of the ever-growing popularity of Chicago's Chinatown. After 37 years of business for Chiu Quon, Joyce says that, "the community is still here. It just looks a little different, and that's a great thing."

Owners working behind the counter as another worker grabs items to put into box.