Texan in Chinatown, Chicago

I had been to Chinatown before, several times. However, this trip was more than an adventure in search of food, although we did stop to enjoy some! After learning a little about Chinatown through my Global Chicago course, I was excited to walk the streets and really notice the shops, people, and the overall vibe I got of the neighborhood.

As soon as you step off the train, you best be moving. Chicago is a bustling city, sure. Still, when we stepped out of the shelter of the Cermak-Chinatown Redline stop, we were quickly swept away by the movement of many people rushing this way and that. We caught our breath at our first stop: The Nine Dragon Wall.

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The Nine Dragon Wall (S. Wentworth and W. Cermak)

Standing in front of this artistic display of culture is truly amazing. If you look closely, you can see the many tiles and pieces that were fitted together for the wall’s construction. The bright colors and sacred dragons remind me of Chinese New Year, something I now want to experience. This wall is one of three like it outside of China. The pieces were made in China and sent to Chicago for construction of the wall. It is said that this wall aides Chinatown’s feng shui. The awe I felt when traveling through Chinatown began here. What a beautiful culture.

Of course from here we turned around to the symbolic Chinatown Gate. This gate looks bold and welcoming with it’s large size and wide girth. I love it, because it says, “We are here. This is our place. We are Chinese. We are American. Welcome!” And I believe that is what it was meant to say! It is wonderful that Chinatown is so prevalent and steadfast in this area, improving continuously as was shown to us by their new library! (Which we will talk about soon.)

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Chinatown Gate (S. Wentworth and 22nd St/Cermak)

Then, we crossed the street. As we passed over Cermak, a few women were in such a hurry, they began running. Everyone else was pushing along at a quick pace. I noticed immediately everyone around us were Asian. In fact, even though our class was spread around in many small groups, you could spot each other right away. All of the signs and advertisements were in another language first, followed or underlined by English. That was a first for me- certainly do not see that in my part of Texas. Looking around, I saw how advertisements used many colors and large signs. It seemed normal to push advertising here; an apartment building even had advertisements on it. We continued so fast down Wentworth, that we initially missed the Pui Tak Center.

To me, the Pui Tak Center looks like a mash up of older, brick buildings of early 20th century Chicago and pagoda-style roofing. It is very detailed and stands proudly near the entrance of the gate. We walked around it for a little while, trying to find a way in. Unfortunately, the doors were locked.

Across the street, I was excited when I saw the Won Kow restaurant. It opened in 1928, and, “is the oldest continuously operated restaurant in Chinatown”[2].

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Won Kow (2237 S. Wentworth)

As we continued down Wentworth, I observed many different restaurants: Cantonese, Vietnamese, Mongolian, and others. It reminded me that China is a huge country, with many different cultures spread throughout, and Chinatown is made up of many different Chinese cultures as well as other Asian cultures. I also noted there were multiple lawyer offices. It made me wonder what made lawyers in Chinatown such a common service: is it a revered occupation to have in their culture, a necessity for those seeking citizenship, or is it hard to be a Chinese American immigrant working with other lawyers? I’m not sure.

So, we continued down Wentworth. The traffic on such a small street was incredible. Everyone was honking at each other. Pedestrians were racing across all different ways. Once, we crossed and nearly were hit because a woman just did not want to stop for us, regardless of the fact that we were in the middle of the crosswalk! Searching for 23rd St, we stumbled across a church.

The Chinese Christian Union Church was surprising to me. It’s design did not cry out church, especially not Christian. There was no steeple, no cross. It had the pagoda style roofing on it’s main entrance and plain, brick throughout. I wondered how Chinese Americans initially converting to Christianity and why. This church was also just down the street from a Buddhist worship sanctuary.

From there, we headed to the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago on 23rd Street. Finally! This street was practically empty and gave us a chance to slow down. That is when Chinatown began to appear dirty to me.

To be fair, I must admit anytime it snows and then melts away, a lot of trash is revealed. However, it caught my attention quickly. Maybe I understand why: there are no trash cans! I made the mistake of carrying around a coffee at the beginning of our adventure (also a good thing, because you cannot find a coffee shop here). By the time I had finished it, I could not find a single street trash can for public use. I had to take many of my pictures holding the empty cup. I finally disposed of it in a business dumpster. For such a bustling, shopping center, I could not understand why there were no trash cans.

At a seemingly random corner down 23rd Street, we spotted the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago, announced by two impressive, stone lions out front. The door was opened by a cheerful, young woman with a strong accent. She gave us a brochure and a equally cheerful man came out of a door to our right and took us upstairs to the exhibit. The museum is truly a humble, little building. We watched their 16 minute video, where I learned about Dim Sum, Chinese culture, a few experiences of Chinese-American immigrants, and the beginning of Chinatown. After visiting the museum, I realized there is a restaurant I took a picture of that advertised Dim Sum all day!

Next we checked out the newest addition to Chinatown: their new public library. This stoic building stands out from the traditional feel of Chinatown. It is an interesting sight. It shows how the tradition of Chinatown is being introduced to the innovation of today through younger generations returning to improve where they grew up. The building itself is a statement. Round, sleek, and sporting a ton of windows, it screams Chicago. Inside, we were startled by the brightness of the building, the new style of furniture, the movement the interior had, and the technology available to the public. I think this library provides the community with a new, up-to-date center that is going to benefit the youth of Chinatown, as well as accommodate it’s more-senior citizens. There were many students meeting there, along with adults coming and going. I want to go study there!

 

The rest of our time in Chinatown was spent exploring the outdoor mall in Chinatown Square and the Ping Tom Memorial Park. The outdoor mall seems traditional, yet has the ability to attract tourists. We saw many restaurants, a few business (including another lawyer), and even children visiting for a field trip. In the square, the zodiac statues were bold. My favorite design was the bull, but I am the year of the pig. The square seems like a wonderful accolade to China, calling home from Chicago.

In Ping Tom Memorial Park, once again in an off-the-path location, we took a pleasant stroll through a flat area near the South End of the Chicago River. I did not expect the park to be empty, but we could have been there at an unpopular time. Right by the entrance is a playground and a Chinese-style pavilion. It gives the community a safe place to enjoy time outdoors, exercise, and come together. The park is excellent, planned well, and I would love to run there.

My experience in Chinatown was one filled with appreciation for a culture upheld by it’s people, awe in the beauty of their designs, and overwhelm by their pace. I enjoyed my visit. I intend to return to try increasingly more authentic food. We finished our adventure by eating at Joy Yee, a restaurant inside the outdoor mall. This is a restaurant with a very modern design, but also an Asian atmosphere. Their menu is a mile long! The staff was pleasant and patient with us. I decided to continue my adventure by trying something new: Chicken and Shrimp Pad Thai. It was citrus-y and delicious! I was unable to eat the pad thai with my chopsticks, but I gave it a try.

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I will certainly be back. Perhaps I will stop to try some tea next time.

 

Resources:

  1. http://www.chicagoarchitecture.info/Building/1342757120/Nine-Dragon-Wall.php
  2. http://www.choosechicago.com/blog/post/2014/04/This-Month-In-Chicago-History-A-Look-at-Chicago-s-Chinatown/1371/
  3. http://www.chicagonow.com/chicago-advocate/2015/01/chicagos-chinatown-is-flourishing-bucking-national-trend/
  4. http://flickrhivemind.net/Tags/bronze,zodiac/Interesting

 

 

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Tools for Building Chicago: Invention, Innovation, & Industry

Growing up in rural Texas, I never thought about Chicago. It was just a mystical place in the movies. I did not intend to visit such an intimidating, bustling city. I grew up in a small town, in the countryside, and that was enough for me. Flashforward and here I am: attending college on 31st and State near the southside of Chicago, taking classes to learn more about this popular, lakeside center of the Midwest!

What surprises me most is the start of Chicago. Looking at Chicago today, it is hard to believe that the area was a dirty, muddy bog where people did not choose to stay for extended periods of time. In the 17th century, the Native Americans and French trappers in the area only stopped by for trading and brief visits, not knowing the location’s economic and strategic value. Between the end of the 17th century and the early 18th century, the race for expansion westward between France and England in North America was frantic. Be that as it may, the United States of America gained independence from England in the late 1700’s. By now, the industrial revolution was advancing rapidly with the passing of each year. With the industrial boom and founding of our new country, the U.S. knew we needed to continue our race Westward and find the connection between our newly claimed lands and our booming Eastern cities. Recognizing the connection between the East to the Midwest to the Mississippi, we succeeded in marking this new territory in 1803, by building a small military post called Fort Dearborn.

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Early drawing of Chicago in 1831. [5]

After a meager start, wars with many Native Americans, and reconstruction in 1817 of Fort Dearborn, Chicago was on the map. The value of Chicago’s location could not be argued. However, as innovation continued to chase better transportation designs, the small town needed to act quickly in order improve its harbors and route to the Mississippi River before it was left in the dust of the railroads.

This is when the genesis of Chicago becomes a whirlwind of new ideas, fast money, and inexpensive expansion. First thing on the city’s to-do-list was dig the ninety-six mile canal that would link the Illinois River to the Chicago River, giving access from New York to the Great Lakes to the Mississippi. This innovative idea, springing from the construction of the Erie Canal, had the potential to “to make Chicago a commercial center overnight” (Spinney 32). A booming city in the making attracted economically savvy gamblers seeking to make a quick profit on the vastly empty land in Chicago. This speculation and booming land prices, driven by the excitement of the promising new city, led to the invention of the futures market.

Sadly, the expedited growth of the city did not allow for much more than wooden shacks and sidewalks being thrown together board by board. As more and more flocked to the city, the sewage system, muddy streets, and cheap foundation took its toll on Chicago. A sewage system needed to be implemented, but the area’s swampy identity hindered the installation of underground pipes. By truly impressive means, the city took this issue head on and crank by crank lifted each building ten feet, using a fleet of hand-turned jacks. Amazing as it seems, lifting the city was only another symptom of Chicago’s fast cash and inexpensive infrastructure atmosphere that was being developed alongside the city. When the city later realized the sewage was festering in the slow-moving river directly into the lake and water source, the city attempted to alleviate the issue by devising a tunnel system and pump far from the pollution. The solution did not suffice. Once again, Chicago decided to change the natural identity of the area: reverse the river. In another inspiring fight to keep the city on the up-and-up, Chicago changed the direction the lazy river flowed in order to direct the sewage away from the lake, allowing the city to continue pursuit of its Eastern counterparts.

Completion of the canal helped Chicago escape fully addressing another issue: bad roads. The road conditions were so poor to and in the city that farmers often struggled to make it to market. With the implementation of the new canal, farmers could easily navigate to a port closer to them to drop off their crops with the ships that would then transport it to the city. In the 1850s, Chicago was quick to come up with another fast-cash way to enhance profit by perfecting the steam-powered grain elevator and building them high above the barges alongside the river banks.

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In 1900, a barge floats in the foreground, while the Chicago sky is clouded with smoke from the growing industries in the city. [3]

 

 

In another blink of an eye, the railroad brought the real money to Chicago. The railroad bolstered the connection this midwest center had to all of the merchandise already coming by barge to the city. The rivers extending lazily from Chicago, but the railroad spread aggressively like arteries from the heart. And that’s what Chicago became, the heart of “the grain trade, the lumber industry, the meatpacking business, and the mail-order catalog business” (Spinney 51).

 

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Railroads in the Bridgeport area of Chicago 1880. [2]

Inventions like the McCormick reaper, the grain elevator, the butchers’ wheel, the disassembly line, the refrigerated railroad car, and Ward’s catalogue fostered these industries. These industries funded the city, were products of the dreams of many, and the foundation for the metropolis soon known as the “Gateway to the West” (Spinney 68). Chicago’s foundation is inspiring yet seems almost idiotic. Learning about the upbringing of a place like Chicago makes it hard to tell what the “American Dream” really is. It is exhilarating knowing how powerful we are as a country, that we made a dream into reality in an area otherwise uninhabitable. Still, it is disheartening to think that we are so hard headed as Americans that we gobble up this land, change its natural identity, and make quick fixes along the way until we successfully “fake it ‘til we make it”. I think my thoughts are best summed up by the final sentence of chapter four, “as Garry Wills has written, ‘The city was an act of will … an imposition, a triumph over circumstance’ ” (Spinney 69).

Resources:

  1. M, Jill, Brandon K, and Lev N. “Urbanization – A.” WCMSUrbanization. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. <https://wcmsurbanization-a.wikispaces.com/1900s>.
  2. “Bridgeport Industrial Scene, Ca. 1880.” Bridgeport Industrial Scene, Ca. 1880. © Queens Borough Public Library, 08 Jan. 2002. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. <http://edison.rutgers.edu/latimer/brdgprt.htm>.
  3. Reporter, Daily Mail. “America Steams Ahead: Incredible Black-and-white Pictures Capture How Railroads and Steamboats Helped Forge Its Future at the Turn of the 20th Century.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 19 July 2012. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2176129/Incredible-black-white-pictures-capture-country-forging-ahead-railroads-steamboats-1870-1920.html>.
  4. “Chicago.” Travel Channel. N.p., 2016. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. <http://www.travelchannel.com/destinations/us/il/chicago>.
  5. “Chicago, Illinois, 1831.” Wisconsin Electronic Reader. State Historical Society of Wisconsin Visual Archives, n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2016. <http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/WIReader/Images/WER1236.html>.
  6. Spinney, Robert G. City of Big Shoulders: A History of Chicago. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois UP, 2000. Print.