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