Chicago's Chinatown celebrates 100th anniversary

2012 brings the Year of the Dragon, and Chinatown is gearing up for a major celebration.

Of the 12 symbols in the Chinese zodiac, the dragon is the most powerful, representing wisdom, strength and superiority. That's fitting, as this year marks the 100th anniversary of Chicago's Chinatown, with the community to celebrate key achievements of the past century.

“It's significant that our centennial year is falling on a dragon year,” said Chi Can To, executive director of the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.

Chicago's Chinatown is a busy 30-block commercial area centered on and around Wentworth Avenue and Cermak Road in the South Side Armour Square neighborhood. Home to more than 10,000 residents and about 400 businesses and local institutions, Chinatown is considered one of the country's largest and most vibrant ethnic communities.

Aside from being a community hub and business center, Chinatown has become a popular tourist destination. It's also a great day trip for suburbanites, who can pass hours browsing in the shops, visiting the sites and, of course, enjoying the dozens of dining options.

In the past century, Chinatown has shown dramatic growth, To says. The first immigrants, fleeing anti-Chinese sentiment on the West Coast, arrived after 1869 when the first Transcontinental Railroad was completed.

In the 1880s, the community began forming along Clark Street in the downtown Loop area with grocery stores, butcher shops and a restaurant opening along a two-block stretch.

Increasing rent prices forced business leaders to move south to Armour Square beginning around 1912. That is the first year showing listings of Chinese businesses on the city tax records at their current location, To says.

“It's significant for our community to take stock of where we've come from,” To says.

The Chinese have made great contributions to the city of Chicago, culturally and economically, says Dr. Huping Ling, a history professor at Truman State University and author of a new book detailing the Chinese experience in the Midwest. “We have a sense of pride. Chinatown is a very integral part of Chicago's economy. It's really making significant contributions.”

Chicago's central location and easy transportation access helped fuel growth in the Chinese community, Ling said. The Chinese didn't enter the mainstream labor market, like working in railroad construction, but created their own business opportunities, opening grocery stores and restaurants. “They were pretty self-reliant and self-dependent,” she says.

Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Chicago last January, his tour representing the leader's only stop outside of the nation's capital during his U.S. visit. “It's great to have that connection to where many of our community members emigrated from,” To says.

Building Chinatown Square, an outdoor shopping mall with restaurants, bakeries, gift stores and more, as well as the 12-acre Ping Tom Memorial Park, on the south branch of the Chicago River, were huge community achievements, To says.

In the last decade, leaders have seen many young Chinese professionals who grew up in Chinatown returning there to work and live, To says. “Statistically, what sets our Chinatown apart from other cities is that we have the largest number of Chinese that work and live within city limits,” he says.

In the next few decades, leaders hope to build on their successes and continue to help establish Chicago as China's economic gateway to America. The centennial celebration, which begins Sunday, Jan. 29, is a great way to highlight achievements, they say.

“It's a whole city celebration, but more than anything, it's our community's celebration with 100 years of expanding with businesses, changing the way our community looks, the visual features, the type of people who live here,” To says. “It's a community celebration that will affect (the entire city of) Chicago.”

Places to see in Chinatown

Chinatown Gate

Location: South Wentworth Avenue and West Cermak Road

One of Chinatown's most identifiable landmarks, the gate was considered the original entryway into Chinatown. Features the basic principles of feng shui design.

Chinese American Museum of Chicago

Location: 238 W. 23rd St.

Founded in 2005, the museum highlights the experiences of Chinese Americans in the Midwest. Its most recent exhibit is “From the Great Wall to the Great Lakes.” In 2008, a devastating fire nearly destroyed countless artifacts; the building's restoration was complete in fall 2010.

Chinatown Square

Location: 2133 S. China Place

An outdoor shopping mall with restaurants, bakeries, gift stores, bookstores and more. Also features the Pan Asian Cultural Center, enclosed by statues of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals, and a 320-square-foot mural constructed of hand-painted glass tiles that details the history of Chinese immigrants to the U.S.

Ping Tom Memorial Park

Location: 300 W. 19th St.

The 12-acre picturesque park has a riverwalk and is a popular place for lovers of yoga, tai chi and qigong. In the summer, the park hosts the annual Dragon Boat Race Festival.

It's fitting that Chicago's Chinatown neighborhood celebrates its 100th birthday during the Year of the Dragon.
Summer brings dragon boat races to Chinatown.
Restaurants are among the big draws to Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood.
The 12-acre Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown features a riverwalk and picturesque views. © City of Chicago/GRC
Chicago’s Chinatown is embarking on a yearlong celebration of its centennial. Associated Press photo

Upcoming events

<b>Chinatown Centennial Lectures:</b> 2 p.m. lectures Saturday afternoons at Chinese-American Museum of Chicago, 238 W. 23rd St., Chicago. The free monthly lectures, offered by the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago, highlight the architectural and cultural landmarks of Chinatown. For topics, visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.

<b>Presentation and book signing of “Chinese Chicago: Race, Transnational Migration and Community since 1870”:</b> 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 7, at the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago, 238 W. 23rd St., Chicago. Free. The book, by Dr. Huping Ling, documents the history of the Chinese in the Midwest, focusing on how race, transnational migration and community have defined Chinese residents in Chicago and St. Louis.

<b>2012 Lunar New Year Parade:</b> Parade steps off at 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 29; other activities start at 11:30 a.m. along Wentworth Avenue from 24th Street to Cermak Road. The New Year Parade includes marching bands, floats, a mystical dragon and more. The parade also kicks off celebrations of the Chinatown Centennial.

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