This year marks Chinatown’s centennial, an occasion that has the neighborhood awash in color and flush with pride. In 1912 Chicago’s Chinese-American population, almost 2,000 at the time, moved southward to its current location around the intersection of Cermak and Wentworth Avenues. The community remains there today, oriented commercially along two forking avenues. The area’s newest construction, Chinatown Square, is a two-floor structure running parallel to Archer and filled with small souvenir and sweet shops. The older part of Chinatown runs down Wentworth, where most of the signs are in Mandarin and grocery stores have spiky durian laying in a back corner like large cats.
It’s true that most of the commerce in Chinatown is centered around food and trinkets, but it is also a residential area–just off of Wentworth the area abruptly becomes a scene of idyllic suburbia, with Chinese-language signs for yard sales and lost pets. As both an ethnic neighborhood and tourist attraction, Chinatown courts outsiders as it cultivates a private community life. According to Anita Hsueh Luk, Executive Director of the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago, the neighborhood today is becoming less mono-cultural as immigrants come from different parts of China and Asia. You can hear both Cantonese and Mandarin spoken on the streets, but there is a definite pride in keeping English to a minimum.
“Growing up Chinese, you are Chinese at home. You are American at school,” reflects one of the many nameless voices in “My Chinatown,” CAMOC’s centennial exhibit. “Part of me is in Hong Kong. Part of me is in Chicago,” says another. Chicago’s Chinatown today has many second and third generation residents, helping the community effort to reduce the cognitive dissonance of the immigrant experience. In proper Midwest fashion, Chicago’s Chinatown is less pushy and quieter than its New York or San Francisco counterparts, but it is more than just a series of bubble tea dispensaries separating the rest of the South Side from downtown.
Best Egg Tart
A former British colony, Hong Kong retains some Western influence in its famously flaky pastries. Perhaps the most delicious way to explore this piece of history is with the classic egg tart, which Chiu Quon Bakery serves by the fresh-baked trayful to the lucky or well-timed customer. Chiu Quon shelters a tiny dim sum joint in its back room, but the real stars here are the pastries; most are under a dollar and generously over-sized. Customers can buy individual treats from the bakery case or pre-packaged boxes to share. Chiu Quon opened its doors in 1986, making it the oldest continuously-operating bakery in Chinatown. In its 26 years, it has become a neighborhood favorite–if you’re not a regular, ordering may take some patience and a little brazen elbow pushing. Once you’ve fought your way to the front, grab a Thousand Year Old Egg Cake (at 95 cents, that’s less than a cent for every ten years!) and a BBQ Pork Bun for the road. 2242 S. Wentworth Ave. Daily, 7am-9pm. (312)225-6608 (Bea Malsky)
Best Riverside Retreat
Ping Tom Memorial Park
This shallow strip of green bounds Chinatown to the west and separates the residential part of the neighborhood from the Chicago River. Ping Tom Memorial Park is a quiet place, planted with young willow trees and surrounded on all sides by the metal of the city: train tracks, abandoned bridges, and a glittering low-angle view of the skyline. The park’s southern end is landscaped simply, but further north it becomes increasingly wild. A red walkway overrun with yellow, violet, and white wildflowers leads to a heavily graffiti-ed bridge, which in turn leads to a long trail of overgrown hills. Ping Tom himself was a civic leader and one of the original developers of Chinatown Square. He worked on the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, the Chinese American Civic Council, and the Chinese American Service League. His memorial park is a neighborhood space of the very best sort–not a tourist destination, but the realization of a community quietly celebrating itself. 300 W. 19th St. (312)746-5962. pingtompark.org (Bea Malsky)
Best Use of the Swallow
Hong Kong Seafood City Ltd.
Who knew the simple swallow had so much to offer? An entire wall of Hong Kong Seafood City Ltd. is lined with swallows’ nests, from bone white to deep purple and from thimble- to football-sized. Swallow nest beverage–”sweet, and makes your skin beautiful,” explains the helpful shop owner–is available in original, longan, red date, or goji berry flavor. Seafood City’s offerings extend beyond dermatological drinks; the abundance of swallows nests is matched by the proprietor’s other offerings: multiple varieties of sliced deer antlers, seahorse (“for soup,” a young girl behind the counter shrugs), abalone, scallops, astragalus, whelks, sea cucumber, squid, cuttlefish, momordica-grosvenori, bamboo fungus, fish stomach, fish maw, shark fin, sea bird… the list goes on.Â Along with thirteen varieties of dried scallops (ranging in price from $59.99 to $153.00 per pound) and an entire case of ginseng root, the shop has one huge wall devoted to loose tea. If it can be dehydrated, Seafood City probably keeps it somewhere in a glass jar, and probably in more than one variety. 2120A S. Archer Ave. Daily, 8am-9pm. (312)881-9288 (Bea Malsky)
Best Place to Find Blood
If you need anything dried, fried, fresh, smoked, cured, pickled, alive-n-kickin’, or otherwise, chances are good you can find it at Chinatown Market. Located right off the Cermak-Chinatown Red Line stop and outside of Chinatown Square, Chinatown Market will cater to all of your Asian grocery needs. In addition to a wide selection of Asian staples such as Szechuan peppers, various sauces (soy, oyster, hoisin, etc.), and fresh vegetables, Chinatown Market also offers more exotic fare including live geoduck, coagulated blood, and whole silkie–chicken with a strikingly dark-blue flesh. If you stop by, be sure to pamper yourself a little and grab some good quality imported bowl noodles in the many flavors that the market offers, from mushroom udon to spicy beef ramen. For a real bargain, check out the market’s selection of meats and vegetables. Pork belly and spare ribs can be purchased at just over half-off supermarket prices, and vegetables can be similarly cheap. If you have a sweet tooth, take a look at the market’s selection of Asian candies. Whether you’re looking for groceries, snacks, or your next culinary adventure, Chinatown Market has something for you. 2121 S. Archer Ave. Daily, 9am-8pm. (312)881-0068 (Kay Li)
Best Dim Sum
In Chinatown, flashy dim sum restaurants with steaming carts and bow-tied waitstaff get all the press, but the real flavor lies south of Chinatown Mall. Tasty Place is tucked along a strip of Chinese eateries and souvenir shops on Wentworth Avenue, and upon first glance feels more like your neighborhood diner than a decadent diamond in the world of Hong Kong dim sum and boba. Neighborhood men lounge at tables by themselves with newspapers and cups of coffee, the waitstaff might occasionally call you “honey,” and no, that’s not the fishy fumes of Chinatown Market clouding your head–it really is that cheap. “Tasty Place” is no misnomer; the food is hot and fresh, and the dishes are equally strong across the spectrum. Tasty Place lacks the sheer volume of dim sum options offered at a place like Cai or Shui Wah, but will satisfy all palates. An American favorite like General Tso’s chicken will be prepared as lovingly as authentic Chinese chicken feet or congee, and you will leave the restaurant feeling as though you’ve shoplifted your meal. 2306 S. Wentworth. Daily, 7:30am-10pm. (312)842-8802 (Sam Karas)