Chinatown June 24, 2024
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Chinatown, Chicago - A Historic Neighborhood

Exploring the heart of Chicago's South Side, you'll discover Chinatown—an iconic neighborhood nestled between S. Wentworth Avenue, Cermak Road, and W. 26th St. Boasting a vibrant cultural heritage, over a third of Chicago's Chinese population calls this ethnic enclave home, making it one of the largest Chinese-American communities in the United States. Chinatown came to life around 1912, as Chinese settlers migrated south from near the Loop, where the first enclaves had been established in the 19th century.

Chinatown is sometimes confused with "New Chinatown," located on the city's North Side, predominantly inhabited by individuals of Southeast Asian heritage.

A Glimpse into History

The Initial Migration and "Old" Chinatown

In the wake of anti-Chinese violence on the West Coast, the first Chinese immigrants arrived in Chicago after 1869, following the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. The West Coast governments had started targeting Chinese individuals systematically, exemplified by a San Francisco ordinance in 1870 taxing laundrymen using horseless wagons for deliveries. This discrimination, combined with challenging economic conditions, prompted a significant Chinese migration to other parts of the United States. Many Chinese individuals lost their jobs after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, where they had constituted 90% of the Central Pacific Railroad's workforce.

Initially, Chinese newcomers in Chicago were largely welcomed by residents of all races. As early immigrant Moy Dong Chow noted, "the Chicagoans found us a peculiar people to be sure, but they liked to mix with us." The willingness of Chinese Chicagoans to embrace Christian missions in Chinatown also contributed to harmonious relations between the two communities. By 1909, there were two Christian missions in the old Chinatown and eight other missions serving the Chinese community.

This acceptance paved the way for a thriving early Chinese community in Chicago. By the late 1800s, approximately 25% of the city's 600 Chinese residents had settled along Clark Street, between Van Buren and Harrison Streets in the Loop. During the mid-1870s, the Kim Kee Company opened a store selling imported Chinese goods and ingredients, alongside a Chinese-owned restaurant in the same building. In 1889, there were 16 Chinese-owned businesses along this two-block stretch, including eight grocery stores, two butcher shops, and a restaurant. Other establishments in early Chinatown included gambling houses, family association headquarters, and Christian mission houses. Grocery stores also served as cultural hubs where people would gamble, enjoy rice wine, and smoke cigars. Laundry services held significant importance, with 198 Chinese laundries operating by 1883. However, by 1897, white Chicagoans began opening laundry businesses, offering lower prices and causing tensions as Chinese laundry businesses suffered. By 1903, white Chicagoans developed a keen interest in the increasingly popular "fad" of chop suey restaurants in Chinatown, further contributing to the neighborhood's growth.

Around the turn of the century, powerful clans and family associations emerged within Chicago's Chinese population. The Moy clan, the most influential, became de facto leaders of the city's Chinese community. From 1898 to 1940, over six thousand immigrant files in Chicago contained the name "Moy," reflecting their prominence. Sam Moy served as the first "mayor" of Chinatown, acting as an interpreter and representing the community to city officials. Besides the Moy clan, other significant clans included the Wong and Chin clans. The prevalence of a few surnames underscores the phenomenon of chain migration and enduring transnational ties within Chinatown.

After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, a significant wave of Chinese Americans arrived in Chicago and received staunch support from the city's Chinese residents, primarily through clan associations dedicated to caring for their kin. Clan ties continued to play a vital role in Chinatown's success for decades, with clans often financing businesses through fellow association members or exclusively hiring relatives to work in their establishments. Early Chinese immigrants in Chicago mostly hailed from Taishan, with influential merchants like Chin Foin and Moy Dong Chow originating from this region.

Old Chinatown, like other densely populated Chinatowns across the country, witnessed the Tong Wars, marked by several high-profile incidents. In 1909, a major shootout erupted between different Tongs, leading to numerous arrests. Subsequently, in 1911, Lee Yip Wing and Moy Dong Tong were shot due to non-compliance with the Hip Sing Tong's demands. The Tong Wars persisted for several decades, prompting Chicago and Chinatown to prepare for potential outbreaks of violence. In 1930, additional police details were dispatched to Chinatown after a truce broke down between warring parties."