Chinatown: A Divided Growth Agenda

 /  Oct. 30, 2020, 3:52 p.m.


Chinatown: an enclave within a city, or a city’s microcosm?

Seven hundred million dollars in City subsidies, sixty-two acres of land, and over ten thousand residential units: developers hope to add a seventy-eighth community area to Chicago between South Loop and Chinatown. The project was approved in 2019, but for Chinatown residents, the prospect of massive development is nothing new. A luxury project that ambitiously targets high net worth businesses and clienteles, this project called “The 78” seems to be a prime exemplification of what Chinatown has seen in the past decades from an influx of new businesses and a diversified immigration population.

With The 78 megaproject and other development projects, the tension over Chinatown’s future has gradually been unearthed in recent years, both economically and politically. Some support development, citing more economic opportunities awaiting for the seemingly unchanging Chinatown; others worry about the ramifications that rapid development might have on low-income, immigrant populations in this neighborhood, which houses families, working-class immigrants, and a large senior population.

The Only Growing Chinatown in America

When City Council approved the Chicago neighborhood map in 1993, Chinatown appeared to be a contained area fragmented by various transportation lines. “I-55 is right there, and then I-94 is on the other side, and there’s Lake Shore Drive over there,” said Matthew Chiu, who was born and raised in Chinatown, while walking his fingers on the table to show the Chinatown map. “This is exactly how the city wanted it to be built in the past—they didn’t want it to grow.”

Yet with an expanding business scene and immigrants arriving from a wider variety of Chinese provinces, Chinatown is growing. Chicago stands in contrast to other major US cities, where nearly all traditional urban Chinatowns are disappearing due to outside investment and rising rents, gradually becoming centers of tourism instead of homes for an ethnic population and new immigrants. Meanwhile, in public media, Chicago’s Chinatown is recognized as the only growing Chinatown in the country. Among all residents, 55 percent are foreign-born, and its population grew by 26 percent between 2000-2010 according to the past census data.

“One of the exciting aspects of Chinatown was when people look at Chinatown, [it] appears homogeneous, that all Chinese people living [share] the same culture,” said C.W. Chan, who arrived in Chinatown in the 1960s and has seen the ups and downs of the neighborhood. 

In the 1960s, the predominant dialect in Chinatown was Taishanese, originally spoken in the Southern part of Guangdong, China. As a Cantonese speaker from Hong Kong, Chan did not fit in well due to the language barriers. When the Immigration and Naturalization Act passed in 1965, more Hong Kong immigrants and families of naturalized citizens came to Chicago. By the 1990s, there was a growing Cantonese-speaking population. As China opened up to the world through its economic reform policy in the new century, Chan also started to hear more Mandarin in the grocery store as more and more new immigrants from mainland China integrated into Chinatown, a trend that continues today.

“Everything that happened in US Chinatown has something to do with the social and political situation on this side of the ocean and the other side of the ocean,” Chan added. Development in China during the postwar period greatly affected the choice of immigrants, and that shaped the demographics in Chinatown today.

To him, the ever-growing and diversified residential community is one of the main reasons that Chicago’s Chinatown thrives. When Chinatown Square was built in the 1990s, the neighborhood saw significantly more houses built in Chinatown as compared to Chicago in general during the decade. In the 2000s, younger generations of Chinese descent moved back into Chinatown, despite an aging demographic. “We are not just relying on the Business District,” Chan said. “Chinatown [residents]...seem to be older than in the Chicago area in general, but we are seeing more and more potential generations moving in. We are seeing a lot of intergenerational discussions on a lot of the social issues.”

Many of Chinatown’s new immigrants, as well as Chinese students and working professionals who did not start off as immigrants, have turned to investment and developing businesses in the community.Homan Wong, the owner of architectural firm Dearborn Architects, explained the demographic changes he observed. His firm has been serving Chinatown businesses, primarily restaurants, in the design and construction process since 2003.

“Everybody who has some money wants to invest in restaurants. It seems to be an insatiable desire, [as] restaurants are tourist destinations,” Wong told The Gate. Despite the legal hurdles and capital required to run a restaurant, Chinese immigrants quickly find their space in this industry with the support of an entire community behind them. Immigrants from cities in southeastern China like Taishan and Fuzhou have ethnic associations to connect with each other, making it easier for them to work together or come up with an investment for businesses. This trend has been observed by business owners like Wong and also documented in the scholarly works.

Before studying abroad became a popular option for higher education among middle-class families in China, there has long been a culture of “becoming American” rooted in villages in Southeast China, particularly Guangdong and Fujian Province. In the hope of living a new life, a beautiful, bright vision of America was made by generations of working-class Chinese, pushing parents to send their children across the country border.

Chicago, however, is usually not a popular destination for them. Most Chinese immigrants come to Chicago with their parents, who already have a family in the city, according to Chiu. In Chinese culture, family values always play an indivisible role. Back before investors were not a major part of immigration, one of the biggest wishes of those who came to America from afar was to live in a multi-generational house, having a home where the family is. 

“State representatives and a lot of good people in the city are helping those people to get to their family, so the first destination that people arrive in Chicago is obviously where the family is,” Chiu explained. Family is the one cultural aspect that makes Chicago’s Chinatown unique and helps it to thrive.

A Home for Newcomers

Chiu is an American-born Chinese whose father came to Chicago as an immigrant and started Chiu Quon Bakery, the oldest bakery in Chinatown. This background allowed Chiu to see that the distinctive characteristic of Chicago’s Chinatown is just how centralized it is. In cities like Los Angeles and New York, the Chinese population is usually spread out. Yet in Chicago, family and acquaintances tied residents and business together, thus increasing the significance of associations among business owners. “Imagine that you immigrated to a country, and you can meet a bunch of people who are from the same village—that’s awesome,” Chiu said.

The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia created a racial dot map based on 2010 Census Data. Comparing the Asia population in Chicago and Los Angeles, it is shown that the Asian population is more spread out in Los Angeles than Chicago.

Above, a map of the racial makeup of Chicago's population.

Above, a map of the racial makeup of Los Angeles's population.

For working-class families who do not have enough capital to open their own businesses upon arrival, the options for young children are limited. “If you immigrate after you are eighteen and without money, I don’t think you can work outside these industries: restaurants, grocery stores, and nail salons,” said Edison Feng, the general manager of Lao Sze Chuan restaurant in Chinatown Square. 

Feng started in the kitchen when he came to Chicago with his parents at the age of eighteen, and has stayed in the restaurant industry. To him, the hardest part of adjusting to an American life is language. After taking the English as a Second Language program and going to a community college in Chicago, Feng gradually learned the basics of communicating with customers at a restaurant—“restaurant English” as staff usually call it. In contrast, Feng’s brother, who was three years younger than him, had the chance to go to high school. “If I were younger like him, I would be able to find—not to say a better job—but a different job.” 

Having stayed in Chicago for thirteen years now, Feng is content with his career and life. He was familiar with the business of Lao Sze Chuan, the now twenty-two-year-old Sichuan restaurant branch that has expanded to major Chinese food scenes across the country. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he led the team to continue operations and smoothly transition into a delivery-focused business strategy. 

“If you work here, you can feel safe, you can speak your own language, and you can start your life in America,” Chiu explained. That is how the restaurant industry becomes the first step for so many Chinese immigrants.

During the pandemic, Lao Sze Chuan restaurant transitioned to take out, with limited dine-in services in September. (Photo by Yiwen Lu)

Tensions Posed By Development

But growing business development in Chinatown, fueled by the immigrant community at first, has turned against the low-income community as outside investment eventually led to waves of rising rents and crowding spaces. 

In April 2019, Chicago City Council approved one of the most ambitious real estate projects in the city. The 78 megaproject, which the city subsidized $700 million through a tax increment financing (TIF) agreement, is a thirteen million square foot commercial and residential area construction plan that will connect South Loop and Chinatown and sit next to Chinatown’s Ping Tom Park. 

The decision was made just as Mayor Lori Lightfoot was elected and promised the public that she would “engage with the community and committed activists who have advocated forcefully for affordable housing, park space, and the responsible use of tax increment financing dollars for many months.” 

“I personally think that those public dollars are better used to support small businesses and the local community,” 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez told The Gate. The financing for The 78 passed the City Council before his predecessor, Daniel Solis, left the office. Solis was allegedly involved in corruption schemes and used his prerogative to grant unchecked permits and licenses for business owners and developers.

In Chinatown, community activists have voiced similar concerns to those of Sigcho-Lopez. “We know that The 78 would be a big game changer,” said Grace Chan, the executive director of Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community (CBCAC), “because it’s a relatively high-income complex close to Chinatown.” As a result, the rise in property values due to new businesses and new houses in the luxury land of The 78 would eventually displace the low-income, new immigrants. They might no longer have access to the new, gentrified Chinatown, as Chinatown Organizer the The 78 Advisory Council member Debbie Liu told The Gate in a 2019 interview.

When The Gate followed up with Liu one year after the construction started, she expressed a deeper concern for the long-term impact of gentrification. “Ultimately, development has this catalytic effect where it can attract other developers, attract a higher-end clientele, and attract a population that is different,” Liu said. “Displacement can be mitigated, but gentrification is unavoidable.”

In recent years, Chinatown has seen more of its residents moving to more affordable neighborhoods to the south and west such as Bridgeport, McKinley Park, and Brighton Park. “When folks first come in, they are not familiar with English, and they want to be in an environment where they can just continue to use Chinese every day, [so] they tend to live closer to the heart of Chinatown,” Chan explained. “But when they were a little bit more settled, they wanted to buy a house or rent a larger apartment in Chinatown, [it] is harder because there is not as much available space.”

A faulty property tax assessment further compounds these issues driving the Chinese population out of Chinatown. “Because we have a broken property tax assessment system, [it] means higher property taxes and [more] speculation,” Sigcho-Lopez said. “We have developers who are buying properties; for instance, we have a lot of New York investors who do not have the understanding of the communities both socially and geographically. Their whole purpose is just to make profit.” 

The problem with property tax in Chicago is a culmination of decades of error in the Cook County tax code and assessor’s office. In an analysis of more than 100 million property tax records from 2003-2015, the Chicago Tribune found that residents in working-class neighborhoods “were more likely to receive property tax bills that assumed their homes were worth more than their true market value”. The Tribune attributed it to the faulty valuation model of the assessor’s office, which also gives those living in more affluent neighborhoods a break due to undervaluation. 

According to a report released by Cook County Treasurer Maria Papas this month, the 25th ward, where Chinatown is located, has experienced a 478 percent residential property tax increase and a 181 percent commercial property tax increase in the past two decades, ranking the third highest among all Chicago wards. In other words, a Chinatown resident needs to pay almost five times more for their homes than twenty years ago. The cost of living and wage increase are also less than the percentage increase in property tax bills, at 36 percent and 57 percent respectively, based on the same report data. On October 21, Lightfoot’s budget team also defended its 2021 property tax hike plan.

With the heavy property tax burden and the speculative real estate market, it is easy for developers to offer residents a price above the real value of houses, leaving people with less bargaining power few options but to leave the community, according to Sigcho-Lopez. In the absence of a plan to regulate speculation and property tax, the investment ultimately results in gentrification, as in all other working class neighborhoods in Chicago. 

However, unlike other neighborhoods, the aging population in Chinatown makes it a particular challenge due to the senior housing plans involved in speculation. According to the latest census data, the population over sixty-five in Chinatown is nearly 20 percent, compared to 10 percent for Chicago in general. 

When developers come in with plans for senior housing in Chinatown, they sometimes have to build on empty parcels or vacant lots. “Once we are talking about senior homes or assisted living homes for seniors in Chinatown, those empty parcels, because of the speculation, are now valued two to three times of the real price because of the new development,” Sigcho-Lopez said. Because the prices of these plots of land are raised significantly, the options for affordable senior housing become fewer. 

This means that there is a large portion of the population that needs special assistance, such as food delivery and healthcare, while many of them are unable to live in assisted living facilities due to the way private management companies value the costs. 

The lack of affordable senior housing has long been an issue in the neighborhood. The majority of public housing in Chinatown is “public” in the sense that it is funded federally by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), while it is managed privately. As a result, social workers have to go through administrative processes with the management companies instead of providing services directly to seniors in the building. “We do not have a system where management companies regularly check in with us, and not every building has a social worker in Chinatown, or there is only one worker for the entire building,” the alderman explained. He expected a fully government-financed assisted living facilities program and more affordable public housing. This contrasts the status quo, where many senior care programs in Chinatown are still run by community groups like Chinese American Service League (CASL). 

In addition to affordable senior housing, Liu believed that what Chinatown needs more is actually family housing, such as larger units that accommodate families, instead of studios which can be sold quickly. She referred to the multi-generation family structure among Chinese immigrants: “Families are probably caring for seniors or children, and the units that exist in Chinatown don’t really support the sandwich generation. Housing shouldn’t have to be that way, but it is that way because of capitalism.” 

Development Support From The Business Community

Despite the skepticism from the alderman and activists, the business community in Chinatown welcomes the development. “We elected an alderman who is against development. They are saying that if you do all this expensive stuff, it’s going to push aside [low-income immigrants],” said Wong, who is also on the board of Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. “I mean, should we always stay the same? Some people like to spend $300 on dinner, and you are saying that we shouldn't have something like that in Chinatown because poor people can’t go eat there, then is every restaurant [going to be] a low-end, no-takeout restaurant? I don’t think that’s right either.”

Like Wong, more and more educated, working professionals have arrived in Chicago on work visas. Having observed the radical economic reform and development in Asia during the last two decades, many of them see Chicago’s Chinatown as backward and old-fashioned. Wong said, “the way you view Chinatown is horrible, dirty, those are some of the things that I hear a lot from my friends who don’t live in Chinatown, especially the young professionals from China [who] have a tech job; they look at Chinatown as an embarrassment.”

Coming from a working-class family in Guangdong Province to America so his family could work and send remittance back home, Feng, who managed to work in the leadership position at the acclaimed chained restaurant Lao Sze Chuan now, thought about Chinatown differently. “It is kind of shabby,” he said, “but I think there is a reason why the U.S. is the number one country in the world. There is this culture behind the appearance.”

As a millenial business owner, Chiu expressed a desire for change in Chinatown. “Whenever there is development, gentrification happens. That’s just a byproduct of it. But development means that the area is doing well,” Chiu said. Since the time his family came to Chicago, their investments have extended from a bakery to other aspects of the food industry and the real estate market. To him, the development projects offer a way for Chinatown to adapt to a larger development trend happening in the city.

“We are talking about fifteen to twenty years, I feel like that’s giving Chinatown time to change. [The 78] is going to be a really nice neighborhood, Chinatown needs to step up if we want to be part of it. We can’t just stand back and say ‘Hey, you are gentrifying.’ That’s not going to do anything,” he said.

At Chiu Quon, Chinatown’s oldest bakery, many customers still choose to shop at the counter during the pandemic. (Photo by Yiwen Lu)

“If you just cater to the rich, doesn’t that just make rich people richer?” Liu questioned whether the change is favorable, “I don’t really buy into the notion that if we just focus on these newer immigrants with more money, then we can just make the community better, because there is always gonna be poor people. Somebody needs to work in the restaurants. Somebody needs to work in the grocery stores. Where are these people going to be?” 

To Liu, the income gap is what current discussion over gentrification is actually missing. “Gentrification research is pretty much all about race, but it does not include the income factor,” she said. “Do we only want to select the best of the best and have people who look like them feel that [they would] be the neighborhood?”

The vision that young entrepreneurs have about Chinatown is in a perpetuating conflict with what Chinatown is used to have. The true solution, in Liu’s opinion, is to lift up the whole community comprehensively, yet capitals might see that process too slow.

An Enclave within a City 

“Growing” seems to mean different things for different individuals in the neighborhood. Looking at Chinatowns in other cities, a booming Chinatown seems to mean that Chinatown continues to be an ethnic enclave where new immigrants from China can find their home. To those who arrive in the United States afresh, Chinatown is a comfort zone, where they can speak their own language, meet people from the same backgrounds, and continue all traditions from their culture. 

When Chiu reflected on the difference between Chinatowns in Chicago and Los Angeles, he noted that Chicago’s Chinatown is able to preserve those aspects of Chinese culture, which the media have noted to be the most unique aspect of Chicago’s Chinatown, because the Chinese population is centralized in Chicago. Unlike other cities, where the Chinese population spread out to different places, there is a unique Chinese history in Chicago’s Chinatown, setting itself apart from a broader narrative of Chinese immigration history.

To many second-generation immigrants growing up in Chinatown, however, that is what they are trying to get away from. “We didn’t see a lot outside of the community. There should be a big push to give [kids] exposure to let them know that there are no boundaries, to allow the kids to see the possibilities, to see what is outside,” said Eric Kwok, who moved to Chicago with his family in the 90s and lived in Chinatown as a child. “They are not destined for the restaurant; they are not destined for manual labor. They have a lot of opportunity, but they can’t pursue opportunity if they don’t know it exists.”

Kwok’s family works in the food industry, and he himself is also the owner of a food distribution company now. To him, Chinatown is like a bubble. Although being able to stay in a familiar environment might be favorable to first-generation immigrants, the family dynamics following their settlement makes the next generation insular. Many of them might not know other professions exist until they go to college, “and eventually study their way out of that environment,” according to Kwok.

As a result, Kwok expressed concerns over the insular, senior community. He pointed out that the cash component of Chinatown’s finance halted its economic growth, where many of the immigrants would rather work fewer hours and be paid in less cash, so that they avoid paying taxes and apply for other benefits from the government. “I want to get rid of that mentality because that really limits growth. You can’t grow if you are always trying to think about how to game the system or how to take advantage of it,” he said.

Therefore, although Kwok also admitted the problem with gentrification, he believes that development is still favorable. According to him, there will be more chances to expose people to a greater world in downtown Chicago, and help them get into jobs in “corporate America,” where Kwok sees as a stable source of employment, living wages and benefits. 

The Issue of Representation

Lack of political participation could make it harder to lift political representation of the Chinese community, especially as both census and election took place this year. As the executive director of CBCAC, Grace Chan has been working on census and voting outreach recently: “If we ask people on the street about census or about voting, a lot of people do not know anything about it, either they are not interested, or that they are worried about sharing information that the government can use.” 

Now, community organizers are working hard to fight for a city ward that includes all Chinese American residents in Chicago. Based on previous census projections and survey responses, CBCAC anticipated that there will be 30,000 to 35,000 Chinese Americans living in a contiguous area that includes Chinatown, McKinley Park, and South Loop. Generally, one city ward in Chicago hosts 50,000 residents. In June 2019, Lightfoot said that she would push for redrawing the city ward map after the 2020 census. Therefore, if enough Chinese immigrants fill in the census, a 35,000 majority of the 50,000 ward population would allow all Chinese immigrants and descents to form one city ward during redistricting. Advocates like Chan believed that it would greatly improve representation.

“Unless we have very strong political backing, it will be very difficult. We have to rely on the sheer number, where the census indicates that we have already exceeded half of a boundary that would constitute a ward, then we would be protected by federal law.” C.W. Chan, who founded CBCAC, explained. 

The importance of a uniform city ward was proved by looking at the impact of state district representation. In 2011, C.W. Chan successfully led CBCAC to pass the Voting Rights Act of Illinois in Springfield. Nicknamed “Chinatown Act,” it affirmed state protection of racial minorities in voting and redistricting, pushing for a state representative district that is 90 percent Asian Americans. Before 2011, Chinese Americans were split into different state representative districts, so community leaders have to go to different state representatives when they anticipate state policy changes that would affect Chinese Americans communities. 

“The coordination becomes complex, as well as confusing, especially for new immigrants who are not yet used to how the American government system works,” Grace Chan explained in an email to The Gate. After most Asian American communities were redistricted into the 2nd State District since the Chinatown Act passed, the district was represented by Theresa Mah when she was elected in 2016. She was the first Asian American serving in the Illinois General Assembly, as well as a community organizer who worked with various Chinatown organizations, neighborhood agencies, and schools.

“She understands our issues deeply and can quickly be brought up to speed on new concerns and needs so she can advocate appropriately and effectively with her colleagues at the General Assembly, as well as with elected and non-elected government officials and government departments at every level of government,” said Grace Chan.

Since Mah took office in 2016, she has worked with community-based organizations, and her previous working experiences at CBCAC allowed her to advocate for basic infrastructures like a new Chinatown library and fieldhouse. Most recently, she spearheaded the proposal for a new public high school in Chinatown, a long-time concern for Chinatown residents and a major reason families move out of Chinatown. Mah’s proposal has secured $50 million from the State Legislature in this project, giving community leaders like Chan a smoother path to advocate for additional funding in making the construction happen. Chan views this work as evidence that representatives elected from majority-Chinese districts will provide better results for Chinese communities.

The fight for redrawing the city ward boundary is another attempt to further ensure the rights of Asian immigrants on the city level, so that resources can be better focused. In the current stage, economic gentrification is already affecting the political representation of Chinese American immigrants. New developments in the heart of Chinatown have driven rents up, pushing residents to open spaces in nearby neighborhoods, according to Chan. As a result, the Chinese population is not fully represented in the city’s political agenda due to electoral districting. Chinatown and McKinley Park are part of the 25th ward, while Bridgeport, whose population is now over 40 percent Asian, is part of the 11th ward. 

“All of the candidates that ran for [25th ward] alderman in 2019 agreed that it would be important to draw all or most of Chinese American residents into one city ward,” Chan said. “But even though the 25th ward alderman candidates agree that to be a good thing, we need to get more than just the 25th ward.”

Meanwhile, the apathetic attitudes of many immigrants make it harder for mobilization efforts to start. For example, in the 25th ward where other ethnic neighborhoods also take up the space during policy-making, it is hard to hear Chinatown’s voices when many of the residents hold an apathetic attitude towards politics. “When we talk about how Chinatown started, the best way to survive at that time is to stay away from the mainstream, right? That’s why we had Chinatown,” Chan said. “Chinatown never really thought about political power. We take whatever given to us. We never have any real access to these elected officials.”

Furthermore, Liu pointed out that another question is that there is no Asian serving in the Chicago City Council. “How do you fight for Asian American issues when there is a lack of understanding of lived experiences from this community? And it’s not monolithic. It gets treated like the business community is the Chinatown community, but it’s not.” 

The dots connected back to the profit-oriented real estate development, where the social aspect of housing is largely neglected in response to the market valuation of prices and the changing aesthetics of housing. If Chinatown wants to preserve its culture, Liu believed that more attention needs to be directed to the social aspects of the community, and that would not be done without a policy-maker who has been trained in social science instead of simply finance. 

On the other hand, community leaders still have hopes for the future of Chinatown’s political empowerment. The rate of voter registration for the senior population is higher today than in 2011, and politicians are gradually realizing that Chinatown is an amicable voting block with a large senior citizen number. Although it is a process that takes time, Chan said, “I think our political power is definitely being recognized right now.” 

Overall, the changes in Chinatown seem to reflect the various interests and complicated characteristics of its residents. When other Chinatowns in the country look at a booming Chicago model, who gets to define what it means to be growing? In July, the 88 Marketplace opened west to the border of Chinatown in Pilsen, becoming the largest Asian market in Chicago. As ambitions continue to grow in this area, can Chicago’s Chinatown ever strike the perfect balance between development and equitable housing?

The image used as the header for this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. The image was not changed in any way. The original image is called "Chicago Chinatown by Night" and was taken by Daniel Schwen. The original image can be found here.

Yiwen Lu


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