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Chicago’s Chinatown celebrates its first century

From the Saturday, Jan. 14, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

Chicago’s Chinatown celebrates its first century

The WISCH LIST

Jan. 14, 2012

The drive from downtown Ottawa to the corner of Cermak Road and Archer Avenue on Chicago’s South Side is a distance of only 82 miles.

But by making that trip, you’ll find yourself an entire world away.

Home to the heart of Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood, the area centered surrounding the intersections of Cermak, Archer and Wentworth Avenue is one of the oldest Chinese settlements in America.

Old enough, in fact, that Chicago’s Chinatown celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, making now as good as time as any to visit one of the most distinct areas in all of Chicago.

That’s just what I did this past Sunday, as I made my first ever trip to Chinatown Square to sample the area’s unique culture and, of course, taste its cuisine. Today, in recognition of Chinatown’s 100th birthday, I thought I’d let you know a bit about the neighborhood.

The history

In 1912, the Republic of China was formed, putting an end to China’s last dynasty – the Qing – and more than 2,000 years of imperial rule.
That same year in Chicago’s Armour Square neighborhood, Chinatown was officially founded, providing a permanent settlement for the Chinese residents who began arriving in the city in 1869 when the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed.

By the 1920s, Chicago’s Chinatown leaders decided that a Chinese-style building should be built to provide a strong visual announcement of their new presence in the area. But, with no Chinese-born architects in Chicago at the time, the community turned to a pair of Chicago-born Norse architects who studied texts on Chinese architecture.

In the spring of 1926, construction of the new On Leong Merchants Association Building was completed with the Norsemen’s final design an example of Orientalism, considered to be a Western architect’s interpretation of Chinese architectural forms.

Today, the neighborhood’s anchor and most recognizable feature is Chinatown Square, a two-level mall built in the late 1980s along Archer Avenue and consisting of restaurants, beauty salons and various business offices.

The cuisine

It was Chinatown Square that my girlfriend and I visited on Sunday for lunch at Cai (2100 S. Archer Ave.), one of the area’s newest and most popular restaurants.

After accidentally entering the dining room through a back door (note: don’t do that, use the mall entrance), we were seated and ordered an array of dim sum dishes from an American-friendly picture menu.

The entrees were bite-sized, but big ones, as the shrimp and pork dumplings, sticky rice and chicken wrapped in lotus leaves, short ribs, bean crepe-wrapped pork and seafood soup was far too much food, but still cost only $42 for two people. And we departed with leftovers – delicious ones.

The travel tips

Beyond its restaurants, of which they are many, Chinatown Square’s atmosphere simply differs a great deal from anywhere else in Chicago. It’s like taking a trip overseas in your car, and the experience of exploring Chinatown’s shops and bakeries and admiring its sculptures is certainly worth a visit.

Getting there is easy. From the southwest, simply take the Stevenson Expressway (I-55) to the Cermak Rd. exit and head west to the Chinatown Gate.
Metered street parking is plentiful during the week, but on weekends you may need to use a pay lot. One across from Three Happiness Restaurant (2130 S. Wentworth Ave.) costs only $2 for three hours with validation from participating restaurants. Another lot at Wentworth and 24th Street does not offer validation, but is still relatively inexpensive.

Chinatown can also easily be accessed via the CTA Red Line at the Cermak-Chinatown stop.