Chicago’s Chinatown: An Ethnic Enclave

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For many Chicagoans, the idea of venturing out of their neighborhood can be a bit daunting. Coming from the far northwest side, I’ll admit that whenever I find myself south of Roosevelt, I get a little turned around. Chinatown is no exception. When I visited Chinatown this time, I decided to take the advice of a friend and went outside of the more familiar welcoming arch on Wentworth Avenue and headed, just north, to Wentworth and Archer Avenue, into Chinatown Square.

Chinatown Square is a two-story outdoor mall that opened in 1993. Like the Wentworth Avenue portion of the neighborhood, Chinatown Square contains a variety of restaurants and shops. Walking along the path of the shaded outdoor mall, you feel like you’re secluded from the bustle of the Dan Ryan Expressway, and everything is simply more peaceful. First I stopped at the grocery stores Mayflower Food and Hong Kong Seafood. Both shops were cheap and had a similar selection. Mayflower had super thin spring roll wraps for $1.49, $2 cups of microwavable noodles, and a variety of Chinese cookie wafers for $2 a pack. Hong Kong Seafood had a larger selection of frozen goods. However, their $20 credit card limit left me unable to buy a bag of $3 pork pot stickers or $6 chicken and cabbage dumplings.

If you’re adventurous and have a sweet tooth, check out Aji Ichiban, a Japanese candy store. Seeing as I didn’t know what most of the candy was, I was glad the shop had samples above each clear box of treats — salted lemon and crystallized ginger sounded a lot better then they tasted. There were plenty of pre-packaged treats, like Hello Kitty chocolate cream puffs, Air Heads and hamburger-shaped gummies. Aji Ichiban also has a large variety of drinks like glass bottled Coca-Cola and Yogu Time, a yogurt drink.

When it came time for dinner, I stuck with an old favorite, Won Kow, located outside of Chinatown Square and within the Wentworth Avenue arches. I didn’t deviate away from my standard sweet and sour chicken, whose portion was more then enough to share. If you’re looking for some late night Chinese food, check out Sweet Station or Chi Cafe. Both open until 2am daily, and Chi Cafe is open until 5am on Fridays and Saturdays.

Like the rest of the city, Chinatown has a variety of events that take place over the summer. The neighborhood celebrates its own summer fair on the third Sunday in July. Having attended in the past, I can assure you this is an event not to be missed. Wentworth Avenue is shut down between Cermak and 24th, and street vendors from a variety of local businesses sell teas, cultural trinkets, parasols, and other merchandise. A main stage includes daylong entertainment like Chinese classical dance performances and the Charles Heath jazz trio. The street fair takes place from 10am-8pm, but really gets kicked off, with a Lion Dance procession at 12:30. Best of all, it’s free!

Another fun July event is the annual all-day dragon boat race that takes place along the south branch of the Chicago River in Memorial Park. About thirty teams of sixteen to twenty members each compete on decorated dragon boats. Each team’s paddlers row to the beat of a drum while the team’s flag catcher tries to be the first to grab a flag positioned at the finish line. Like the summer fair, the competition kicks off with a dragon and lion dance ceremony and contains vendors, performances, and children’s activities.

From downtown, Chinatown is just minutes away on the Red Line. On the weekends, you’re also able to take the Chicago Water Taxi ($4 one-way or $6 unlimited) from the base of the Wrigley Building along Michigan Avenue or their station at the Ogilvie Transportation Center. The taxi travels along the Chicago River, letting you off at the Ping Tom Park. There’s no excuse not to get out of your neighborhood and enjoy Chinatown.

Helpful Links:

Recommended Restaurants:
Memorial Park — 300 W. 19th Street
Mayflower Food — 2104 S Archer Ave
Hong Kong Seafood — 2120-A S. Archer Ave
Aji Ichiban — 2117 S China Pl
Won Kow — 2237 S. Wentworth Ave
Sweet Station — 2101 S. China Place, Website)
Chi Cafe — 2160-A S. Archer Ave., Webiste

Erin Nederbo

About Erin Nederbo

Erin is a current writing major at Columbia College and a native of Chicago's Jefferson Park. Surrounded by Cubbie blue, she is often hassled by friends for being a White Sox fan. During winter, she keeps warm by eating Italian beef, dreaming of 16 inch softball, and reading Sandra Cisneros. Her creative writing can be found in Hair Trigger 33 Magazine.

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