Tour Guide York Chan's Guide to Chicago's Chinatown
The first time that York Chan stepped foot in Chicago’s Chinatown was also the first time that he stepped foot in the United States. It was 1962, and he was a second-grader who had just traveled halfway around the world to find himself in an entirely unfamiliar place. “I was born and raised in Hong Kong,” he says. “I always carried a British passport because when I was born it was a British colony.”
Chan’s father, like his grandfather and great-grandfather before him, had immigrated from the Canton Province (now referred to as the Guangdong Province) in southeastern China to the United States. They’d come to make a living, though the legacy of the racist Chinese Exclusion Act—passed in 1882 as a way to limit Chinese immigration to the United States—meant that they could only come to the country as single men, without their wives or families. The act was not rescinded until 1943.
Chan’s generation was among the first that could move to the United States without those onerous restrictions; he immigrated with his mother and his sister, and rejoined his father. “After two years in Chinatown, my family bought a Chinese hand laundry and we moved up to the North Side,” he says. Later, they opened their own restaurant. “But I still, in my entire life, I still go down to Chinatown probably two or three times a week. Even before I became a Chinatown tour guide. That’s where you go if you want good food!”
Today, Chan is a retired hospital administrator, a passionate skier and snowboarder who prefers to winter in Utah’s backcountry, and a tour guide who takes locals and visitors to Chinatown to discover its historic landmarks, marvel at its modern developments, and sample from its bounty of excellent restaurants. More than most people, he’s had a firsthand perspective on the neighborhood’s stunning transformation over the course of the last 60 years. “Today, Chicago’s Chinatown is really thriving,” he says—a fact that sets it apart from many other Chinatowns across the United States.
A brief history of Chicago’s Chinatown
It wasn’t always that way. When Chicago’s first Chinatown was established in the late 19th century, it was in the heart of Downtown, on Clark Street. But growing anti-Chinese sentiment, coupled with the community’s desire to create their own space, saw Chicago’s Chinese residents relocate in the 1910s to an area just south of the Loop, along Cermak Road and Wentworth Avenue.
Slowly and surely the neighborhood grew, though it was nowhere near its present size by the time that Chan immigrated in the 1960s. “When I first came here, Chinatown was two to three blocks long, and that was it,” he says. “There were two very, very small Chinese grocery stores, and restaurants—maybe two major ones that you could hold a banquet. And a lot of little small mom-and-pop-owned coffee shops and such.”
A major point in the neighborhood’s growth occurred in the early 1990s, Chan says, when the disused railway lines that ran through the area were transformed into residential developments, a public park, and a new mall and community center called Chinatown Square. “That’s probably one of the best things that’s happened to the Chicago Chinatown,” he says. Today, the neighborhood is divided between the “new” Chinatown of Chinatown Square and the historic stretch that still runs along Wentworth Avenue and surrounding sidestreets.
Part of the neighborhood’s present-day revitalization is down to the young people who are keeping the area dynamic, including international college students who have come to Chicago from China, Chan says. And it helps that its dining scene has improved dramatically, too. “You couldn’t get real Chinese food when I first came to the United States, but over time, as more and more immigrants came to this country, they said, ‘Wow, we need to serve in restaurants what we served back in China or back in Hong Kong,’” he says. Now, “There are so many restaurants in Chinatown in Chicago and there’s no such thing as a bad restaurant, because if you’re not good, you won’t survive.”
York Chan’s Chinatown recommendations
1. Chinatown Square: As Chan notes, Chinatown Square is emblematic of the neighborhood’s present-tense vibrancy, and visitors to the area would do well to start here. The 2-story, open-air mall that occupies the development is packed with shops and restaurants—don’t miss Lao Sze Chuan, a Sichuan restaurant that Chan describes as “very, very good”—as well as bustling communal spaces.
It’s worth stopping to admire the 12 Chinese Zodiac statues in front of the development, too, and look out for the “Chinese in America” mosaic mural, which tells the story of Chinese immigration in the United States, and is made from 100,000 pieces of glass that were cut and painted in China before being assembled locally.
2. New Furama Restaurant: “Dim sum is where you can judge the quality of good Chinese cooking,” says Chan. If food has drawn Chan to Chinatown throughout his life, then New Furama Restaurant, a dim sum specialist, is one that he frequents most. “They do cart-style dim sum like in Hong Kong, where little old ladies push the carts with little dim sums steaming on the cart, and you tell them, ‘I want this, this, and this,’ and they put it on your table—and at the end of the day, they count the number of dishes you have. That is the true Chinese way of doing dim sum, cart service,” he says.
3. Chiu Quon Bakery: One of the most popular bakeries in Chinatown is Chiu Quon. “Mr. Chiu is a legend in Chinatown,” says Chan. “I helped him start his business in 1986. He’s been invited to the White House twice … and Joe Biden just visited.” While sweet treats, such as its Portuguese egg tarts, are ever-popular among Chicago residents (and visiting A-listers), Chan particularly recommends its savory pastries. “Most of the baked goods are not sweet, like barbecue pork–filled buns and all different kinds of buns with meat filling in them, and those are delicious.”
4. Richland Center Food Court: Inconspicuously hidden in the basement of a building flanking the Chinatown Square mall, the Richland Center Food Court does not, at first blush, look like an obvious destination. But in this unprepossessing setting, a new generation of cooks and entrepreneurs is opening the food stalls that may one day graduate into the neighborhood’s next top restaurants. “Those are incubators for new businesses,” says Chan, citing the cousin whose own mini restaurant empire began in the food court. Today’s stalls reflect everything from Shaanxi cuisine to bubble tea stands and beyond.
5. The Nine Dragon Wall: Made of vibrant, glazed tiles that hail from China, Chinatown’s Nine Dragon Wall is one of the neighborhood’s most emblematic landmarks. Both dragons and the number nine are vested with symbolism in Chinese culture, Chan says, and the wall’s design actually has imperial origins. “It’s a duplicate of the wall guarding the Forbidden City in Beijing,” he notes, and one of only a few of its kind in the world.
6. The Pui Tak Center: Located along the older stretch of Chicago’s Chinatown on Wentworth Avenue, the ornamental Pui Tak Center—with its pagoda-like roofing—was one of the first buildings erected in the area when Chinatown moved south from Downtown. It has served as an important community center for a century, and Chan recalls visiting it with his grandfather as a young boy, soon after immigrating.
It also has something of a controversial history. Formerly occupied by the On Leong Merchants Association, it was raided by the FBI in 1988 following a racketeering investigation, and was later awarded to the Chinese Christian Union Church. Today, it remains an architectural and historical highlight, and a place of civic engagement.
7. Ping Tom Memorial Park: A fixture of a recent redevelopment initiative, and just a quick stroll from Chinatown Square, Ping Tom Memorial Park feels like an urban oasis during a busy day of sightseeing—and was a much-needed community green space when it debuted in 2011. The park is administered by the Chicago Park District, stands right on the banks of the Chicago River, and has a pagoda and other design elements that reference the area’s heritage. “It is beautiful—you see the whole skyline of Chicago, and it’s only about a 10-minute walk from Chinatown. It’s a very, very peaceful, nicely landscaped park, and it’s just gorgeous there,” says Chan.