Saturday, January 7, 2017

Chicago's Original Chinatown

My blog was inactive while I worked a job over the summer and fall. This winter I'm pleased to be back to my research, writing and photography on the Chicago Neighborhoods Project.

As I walk around the city I'm always curious if what I'm reading as an official guide is the same as what I'm seeing in the architecture. While it's easy to edit out words from texts, the buildings still retain details of history, which have since been omitted from written accounts.

When I spot these irregularities I can research to find out the rest of the story.

Chicago's designated Chinatown, on the South Side, looks like a tourist destination to me. It was built with exaggerated architecture, drawing attention to itself, at a time when the Chinese in the USA were a target for extreme prejudice and even physical attacks. Asians are the only nationalities we've completely banned from entering the country. This creates a big question. Why would the new Chinatown purposely stand out?

After hunting around I came across a 1911 article in the Chicago Tribune which details the gentrification of Chicago's original Chinatown, located in downtown, and plans for a new Chinatown. In the original Chinatown people were trying to keep a low profile, as would be expected.

Below I explain what I found in the article.
Half a block is what's left of Chicago's original Chinatown

Link to the article here.

Be forewarned--it's racist and offensive in the descriptions of various ethnicities.

Chicago Tribune 1911

A reporter walks around what was the original Chinatown, in the south end of The Loop. The article was published on January 22, 1911. He describes the gentrification of Chinatown, as the business district is expanding. A skyscraper was expected to be built at Clark & Van Buren. The Chinese restaurants are being replaced by lunch counters catering to office workers.

The reporter describes Chinese men being forced to cut off their "pigtails". He also references the requirement of Chinese to be photographed and documented, like a Muslim registry would today.

He complains about the Chinese becoming Americanized and going into mainstream society. He laments the arrest of the gang leaders in the Tong Wars, rivalries over illicit activities like smuggling drugs, opium dens, prostitution and gambling, being pushed out of downtown.

(At this time the city was working on getting rid of vice too close to the business district. The entire vice district was being pushed south.)

He laments the lack of a tourist destination, similar to what has already been built in NYC and San Francisco. Chicago doesn't yet have the flashy California Crazy roadside vernacular architecture, which was luring auto tourists to other cities to visit their Chinatowns.

He hints a new Chinatown, designed for tourists, is being planned.

The original Chicago Chinatown was larger than 2 blocks on Clark Street. He describes an exclusive Chinese residential area on Federal, composed of a respectable hotel and brownstones.

Interestingly, he mentions a Bohemian enclave nearby, being frequented by Americans. I've read the term hipster comes from opium dens, because opium pipes are smoked while lying on your side. These white folks would bring the "bohemian lifestyle" into the mainstream.

Finally, as an aside, I'd never heard of Floaterville-by-the-tracks, the place where a community of people live on boats for the winter.


In conclusion, my assumption was correct. While the new Chinatown would become the center of the Chinese community in Chicago, it was built as a tourist destination for people traveling by car.


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