My First Trip to Chinatown

The Nine Dragon Wall at the entrance to Chicago’s Chinatown

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

In a history of firsts for me in Chicago, I took my first trip to Chinatown with the Lillie’s after our Sunday gathering at their condo.

Before we headed to Chinatown Square for our daily prayer walk, we took a brief stroll down Wentworth Avenue, which is one of the central streets in Chinatown.

As the Lillie’s and I walked throughout Chinatown, Reuben shared with me some of the background of the neighborhood.

One topic in that conversation was the immigrant population that makes its way through Chinatown. There are approximately 900 Chinese immigrants that come through Chinatown to get settled in the United States each year.

The unfortunate reality is that although many of the immigrants who come through Chinatown manage to escape from the monitoring of the Chinese government, they then find themselves facing new problems like finding a job with a liveable wage—many in the restaurant industry—working long hours, and the like.

However, there are agencies who offer hope. One of the primary agencies which assists many immigrants through Chinatown is actually the Pui Tak Center founded by the Chinese Christian Union Church. A significant part of their work goes to helping immigrants find jobs with employers who maintain ethical standards.

In Chinese, pui tak means “to build character” or “to cultivate virtue.” It seems fitting that the center bears this name as it stands as a community outpost for the Church in Chinatown—seeking to welcome and care for immigrants—both as the name refers to the services they offer immigrants and as the name also reminds us of the character and virtue that should be at the heart of the Church.

On our stroll, we also talked briefly about the tourism that sustains many of the businesses in Chinatown. As we made our way to Chinatown Square and particularly during our prayer walk in the square itself, I couldn’t help reflecting upon both the good and bad that comes with this tourism.

On the one hand, tourism provides a level of promotion of Chinese culture in our society. But on the other hand, it also seems that our society at large lacks proper esteem for local Chinese-American communities themselves and has reduced it into yet another commodity.

To be fair, this is a gross oversimplification of a complex topic. But something like this commodification of whole people groups also happens throughout our country and our history, and Chicago’s Loop is no exception.

Most outsiders, myself included at many times in the past, hardly ever think of downtown Chicago beyond Michigan Avenue and the especially touristy areas. We come to the Loop for our own pleasure, and while we’re here, we so often just do our best to avoid the people begging for change, sleeping in alcoves, or asking for food.

And then most of us are also blissfully unaware of those who are struggling for legal status with US Citizenship and Immigration Services or those who are incarcerated at the Metropolitan Correctional Center just a few buildings away.

Now sometimes we even care to help, but we aren’t sure how or what’s best, or we get overwhelmed with the immensity of these issues and think, “What can I really do?”

It’s good to wrestle with these issues. But if all we do is shrug our shoulders, feel bad, and walk away, the issues still remain.

So here’s a shameless plug. Since you’re already on our website, if you want to get connected and develop services for our downtown neighbors in greatest need, even if you’re not sure how to help but want to join the conversation, then please contact us. Thank you for helping us help our neighbors in greatest need.

Author avatar
Elise Fetzer

Elise is a senior Intercultural Studies major at Olivet Nazarene University from Oak Lawn, IL. She is serving with LoopNaz as part of her cross-cultural field studies coursework.