Dear Chinatown Chicago

Simplified Chinese version / 中文翻译(简化字)

Traditional Chinese version / 中文翻譯(正體字)

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This article was translated into Chinese and published on WeChat through a collaboration with Chinese for Affirmative Action


Dear‌ ‌爸‌爸‌妈‌妈,‌ ‌


Like‌ ‌many‌ ‌Asian‌ ‌Americans‌ ‌I‌ ‌know,‌ ‌you‌ ‌had‌ ‌me‌ ‌spend‌ ‌a‌ ‌lot‌ ‌of‌ ‌my‌ ‌childhood‌ ‌with‌ ‌my‌ ‌公‌公‌婆‌婆‌ ‌rather‌ ‌than‌ ‌you‌ ‌two.‌ ‌On‌ ‌the‌ ‌days‌ ‌公‌公‌ ‌and‌ ‌婆‌婆‌ ‌would‌ ‌pick‌ ‌妹‌妹‌ ‌and‌ ‌me‌ ‌up‌ ‌from‌ ‌school,‌ ‌the‌ ‌four‌ ‌of‌ ‌us‌ ‌would‌ ‌go‌ ‌to‌ ‌a‌ ‌Chiu‌ ‌Quon‌ ‌(超‌群‌饼‌家)‌ ‌and‌ ‌buy‌ ‌bao.‌ ‌Chiu‌ ‌Quon,‌ ‌at‌ ‌the‌ ‌time,‌ ‌was‌ ‌such‌ ‌a‌ ‌small‌ ‌bakery‌ ‌and‌ ‌appeared‌ ‌to‌ ‌be‌ ‌like‌ ‌a‌ ‌family-owned‌ ‌business.‌ ‌They‌ ‌moved‌ ‌across‌ ‌the‌ ‌street‌ ‌a‌ ‌few‌ ‌years‌ ‌ago,‌ ‌appealing‌ ‌to‌ ‌tourists‌ ‌and‌ ‌increasing‌ ‌their‌ ‌prices.‌ ‌Some‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌baos‌ ‌that‌ ‌had‌ ‌previously‌ ‌cost‌ ‌about‌ ‌$0.90-$1.00‌ ‌in‌ ‌2015‌ ‌‌are now‌ ‌about‌ ‌$1.30.‌ ‌Although‌ ‌there‌ ‌have‌ ‌been‌ ‌many‌ ‌success‌ ‌stories‌ ‌within‌ ‌Chinatown,‌ ‌there‌ ‌have‌ ‌also been‌ ‌many‌ ‌other‌ ‌places‌ ‌within‌ ‌the‌ ‌Chinatown‌ ‌Area‌ ‌shutting‌ ‌down‌ ‌temporarily‌ ‌or‌ ‌permanently,‌ ‌including‌ ‌‌Triple‌ ‌Crown‌‌ ‌(大‌三‌元).‌ ‌Triple‌ ‌Crown‌ ‌has‌ ‌been‌ ‌open‌ ‌for‌ ‌about‌ ‌25‌ ‌years‌ ‌and‌ ‌had‌ ‌only‌ ‌recently‌ ‌been‌ ‌evicted‌ ‌in‌ ‌late‌ ‌February‌ ‌this‌ ‌year.‌‌ COVID-19‌ ‌added‌ ‌a‌ ‌lot‌ ‌of‌ ‌disadvantages‌ ‌for‌ ‌restaurants,‌ ‌not‌ ‌only‌ ‌causing‌ ‌less‌ ‌indoor‌ ‌dining‌ ‌but‌ ‌also‌ ‌adding‌ ‌to‌ ‌the‌ ‌hatred‌ ‌towards‌ ‌Asian‌ ‌Americans,‌ ‌which‌ ‌both‌ ‌played‌ ‌factors‌ ‌into‌ ‌Triple‌ ‌Crown‌ ‌being‌ ‌unable‌ ‌to‌ ‌pay‌ ‌for‌ ‌the‌ ‌rent‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌building‌ ‌they‌ ‌owned.‌ ‌I‌ ‌remember‌ ‌we‌ ‌used‌ ‌to‌ ‌go‌ ‌there‌ ‌to‌ ‌get‌ ‌takeout‌ ‌of‌ ‌炒‌饭‌ ‌and‌ ‌炒‌面‌ ‌a‌ ‌lot‌ ‌and‌ ‌sometimes‌ ‌even‌ ‌dine‌ ‌in‌ ‌for‌ ‌family‌ ‌events‌ ‌once‌ ‌in‌ ‌a‌ ‌while,‌ so‌ ‌seeing‌ ‌something‌ ‌that‌ ‌had‌ ‌a‌ ‌place‌ ‌in‌ ‌my‌ ‌childhood‌ ‌just‌ ‌disappear‌ ‌like‌ ‌that‌ ‌feels‌ ‌so‌ ‌heartbreaking.‌ ‌I‌ ‌miss‌ ‌the‌ ‌memories‌ ‌of‌ ‌getting‌ ‌炒‌饭‌ ‌from‌ ‌Triple‌ ‌Crown‌ ‌and‌ ‌having‌ ‌my‌ ‌brother‌ ‌dump ketchup on it, even though I personally hated the taste of ketchup with rice.


One thing I know has stayed from my childhood is the Chinese school (美国芝城中华会馆) you signed me up for. 公公 also work there, so sometimes he and 婆婆 would bring 肠粉 to me afterward. It was, and still is, the only program in Chinatown I knew of that focused on the education of the language, including Cantonese. Finding programs that include teaching Cantonese is really rare, and sadly, I don't know if they still provide that or not. Over the past few years, the program has cycled through so many teachers and added a bunch of random cultural programs within it too. The original 3 teachers that taught when I first attended 9 years ago currently don't teach at the school, most likely because they found other options with higher pay. The building was a lot smaller than preferred, with the staff's working space only fitting about 5 people and the whole building having only 3 classrooms. They have been adding in and creating a greater variety of programs, most likely to try and bring in more students for the school. Overall, the growth of Chinatown has stunned the popularity of the school, with fewer and fewer people attending or even knowing about the school. Although the building itself is the same, it feels so different with the constantly changing staff. Change is just an expected thing that comes with growing up; it happens so often and it feels so scary but it's interesting to see how rapidly it occurs.


Although I didn't have as many connections to my culture as I would've liked, one of the biggest connections to my culture I was able to keep was when I attended Chinese dance programs you signed me up for at the Chinese American Service League building (华人咨询服务處) in Chinatown. Although the place is still running and open, the majority of extracurriculars they had were shut down due to a lack of funding. I had moved around to different groups, gaining the experience to perform at galas, Chinatown's Summer Fair and Dragon Boat Race, Miss Chinese at Chicago, and even International competitions hosted nearby. I built a community of people at CASL, but I've lost touch with many of them ever since I moved into a different group.


Recently, I've been trying to connect with people who are promoting more knowledge on tenant rights and preventing the evictions that are currently increasing in Chinatown. While doing so, I saw a lot of references to CASL. I decided to look at what they're doing now. Given budget cuts, they've focused on supporting incoming immigrants and the elderly rather than second or third-generation Chinese Americans. Before, they had many different programs about teaching Chinese culture to children through forms of art and language. There were a variety of things they had provided, including kung fu lessons, Chinese dance classes, Chinese calligraphy and art courses, guzheng lessons, and more. These activities were enjoyable for kids and provided a connection to their heritage when their parents were busy. Based on their website, they've currently had more focus on providing resources towards helping immigrants with job applications and home ownership, along with education on mental health issues within the Chinese American community. They have always had resources such as these, along with volunteer opportunities for people to help with their projects, but keeping the cultural programs most likely overwhelmed their budget and made it harder to work on other visions they had such as these.


Nowadays, I rarely get to visit Chinatown, so many things have changed since my childhood. Ever since 公公婆婆 moved out of the house next door, I've lost a lot of my Asian culture. They lived with 舅舅 and 舅母, but 舅舅 and 舅母 had to move to Japan for occupation reasons over 2.5 years ago, leaving 公公婆婆 searching for smaller areas where they can afford the rent. Chinatown has been growing rapidly, and with that growth, comes gentrification. Although I don't know of specific people who have dealt with the issue of housing, both my and my friends who live south of Chinatown, in the Greater Chinatown area, have seen a lot more Asian American families move more south into our neighborhoods. The more southern areas of the Greater Chinatown area, like Brighton Park, McKinley Park, Fuller Park, and Canaryville, are compacted with residential areas, but recently have been seeing an increase of wealthier people moving into the areas nearby. For example, my family and I have had our house for over 15 years now, and we have seen plots of grass across from the alley of our garage being transformed into new houses. These houses have big garages attached to the house, along with everything being much bigger in scale. Along with that, a good amount of the people on my street have built-in pools onto their balconies, and being able to afford all of those things and keep up with the mortgage is a luxury I could only dream to experience. Not only has Chinatown been facing different forms of gentrification, but the areas a bit more south have been seeing some signs of possible gentrification yet to occur.


Cultural preservation and economic development are closely related when it comes to issues of development. Many places either have to adjust for the new touristy consumers they will be providing for instead, or they will risk the possibility of not being able to have a sustainable program or service. Although the cultural parts of Chinatown can be attractive for people within the Asian American community, the developments and adjustments made when a place grows tend to cause a more Americanized audience to come into place. The economic growth and gentrification in locations are often influenced by the people with wealth and power, who, more often than not, happen to be rich white people. This audience most likely wouldn't be attracted to the traditional styles of Asian culture, and would rather want to go to a place that gives them a sense of familiarity. Not only are places like restaurants influenced by these changes, but so is the housing. The increase of value in a location will increase the cost of rent in the area as well, causing many of the less wealthy to be evicted and opening up opportunities for more of the wealthy to move in. The people that most frequently get displaced tend to be the elderly and/or immigrants, which impacts the cultural aspects they add to the community.

The hardest part of fighting this issue is that many people outside the Chinatown community don't know about the housing issues that elders and the less wealthy immigrants are dealing with. A big factor in the lack of realization is the huge wealth gap for Asian Americans. The average household income for Asian Americans is the highest of all categorized races, and more than double the household income for Black people. Yet the average overlooks the fact that Asians have the worst income inequality out of all other racial and ethnic groups in the United States. The income of the top 10% of Asian American earners tends to be extremely high compared to the bottom 10% of Asian American earners. Between 1970 to 2016, the 90/10 ratio for Asian Americans has gone from 6.1 to 10.7. In comparison, during that time, the 90/10 ratio for all races combined shifted from 6.9 to 8.7, which is ~2.6 times smaller of a gap than the ratio for Asian Americans. Asian Americans also face an unequal spread of poverty percentages. In 2017, Asian Americans had an overall poverty average of 11.2%, but Hmong Americans had a 16.2% poverty rate compared to Filipino Americans with a 6.0% poverty rate, which is 2.7 times less than the Hmong. The averaging of the statistics for all Asian Americans overlooks the wealth gap within the group, causing Asian Americans to now be seen as people who don't struggle as much with economic struggles like poverty. This dismisses a huge amount of issues within the community and causes economic issues among Asian Americans, including the current gentrification to be noticed less often.


Due to the recent gentrification in the past 5 years, there have been changes in the scenery of Chinatown. A lot of the bigger places within Chinatown have a more "Americanized" design (i.e. the Chinatown Library, Starbucks and Jaslin Hotel, Tous les Jours, etc.) and are also frequented by a lot more non-Asian Chicagoans and non-local Chinatown residents. Although the success of these businesses may not seem harmful, the buildings being created and gaining huge profits tend to be more expensive luxury places. In contrast, other more cultural places receive less attention, decreasing the amount of money the place can make, risking eviction. The Chinatown area is also experiencing a huge increase in rent costs, by at least ~200% in comparison to 5-10 years ago. The huge spike in cost is extremely concerning, especially in the short amount of time it has occurred in. With the decrease of older residents of Chinatown and the increase of newer, wealthier consumers coming in, the community has seen a shift in the types of places seen as "good" and "bad" places to go.


In addition, in Chicago, there is a new project that is in the works called the 78. The 78 is a community that's going to be built between Chinatown and Downtown and is being marketed as a "bridge" between the two neighborhoods. The neighborhood is planned to be built in the 62 acres of previous railroad land alongside the south branch of the Chicago River. Chinatown previously had this gap between them and Downtown from the railroad, allowing them to grow differently and not mix into a gentrified mess.


I remember when I brought up the project of the 78, you two already knew of it but didn't seem to care much about it. During our conservation, I mentioned how its development will cause further gentrification in Chinatown, but you seemed to think of it as another random thing being added to Chicago. Because Chinatown and Downtown Chicago have dramatically different median incomes and costs of living, having the 78 serve as a "bridge" for the two areas can actually cause more harm than good. The 78 will most likely cause the average income in Chinatown to increase, which will also bring the rent cost and tax rates up and hurt the lower-income people who are already living there. The gentrification currently happening is not only impacting who can live there but also impacting how much of Chinatown's culture will remain. There are so many different meaningful cultural places and restaurants closing down, being evicted, experiencing less business, all exacerbated by COVID-19 for both xenophobic reasons and safety concerns. At this rate, Chinatown will lose a lot of what it was originally.


From the things I've heard and seen while living near Chinatown, there are so many issues underlying the growth of certain parts of Chinatown, and it no longer feels the same as it used to. You may agree with me or you may not, and that's okay, but I think you have noticed the big differences too. Living near Chinatown helped me be more exposed to my culture, and trying to find ways to slow the progression of gentrification and prevent the construction of the 78 would help greatly with slowing the eviction of Asian Americans. Helping lift the ban on rent control in Illinois could be beneficial to the situation, along with supporting anti-displacement groups. I know you may say you have other things to take care of at the moment, but I think sharing or providing resources, along with spreading information about the issue is the least we could do for a community that has greatly benefitted us. I want the place I grew up in to remain culturally active and for others to experience the culture I was able to experience.


Sincerely,

Your daughter 嘉雯