One of the first things Chinese immigrant Sau Fung Lam did upon arriving in Chinatown 24 years ago was go to the grocery store to try to buy an apple. She approached the grocer and opened her mouth, as if the English words she didn't know would, by some miracle, slip out. They didn't. So she formed a circle with her fingers and thumbs, a gesture the grocer seemed to understand. She was handed a large onion.
Since Lam moved from East China to Chicago in the early 1990s, Chinatown has flourished, transforming from a partially Chinese community where residents mostly spoke English into one where Lam can easily communicate in Chinese. Most businesses, restaurants and agencies operate bilingually because the majority of residents speak a Chinese dialect, and nearly 65% are foreign-born, experts say.
At a time when traditional urban Chinatowns in cities such as New York, San Francisco, Boston and Philadelphia are fading because of gentrification and changing cultural landscapes, Chicago's Chinatown is growing larger – becoming what experts say could be a model for the survival of Chinatowns in the U.S.
In Chicago, where several neighborhoods are no longer defined by the immigrant or ethnic groups that once dominated them, Chinatown is an exception, having anchored the area centered around Cermak Road and Wentworth Avenue since 1912. Leaders say Chinatown has avoided gentrification because Chinese Americans value a sense of belonging and choose to stay in the neighborhood. Few residents move out, and if they do, they sell their homes to other Chinese.
Between 2000 and 2010, Chinatown's population increased 24% and its Asian population increased 30%. Asians make up nearly 90% of the neighborhood's population, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data. Experts also say that of all the foreign-born Asians living in Chicago's Chinatown, nearly 10% arrived in the last three years – a stark contrast to New York and San Francisco, where immigrants no longer fuel Chinatowns.
About 78% of Chinatown residents speak Chinese at home, and of that population, more than three-quarters report speaking English "less than 'very well,'" according to a 2015 report from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. Half of Chinatown residents are employed in one of three sectors: the food and hospitality industry, healthcare and social services, and manufacturing, according to the report.
The neighborhood allows Lam, now 81, to live comfortably in Chicago without having ever learned English. She spends her days eating at Cantonese restaurant MingHin Cuisine, buying savory turnip cakes from Hong Kong Market and singing alongside her sister in a Chinese choir on Wednesdays.
Recognizing the national decline of other Chinatowns, city planners and Chicago organizations are committed to investing in this one, which could be why the neighborhood is thriving. In 2013, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning announced a plan to preserve Chinatown's cultural identity by improving public education and elderly care, bolstering transportation infrastructure and creating more public parks.
And in August, the city opened a two-story, $19.1-million branch of the Chicago Public Library that has attracted about 1,500 people a day. It caters to Chinese-speaking patrons, as many residents turn to the library for English classes.
Chicago differs from Manhattan and San Francisco in that it doesn't have as high of a demand nor as tight of a supply of rentable apartments, according to a study released in 2015 by New York University and Capital One. But experts and city leaders agree that Chicago's Chinatown could also be thriving because of its commitment to Chinese traditions, which makes it attractive to both Asians and non-Asian visitors.
Nancy Wong, 62, moved to Chicago in 1988 from Hong Kong. She opened a flower shop on Archer Avenue, near Chinatown, and regularly visits Chinatown to work with clients. She believes Chinatown's numerous services and agencies for immigrants and Chinese speakers are what make it attractive. There are plenty of elderly housing options, employment training services and English classes. Residents' primary use of Chinese for business helps prevent the neighborhood from existing as just a tourist attraction.
"Some young people even work or live in Chinatown just to learn Chinese," she said.