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Unlike New York, nobody’s leaving Chicago’s Chinatown

by Long Yu
Jan 17, 2012



In New York City, Manhattan’s Asians are being forced out of Chinatown by the steep rise in property values. The story is different in Chicago’s Chinatown, where the aging, stable population is being augmented by an influx of new residents.

The population has increased by more than 24 percent, to 7,254, in the last decade.

“There is a constant and likely increasing number of immigrants moving into the community,” said Theresa Mah, policy consultant with the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community,a group based in Chinatown that works to empower Chinese and Chinese-American Chicagoans.

 Mah said her group defined a “Greater Chinatown Community Area” for a more accurate understanding of the demographics. That area encompasses parts of Armour Square, Bridgeport, McKinley Park and Brighton Park.

“The Asian population in this area is about 27,000, and perhaps 90 percent are Chinese,” Mah said.

In Chinatown itself, the population increase is driven by immigrants.

These immigrants are young and old, and most of them have relatives who already live in Chinatown, according to Sylvia Wu, principal of Chinatown’s Pui Tak Christian School.

“Relatives bring them over and want them to be nearby,” Wu said. “They bring young people here for job opportunities and grandparents to take care of their children.”

Another reason immigrants are attracted to Chinatown is low English proficiency.

Mah said with increasing number of immigrants, there will be more needs for ESL classes, bilingual social services and education.

“New immigrants continue to see this area as a port of entry,” Mah said. “Because it is close to jobs that they can get without English skills, social services through the long-established agencies in the community and good public transportation that serves the area.”

All of those conditions are true about New York, but Mah said the housing issue is the big difference between the two Chinatowns and what is happening in each.

In Chicago, families can choose to stay in the area in newer and more spacious homes or condos, or live in adjacent areas where there are houses within reach financially.

“New York has seen its population move out to the suburbs,” Mah said. “Manhattan is expensive and space is limited. In Chicago, in contrast, there has been a great deal of residential development over the past 10 years or so.”

Another Chinatown resident, who wouldn’t give his name and spoke only in Chinese, said  employment stability is the reason most residents continue living here.

“Most of the residents have a stable job in or near Chinatown,” said the man, Mr. Sun, who was at a closed community center.

Another reason, he said, is that “senior citizens have good welfare, so they don’t have to move to cheaper apartments.”

Even though high housing costs aren’t squeezing out Chicago residents, and the community is relatively stable, Chinatown is not without its demographic problems.

The aging population and the economic downturn are both taking a toll.

According to the 2010 Census, Chicago Chinatown’s median age is 42.4 and that of Asian alone is 43.9. In the city of Chicago as a whole, by comparison, the median age is 32.9.

“There is a disproportionate number of seniors in this area,” Mah said. “Thirty-three percent of the population is over 55 in the Armour Square Community Area compared to the national average of about 20 percent.”

Many residents, however, see the aging problem as an opportunity for the young.

“Most of the stores here are family businesses,” said Javien Chen, director of national sales and marketing at Nexus Holidays, a travel agency in Chinatown. “So the younger generation will take over the business sooner or later. [Businesses] will always hire young people.”

Under the economic downturn, however, it is harder for those small-business owners to survive.

“From our observation, some small stores are closed,” Chen said. “And there isn’t increasing traffic.”

But Wu dismissed that as a concern. She said restaurants, the staple of Chinatown’s economy, have maintained consistent.

“Weekends are the busiest time,” Wu said. “There are a lot of visitors and the restaurants are crowded all the time.”

Chen said Chinatown needs more marketing to promote business, rather than being content with consistency.

Dustin Harrington, a Chicago resident who visited Chinatown Friday with his friends for the first time, said Chinatown needs advertisement, such as tours.

“The reason I didn’t come here before,” he said, “is that I had no one to show me around.”