Cermak/Chinatown: Businesses Part of Neighborhood's Culture

Amy Chen has owned her herbal tea shop in Chicago's
Chinatown for 35 years. (Photo by Matt Saulka)

Cermak-Chinatown Stop IconBy Blythe Meyer and Matthew Saulka
The Red Line Project

Posted: Thursday, June 2, 2011

Owning a small business in Chinatown is very “American” according to herbal teashop owner Amy Chen.

“Chinatown is not like China,” Chen says, “it’s like Chicago!”

Chen’s shop, Bark Lee Tong Ginseng, Tea & Herbs Company, is lined with shelves of herbs and various organic compounds that according to Chen can be used to cure all sorts of ailments from high blood pressure to headaches.

“Sleep no good, need more energy, everything.  Skin no good. Everything,” Chen said about the variety of teas and herbs lining the walls.

Chen, who is originally from Hong Kong, is one of roughly 68,000 Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans who live in Chinatown, according to the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.

Chen said that during her 35 years in the city, she and her shop have built a reputation that sets her business apart from the ten or so other herbal teashops nearly identical to hers.

Photos that hang on the shop’s wall show Chen posing with Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and ABC-TV news anchor Linda Yu and serve to prove Chen’s reputation.

But business ownership in Chicago’s Chinatown isn’t without its struggles and many Chinese shop owners find it difficult to make ends meet. Two doors down from Chen’s shop is a souvenir and gift shop called Ka Oriental Gifts owned by Winnie Ip.

“It’s hard to make money,” Ip said, summarizing her overall experience as a business owner in the country’s second-largest Chinese-ethnic neighborhood.

Ip, who moved to Chicago from Hong Kong just two years ago, estimates that there are roughly 10 stores very much like her own in Chinatown. The number at any given time is around 14, but the turnover is so quick that stores seem to come and go by the month.

These gift shops are filled with trinkets like imitation-jade jewelry and small Buddha figures which Ip says she orders monthly from New York City, which boasts the largest Chinese-ethnic neighborhood. Ip offers the souvenirs at very low prices, evidence of the fierce competition in the seven-block neighborhood.

Ip said she depends on both local Chinese customers and tourists alike, and that everyone buys the same things from her shop.

Local tourism throughout the neighborhood is a large source of income for a majority of the residents.  The economic downturn throughout the city and country has reduced the amount of money being spent within Chinatown.

Not all stores cater directly to the tourist population.  The neighborhood also sports very authentic butcher shops were tourists stop and snap pictures at the whole ducks and live fish being displayed in the windows, and the Chinese residents go to buy their groceries.

“I buy the food in Chinatown,” Chen responds when asked if she ever needs to shop outside of the neighborhood.

For the most part, Chinatown is isolated from the rest of Chicago.  Surrounded by highways and railroad tracks on all sides, expansion is made nearly impossible but at the same time this adds to the sense of entering a culturally isolated and unique neighborhood that appeals to visitors of the city.

While visitors flock to Chinatown in hopes of gleaning a taste of life in the Far East, the experiences of those who live there are often much different than that of their home country.  Many travel to the United States to be closer to family, get an education, or more simply, to experience democracy.

“Freedom,” Chen said, in simple response to a question asking what is different about living in Chicago.

Chen and Ip also both talk about how few people there are in Chicago compared to Hong Kong.

“Chicago is quiet. In Hong Kong … there area a lot more people!” Ip said.

For as much as Chinatown appears to many visitors to be authentic, both Ip and Chen say it is completely different. And in many ways it is simply not possible.

The experiences of living in the United States makes authenticity difficult, especially when one looks at the turbulent beginnings of Chinatown in the early 1900’s.  Many Chinese were forced to assimilate to American culture and the early foundation of Chinese culture in America was lost.

But Chen doesn’t mind some parts of this assimilation. She beams as she talks about the opportunities her daughter has had in the U.S.

“My daughter is going to school in Minnesota to be an animal doctor,” Chen said.

Chen also said now that she and her family are here, they will not be going back to Hong Kong any time soon.

“No, no yet,” Chen said. “Maybe some day for a vacation. But now we are here, my family is here in Chicago.”

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