Chicago’s China Town

Chicago’s China town is central to America’s understanding of eastern cultures. The stories of ninja and ancient dragons, the martial arts and period pieces based on Asian culture that appears in movies and television all stem from the massive migrations of Chinese into one of America’s biggest cities. The first Chinese immigrants came to California, both to escape their home and seek opportunity in America. The Opium Wars in South Eastern China with England and France stretched out for a decade, from 1848 to 1858, at the same time as the California Goldrush was happening across the Pacific. The rampant opium abuse and war in China drove a largely Cantonese population of Chinese to move to America, specifically to San Francisco by the thousands. The town had seen a booming population from the gold rush, an American myth that had spread all over the world. However, after the gold rush ended around 1855, most of the Cantonese had not become rich. Taxes on Chinese who mined for gold intended to impede the migrations, but just ended up pushing them to other jobs, as the gold rush was ending. They went to work on the new public works project, the transcontinental railroad. The American myth of rivers flowing with gold was so powerful it inspired massive Chinese immigration to California decades after it ended. It got to the point where racial clashes were wide spread in California, and the strife led to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 which barred further immigration, only from China, the first such act of its kind. Facing more dangerous jobs and lower pay from the railroad commission than they gave white workers, and racism that often became violent, the Cantonese group began moving further into the country to the Midwest and East coast. Ironically, they traveled by way of the Transcontinental Railroad that so many Chinese lost their lives building. The rail line ends in Iowa, right next door to Chicago, Illinois, where thousands decided to settle. Several wealthy Chinese families, and organizations such as the Hip Sing Tong mob, got together in Chicago to establish a China Town by leasing several buildings in the 1880’s. The neighborhood would see a move south around the 1910’s due to racism and assaults. The neighborhood of China town was and still is mainly Cantonese, as the Mandarin Chinese who came in during the 1940s to escape the Chinese revolution did not feel comfortable living in a Cantonese neighborhood. Instead, they dispersed through the city and never established a central Mandarin community. Further immigration from south eastern Asian countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Loas fleeing the Vietnam war created a larger Asian community in Chicago. By the ’90s a new China Town was established on the north side by Chinese businesses and associations, helping with overpopulation in Chicago’s southern Chinatown. The new neighborhood does not consist of many Cantonese families, as the longest established families still reside on the south side. It’s fascinating to see how the American myth of the promised land and enigmatic stories such as good that just flows in rivers in California culminated to bring Chinese culture to America.

Works Cited

Steffes, Tracey. “Chinese.” Encyclopedia of Chicago,

Grigg, Cindy. “Chinese Immigrants and the California Goldrush.” Hickman Mills C-1 School District / Homepage,

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