1912: Exactly when was Chicago's South Side Chinatown founded?

Thursday, 23 June 2011 14:11 Amy Gwilliam
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An important event in the history of Chinese Chicago was the shift of the main Chinese-American business district from its original home in the Loop, on Clark St. between Van Buren and Harrison Aves., to its current location on the near South Side, on Cermak (called 22nd St. in those days), Archer, and Wentworth Aves. Most experts agree that the shift took place because of anti-Chinese prejudice, rent increases demanded by European-American landowners on Clark St., and quarrels between the two dominant community groups, the On Leong and Hip Sing Associations (neither group, incidentally, was ever called a "tong").  The experts do not agree about the date of the shift.  Some put it as early as 1905; others as late as 1920. 

Susan Lee Moy, the leading historian of Chinese in Chicago, got it right when she wrote "in about 1910."  But in order to be more precise about the date -- for instance, so as to think about a 100th anniversary celebration for Chinatown -- the Chinatown Museum Foundation's researchers have been looking at historical sources.  The best ones for our purposes turned out to be the Lakeside Annual Directories of Chicago, updated every year by the compiler, Reuben H. Donnelley.  These gave names and addresses of individuals and businesses throughout the city and were organized in exactly the same way as telephone directories of later times.  Because in those days only the rich had telephones, the Annual Directories had to be based on data from door-to-door canvassers hired by the publisher, but they were otherwise very much like modern telephone books. 

We decided to focus on the locations of Chinese stores, most of which by definition were in the main Chinese business district, rather than on the locations of restaurants or laundries, which in those days were already scattered all over the city.  We looked at microfilm copies of the Annual Directories for 1910, 1911, 1912, and 1915, as preserved in the Harold Washington Center of the Chicago Public Library.  Here is what we found:

1910—40 Chinese stores in Chicago, all in the Loop, in the Clark-Harrison-Van Buren area
1911—36 Chinese stores, all in the Loop
1912—32 Chinese stores, 20 in the Loop and 12 on the South Side, in the Archer-22nd area
1915—52 Chinese stores, 8 in the Loop and 44 on the South Side

We think this evidence is decisive.  As each year's directory seems to show addresses at the end of the previous year, it follows that the South Side Chinatown was founded in 1911 by merchants and others who moved down from the original Loop Chinatown.

Since the preceding paragraph was written we have found that we were wrong, and that the Chinatown at Archer and 22nd was not founded until a year later, in 1912.  The evidence is a group of newspaper articles from early 1912 stating that the move to "the new Chinatown" would take place later that year.  The Chicago Tribune, for instance, in its annual article on Chinese New Year celebrations in Chicago noted that 1912 was the last year that the celebrations would be held in the Clark Street Chinatown.

As S. L. Moy indicates, over the next few decades Chinese businesses and residences pushed south from 22nd  and Archer down Wentworth Ave.  Several large buildings in Chinese style were built on Wentworth between 22nd and Alexander Sts. in the late 1920s.  We believe that this may have been when the demographic wave reached the Chinatown Museum Foundation's building between Alexander and 23rd Sts.  Before that the neighborhood had been Italian, and before that perhaps German or English.  From the early 1930s onward, it was mainly Chinese.

Susan Lee Moy, "The Chinese in Chicago: The First Hundred Years," in Melvin G. Holli and Peter d'A Jones eds., Ethnic Chicago, A Multicultural Portrait, 4th edition, pages 378-408.  1995, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, ISBN 0-8028-0753-8.

Reuben H, Donnelley, compiler, The Lakeside Annual Directory of Chicago, 1910, 1911, 1912, & 1915.  (The Chicago Directory Company, Chicago