Chinatown: the next generation | Feature | Chicago Reader

Chinatown: the next generation 

This year’s Summer Fair represents a passing of the torch and merging of communities in the historic neighborhood.

For the first time in 42 years, a group of youths are now part of the Summer Fest committee, thanks to Shifa Zhong (right) here with Gene Lee, the "mayor of Chinatown." - YIJUN PAN FOR CHICAGO READER
  • For the first time in 42 years, a group of youths are now part of the Summer Fest committee, thanks to Shifa Zhong (right) here with Gene Lee, the "mayor of Chinatown."
  • Yijun Pan for Chicago Reader

On a May afternoon at the outdoor mall Chinatown Square, a group of Asian grandmas wave their arms and sway their hips in a production of guang chang wu (Chinese square dancing). A line of men begins to form into a dragon dance, and later, a singer wearing face paint performs traditional Chinese opera.

The scene at the Asian heritage month event in Chinatown draws in curious tourists passing by. It also catches the eye of Shifa Zhong, a 24-year-old Bridgeport resident and budding social media influencer.

As two R&B artists take the stage for the finale, he crouches in front of the act with an iPhone. "Look at this," he says, pointing at the audience of older adults. "No one here is Gen Z." Volunteers begin to fold up empty seats in the crowd, and families, who've paused a moment to watch, then head straight to Joy Yee for lunch.

Zhong wants people of all ages to see Chinatown for more than just its dumplings and dim sum. On TikTok and Instagram, he shares with his 22,000 followers content ranging from the area's oldest bakery to friends break dancing in Chinatown Square. With each post, he shows Chinatown through his eyes: a home to longtime community members and a "playground" for young creatives.

Zhong has become an unofficial voice for the youth of Chinatown through his marketing agency Tian Represent, serving as a bridge between older and newer residents in Bridgeport and Armour Square. Though nearly 50 years separate them in age, Zhong has teamed up with Gene Lee, the "mayor of Chinatown," to plan the community's pandemic comeback—a two-day fair featuring local vendors, hip-hop artists, cultural performances, and a Hong Kong-style night market.

Zhong manages a crew of emerging creatives and entrepreneurs tasked with marketing and coordinating the Summer Fair, which will take over several streets in Chinatown on July 31 to August 1. With less than a month left to plan, they bounce ideas off one another: Where can they place a youth basketball tournament? Where can they fit 30 vendors into one area? Who will provide the alcohol?

This year marks the first time in its 42-year history that the youth have stepped up to coordinate, a sign of growing generational shifts in the community. Meanwhile, Lee oversees organizations that have held the festival for decades, including the Chamber of Commerce and Chicago Chinatown Special Events.

As the neighborhood ages, older leaders have leaned on the young to preserve Chinatown's history. In turn, the youth have adapted unique ways of communicating and working with their elders. No party can do it alone.

"Everybody is surprised they started letting the youth take charge now," Zhong says. "So this is a really new concept."

Members of the planning committee span three generations, each offering a distinct perspective and area of expertise. Zhong, Jeri Tan, and Christine Huang manage youth messaging and "hyping up people not from the community," while Tim Brenmark, a board member of the Chinatown Community Foundation, will oversee volunteers. Francis Almeda, owner of Side Practice Coffee on the north side, and Anita Lau, cochair of Chicago Chinatown Special Events, deal with local artists, businesses, and food vendors. Lee and Darryl Tom, the chamber's president, confirm what can be accomplished within city and Chinatown politics.

Despite having different experiences, beliefs, and expectations of the future for their neighborhood, they're united in their passion for Chinatown. The result is a fusion of new ideas with Chinatown traditions, reflecting a community that values progress as much as it does heritage.

"We're doing this because Chinatown is our community," says Huang, a 24-year-old codirector of the event. "A lot of the younger generations now that grew up around this neighborhood, they moved out of Chinatown or they really don't care much about Chinatown. But it's such a great place. People don't really know much of our culture, which is why we do all these events so we can welcome more people in."

While the process of organizing an event across generations is challenging, the end product, she says simply, is "going to be lit."

But understanding why the collaboration is so monumental means understanding the inner workings of Chinatown and the differences between each generation of residents, Zhong says.


Chinatown Summer Fair 2021

Saturday, July 31, noon-10 PM and Sunday, August 1, 10 AM-7 PM, Chicago Chinatown Gateway, 2206 S. Wentworth, hiphopinchinatown.com, free.


The community is divided into two distinct areas. "Old Chinatown" on Wentworth Avenue south of Cermak, is marked by aging storefronts and the recently renovated Chinatown Gateway, built in 1975. "New Chinatown" includes development north of Archer Avenue, as well as Chinatown Square mall, where newer, more upscale restaurants and mom-and-pop businesses can be found.

Zhong grew up in China's modern economic era before moving to Chicago in 2010 at 13 years old—much different from Lee, who was born in the U.S. in 1949 during the post-WWII economic recession. Longtime Chinatown leaders, like Lee, approach community organizing in a thrifty and practical way, which often collides with the fast-paced "hustle culture" of today's younger immigrants and first-generation Americans.

Still, Zhong has learned to interpret his aspirations for Chinatown in a way that makes sense to his elders. Each blueprint for the fair comes with several backup options and every expense must have a justification. Most importantly, Huang says, each deliverable is a chance to prove themselves to Chinatown leaders.

"Other people come in wanting to be paid and claim they have hundreds of contacts when they don't," Lee says. "I don't need to do that with Shifa. He's not promising me anything. He's giving me the big picture. He said, 'I'm looking to raise $150,000.' Nobody's ever said that to me with the Summer Fair. We have a different outlook, but we're going to give him a chance."

Noticing the extent of segregation in Chicago, Zhong brought SoundCloud rappers and breakout producers to Chinatown in 2019 for its first-ever hip-hop festival (Hip Hop in Chinatown), which turned Chinatown Square into a mosh pit of young people from around the city.

"Hip-hop was born in the age of trying to bring oppressed people together," he says. "We have to acknowledge that hip-hop is Black and Brown culture. From a community standpoint, I just want to put all the minority cultures together, and then we can build together instead of just hating on each other. I'm the product of a culture that I want to bring to the community."

After Lee saw Zhong's success, he invited him to put on the concert again the next year. Though the pandemic eventually put the show on hiatus, Zhong saw an opportunity to work with Chinatown's unofficial mayor on an even bigger stage. He and his team offered to help diversify programming for the Summer Fair and to be a translator of the youth.

"I thought, 'Sure, why not?'" Lee says. "I'm sure we have a difference in how we do things, which is fine. I am open to see what you can do. I don't know who you know, I don't know how much work you put into this—but if you have what it takes to ring the cash register, you're worth me paying you."

Shifa Zhong, Jeri Tan, and Christine Huang are the 20-somethings collaborating with the Summer Fair committee to expand the fest's audience this year. - YIJUN PAN FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Shifa Zhong, Jeri Tan, and Christine Huang are the 20-somethings collaborating with the Summer Fair committee to expand the fest's audience this year.
  • Yijun Pan for Chicago Reader

To the committee newcomers, no dream seems too ambitious. But first, they need the money to make it happen.

When Huang and Zhong reveal the fair's potential $130,000 price tag at a recent meeting, Lee and Tom scoff in response. "We only have so much money," Lee says. "We're not going to take a loan out for this." Their relationships in the community can help bring in sponsorships and donors, like McDonald's and Ameristar—but to a tune much less than the crew's anticipated budget.

"We understand the reality," Tom says. "It's a tough year to go really big. But it's good to have goals." With the fair drawing nearer, their initial fundraising goals have drifted farther away. The young committee has since lowered their anticipated budget, thinking more realistically to fit the needs of the chamber and Chicago Chinatown Special Events.

In Asian culture, respect and appreciation for elders run deep. Part of the youth's job means bearing the critical yet supportive nature typical of immigrant parents.

"We're looking at a Facebook message," Lee says, as Zhong projects his video announcing the fair onto a TV. Tom offers a prompt correction—it's actually a TikTok, "but sure, similar."

The views: more than 100,000.

As the audio plays, Lau reminds Zhong what they talked about at the last meeting. The text should say the youth is one of the leading organizers, not the leading organizer. "Don't forget the foundation," she says. "You're one of us." Zhong tells her it's all in the caption.

"Even when you make certain achievements, Asian parents can be really harsh," he says. "Asian youth don't really receive empowerment from the older generation."

The enclave of nearly 90 percent Asians relies heavily on tourism. Some of Chinatown's most influential movers are business owners and leaders of well-established organizations, like many other communities in Chicago. Owners in Chinatown, however, often pass their stores down to their children, allowing power to remain generational. "There's the Furama family, the Triple Crown Family, the Chiu Quon family," Zhong says. "Chinatown used to be run by so many different families."

As a lifelong Chinatown resident, Lee has maintained connections with each business throughout the years. The youth's vision of the fair, Zhong says, wouldn't be possible without his blessing and guidance.

"From a Chinese standpoint, it means so much that the mayor of Chinatown is working together with all the generations," he says. "To work with us, I think it shows how much he cares about the community and that he's open to the idea of passing down the torch."

With 40,000 expected visitors, the Summer Fair is Chinatown's first major event since the city fully reopened at the beginning of June. Zhong says shelter-in-place orders dealt a severe blow to the community, but Chinatown experienced the pandemic's effects even before COVID-19 became widespread in the U.S.

Duo Tang, a 26-year-old operations manager at the chamber, says anti-Asian sentiment drove tourists and shoppers away early on. The streets of Chinatown began to empty starting last January, he says, when news broke of the country's first COVID cases. Though there were no confirmed cases in the community at the time, Zhong says headlines highlighting the pandemic's economic impacts inadvertently made people associate Chinatown with COVID. In the aftermath, businesses saw a 70- to 90-percent decrease in profits.

This year, Summer Fair organizers have expanded the annual event to bring it back to its peak and make up for lost time. "I haven't really been to the fair ever since I was a young kid," Huang says. "We needed new ideas for an event that hasn't changed in the past 40 years they've been doing it."

The plan includes working with vendors and businesses beyond Chinatown—a strategy that initially drew skepticism from the chamber, the foundation, and Chicago Chinatown Special Events.

"Another issue that Chinatown is facing is we're just fighting each other," Zhong says. "Chinatown businesses are competitive with each other and they want local money. But they're not able to keep moving forward by just fighting each other for the same customers. We need to open up more because I see the perception of Chinatown being like an isolated island."

During past summer fairs, the vendors have typically been limited to Chinatown shops only. Outside stores may mean competition for business owners inside the community, but Lee thinks there'll be more than enough customers this year for everyone to share.

Almeda, who helps Lau field vendors, says the street market will highlight Asian-owned businesses and Black and Brown artists. "We're looking to bring in creators from all over the city," he says. "We're looking to give a voice to and showcase the diverse talent that Chicago has to offer."

Zhong, who has put together a roster of hip-hop artists to perform, hopes the celebration will breathe life back into Chinatown.

"What the general public doesn't really know is that when we are not doing certain things, it's not that we don't want to," he says. "We have to work a lot within a system. There are so many things that we need to do in the future, but the first step is to get the Chicago community—not just Chinatown—to welcome Chinatown back."

Shifa Zhong with Gene Lee and Darryl Tom, the president of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce - YIJUN PAN FOR CHICAGO READER
  • Shifa Zhong with Gene Lee and Darryl Tom, the president of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce
  • Yijun Pan for Chicago Reader

Chuo Li, an associate professor of landscape architecture at Mississippi State University, has studied the design and structure of Chinatowns across the country. She says Chicago first started advertising Chinatown as a tourist spot, alongside landmarks like the Sears Tower and Navy Pier, in the 70s. As the wealthy moved away, and as new immigrants took their place, "Chinatown came to be seen as a vulnerable and unstable neighborhood," she says.

This negative perception of Chinatown led to the construction of Chinatown Square mall, a 200,000-square-foot retail and commercial center, which came as the result of a revitalization study in 1980. The study found that "Oriental-looking shopping streets with equally Oriental-looking stores" would bring more tourism to Chinatown, and thus, the giant pagoda and shopping mall was erected. The plan to revitalize the area garnered wide support from private Chinese developers, who prioritized exoticizing the environment over addressing the social needs of the community.

In 1979, Celia and George Cheung, restaurant owners and active community members, held the first Summer Fair to change people's misconceptions of Chinatown.

"Shifting demographics and the adaptation of immigrant groups to American democratic ideals significantly transformed the social and political composition of Chinatown," Li writes in an analysis of the enclave. As kinship and community building started to dissolve, a new generation of immigrants then emerged throughout the years, with social organizations led by "well-educated young Chinese Americans'' taking place. These immigrants began competing with tenured Chinatown associations as they sought to "build a democratic political structure" in the neighborhood, Li says.

Lee and Fred Roti, a Chinatown-born senator and alderman of the First Ward, took over the programming from the Cheungs in 1989, forming the organization Chicago Chinatown Special Events as a way to further unite the community.

In 1993, the federal government would send Roti to prison for accepting thousands of dollars in bribes, and in a separate 2014 case, Lee would plead guilty to stealing $132,000 of donations from the Summer Fair and the Chicago Dragons Athletic Association.

Despite the stain left on his career, Lee, once a deputy chief of staff to former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, continues to be well-loved in Chinatown. Wherever he goes, everyone seems to know him. "There are no White House secrets," he says. Lau now handles the organizations' finances.

"She can tell if you're talking crap or not," Lee says over a cup of tea from BBQ King House. "Vendors will take advantage of people who they know are fresh meat. But you don't make an enemy of her because she doesn't forget anything."

At the meeting, Lau shuffles between tasks, working with Huang to incorporate the young committee's plans with the chamber's. She compares her hard copy of the organization's scheduled programming—acts secured through decades of working in the community—to the crew's digital list of DJs, rappers, and hip-hop dancers who've been chosen to perform.

By day, Chinatown will showcase the sights and sounds of Asian culture, including dragon and lion dance processions, traditional singers, and martial artists. By night, the Square will turn into a market and concert with hip hop artists King Marie, Supa Bwe, and Eddie Supa.

The affair is represented in a flier Zhong presents to the board: an illustration of the iconic Chinatown Gateway split down the middle. On one side, a phoenix soars above half the paifang, shown in its traditional colors, amid a sunny sky. On the other, a green dragon looks toward the moon, as the opposite end of the gateway illuminates the night with neon colors. Together, the image forms one structure—a blend of night and day, past and present, old and new.

"I love it, OK?" Lau says. "It shows Chinatown is coming back. We're open for you—and we're ready. Chinatown is ready."   v

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  → 

Agenda Teaser

Galleries & Museums
May 28
Performing Arts
Henchpeople Jarvis Square Theater
July 09

Popular Stories