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February 17, 2011

The streets of Chicago’s Chinatown move to their own rhythm, a fluid sort of hustle and bustle that feels at once rushed and relaxed: a worker with a cigarette dangling from his lips unloads damp cardboard boxes of bok choy and bitter melon from a van; behind a steam-fogged window a wiry man in cook’s whites methodically chops a duck carcass with a cleaver; a tiny woman in a gray padded coat whisks her smartly uniformed grandchildren into the St. Therese School, which looks for all the world as if it’s been transported directly from Mao-era Beijing:

I visit Chinatown a lot—usually for dim sum, xiaolongbao, three-chili chicken, or some other edible pleasure—but until recently, I realized, I’d never really seen the place. Striding hungrily along Wentworth Avenue, the gritty main drag, I’d never bothered to notice the regal terra cotta peacock adorning the entrance to the Pui Tak Center:

Or the winsome moth inviting visitors into the Emperor’s Choice Restaurant, just down the street:

Or the odd little doggy-door mailbox punched through the entrance of a storefront where Wentworth meets Cermak Road:

Somehow I’d missed all these hand-wrought touches on the doorways and lintels of Chinatown’s shabby-looking brick buildings. Somehow I’d failed to appreciate the faded letters in English and Chinese spelling the name of a mutual-aid society …

… or an old Cantonese restaurant:

These signs and shop windows have a sooty, age-worn look that harks back to city life during an earlier wave of immigration. Won Kow, above, served its first customer in 1928, not long after a group of Chinese merchants moved down from the South Loop and starting taking out leases along Wentworth Avenue. The restaurant occupies a building meant to at least partly evoke the forms of a pagoda, though in recent decades garish signs have metastasized across its facade:

Won Kow, the Emperor’s Choice Restaurant, and the resplendent Pui Tak Center …

…were all designed in the 1920s by two decidedly non-Chinese architects named Michaelson and Rognstad, who had befriended members of the local tong, or benevolent association, and had to study books on Chinese architectural motifs before executing their commissions.

I have a deep fondness for the outmoded, hybrid character of old, Cantonese-dominated Chinatowns like Chicago’s. I love the straightforward names of the businesses—Tasty Place, Hong Kong Noodle Company, May Flower, Go 4 Food, Woks n’ Things—and the kitschy “brush-stroke” typeface on the signs of many businesses, an age-old shorthand for all things “Oriental”:

And yet, despite such eye-catching displays, much of what’s alluring to me in Chinatown is hidden away—small curiosities and pleasures tucked almost out of sight, like these vitrines, displaying an old Quaker saying in English and Chinese, that I noticed near the entrance to the Bowman Funeral Home:

Or the Starlight Market, a cramped Chinese grocery residing inconspicuously in the basement of 211 West 22nd Place:

This store was a marvelous surprise. Though drastically smaller than the suburban Asian mega-markets popping up around many American cities—and a mere speck compared to the great open-air markets of China—the Starlight harbors an incredible variety of goods on its spartan premises: whole butterflied smoked ducks, air-cured sausages, dirt-flecked daikon and lotus roots, rock candy, prawn chips, fresh tripe, and all manner of dried fish (weakfish, threadfin fish, tilapia, croaker), plus a fair few live ones. The whole fluorescent-lit place is infused with the pungent, earthy, briny smell I’ve always associated with produce markets and fishmongers in big-city Chinatowns. It’s a bittersweet aroma, one that reminds me of how down-at-the-heels many inner-city immigrant enclaves have become, and yet it is one of the most life-affirming scents I know.

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