Ms. Yu holds the distinction of being Chicago’s first Asian American broadcast journalist, retiring in 2016 after 34 years as an anchor for ABC-7. She reported extensively from China three times during her career. She co-founded the Chicago Chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association and earned five Chicago Emmy Awards.
Those six letters jumped out at me while reading Lauren Yee’s funny, provocative play, King of the Yees. Seeing that name brought me back to the days when I was a fledging reporter in San Francisco, where the play is set—and served as a reminder of how, over the course of the past century, America’s Chinatowns have nurtured generations who have, in turn, strengthened their larger community, our cities.
I clearly remember that day in 1977 when the I-Hotel eviction began, coupled by a massive demonstration by 3,000 protestors; it marked one of the first times television stations interrupted regularly scheduled programming to follow a live event. The old hotel housed many now-elderly men who had immigrated from the Philippines and China for work—but were never able to marry, because Asian women were prohibited from entering the United States. Over the course of nine very emotional years, activists championed the tenants’ battle to preserve affordable housing in a part of the city where redevelopment and land were becoming increasingly valuable to corporate ventures. The I-Hotel’s location on the edge of San Francisco’s Chinatown drew me into the people and causes within Chinatown itself.
I had arrived in the U.S. before the age of five. Although my Chinese wasn’t fluent, having some knowledge of the language helped me develop an understanding of the perspective of these residents. Prior to this event, Chinatown had simply meant food and family to me—where I went for dim sum, where I could order soup like the kind my mother used to make when I was sick. I didn’t think it odd that most of the big, round tables sat families of 10 to 15. And while tourists liked to take pictures of the whole roasted ducks and chickens hanging in a storefront window, to me it was just a delicious way to shop.
Like other ethnic groups that came to the U.S., the Chinese formed neighborhoods where they had familiar food, markets and places where family gathered. I learned how strong family associations (such as the Yees family association depicted in King of the Yees) developed to counter the discrimination—and sometimes violent racism—faced by Chinese laborers who immigrated to help build the intercontinental railroad. I marveled at the ways they put family first. Family associations had a foundation of people with the same Chinese last name, shared ancestors; they were the social engine of Chinatown, and often the financial support. When a member wanted to open a business, a loan might be arranged and advice and introductions were available. There might also be help to buy a home and educate children. Chinese people also often extended that sense of family to those who came from the same province in China. Many times, I would identify myself to a new Chinese acquaintance by the province in which my father was born; if the person was from that same province, I would be immediately embraced as “cousin!”
The founding of Chicago’s Chinatown has a direct connection to San Francisco’s Chinatown. West Coast Chinese had suffered from acts of discrimination before and after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned all Chinese immigration. “Yellow Peril” spread with fears that the Chinese were taking jobs away from Americans. As violence against the Chinese increased, a man named T.C. Moy set out for the Midwest, where he had heard locals were a bit more open-minded, and established the first Chicago Chinatown at Clark and Van Buren. (The Moys remain a powerhouse Chinatown family today!)
Mr. Moy was soon joined by others, and they thrived, perhaps in part because of the neighborhood’s vicinity to the First Ward—the seat of political power in Chicago, and home to a favorite saloon of Aldermen Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse John” Coughlin. If you needed a job or a political favor, you went to Hinky Dink and Bathhouse John. The Chinese opened businesses right in the neighborhood and became familiar, recognizable faces, with one upscale Chinese restaurant often welcoming politicians as well as Chicago society to learn about the “exotic” Chinese food. This helped bridge the cultural gap and protect immigrants from discrimination. As the Loop became cost prohibitive, On Leong, the Chinatown Association, decided in 1912 to move Chinatown to its current location at 22nd and Cermak Streets.
Shortly after I arrived in Chicago in 1979, I ventured to Chinatown for a story. A Chinese immigrant had fallen ill at her restaurant job and was rushed to a hospital; as she could not speak English, she was unable to tell anyone that her young son was alone in their apartment. It was days before the community organization, the Chinese American Service League (CASL), was contacted and their counselors stepped in. In covering that story, I began to learn about the ways the Chicago Chinatown community and the family associations rallied behind this woman and her child, and I soon became involved (and remain involved today) with organizations like CASL and Asian Human Services.
Last year, a Chicago Tribune article reported that “Chicago’s Chinatown is booming, even as others across the U.S. fade”—highlighting plans for a new library, boathouse, public park, road improvement and a possible new high school in the area. Gentrification has diminished the populations of Chinatowns in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia and New York City. The opposite has happened here: since 2000, the population of Chicago’s Chinatown has increased by 24%, spreading into nearby communities. Immigrants coming to Chicago are choosing to settle in Chinatown, not the suburbs.
I know you will enjoy “Lauren Yee’s” journey through San Francisco’s Chinatown as she discovers a greater understanding of her own heritage and family association in King of the Yees. While my Yu family does not have an association in Chicago’s Chinatown, I still find my way back to help wherever and whenever I can. I am an immigrant, and those strong family and cultural values made me who I am today.
And the food is pretty good, too.