Young business owners aim to reshape Chinatown

Seniors gather at the oldest bakery in Chinatown to get breakfast and chat.

By Tiffany Chen
Medill Reports

Young entrepreneurs are introducing new hotels and big chains like Starbucks in Chicago’s Chinatown. And they’re taking over family businesses. These new ventures are remodeling storefronts and embracing phone apps to draw a new crowd to the neighborhood.

“It’s all part of an image you want to create for the younger generation,” said Matt Chui, the owner of Chui Quon Bakery, the oldest bakery in the neighborhood.

But some longtime residents of Chinatown aren’t fans of these new business models. “That’s something they don’t want to change… and that really puts off the people,” said Chui.

Many of the older residents in Chicago’s Chinatown are immigrants from overseas. They have a different cultural background than Chinese-Americans, and tend to hold on to tradition. Chui says that has created some tension in the community. “[A lot of younger people] are scared to take over the [family] business, because their parents don’t want to change,” said Chui.

Debbie Liu, the Community Development Coordinator of the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, points to development in other Chinatowns across the nation that has had deep — and sometimes detrimental — impacts on the community after new hotels, and mega-corporations were introduced. “There’s lots of case studies that talk about how Chinatowns across the nation have changed,” said Liu.

Some seniors in the community worry the same thing will cause displacement in the Chicago neighborhood, pushing traditional business out and bringing in gentrification.

“It’s inevitable,” said Chui. “The young generation is going to lead the future of Chinatown.” He also says the future of Chinatown depends on the wisdom of the elders. Chui urges his generation to step up and prove their abilities, and he asks the older generation to trust the young.

Photo at top: Seniors gather at the oldest bakery shop in Chinatown every day. Jan. 17, 2018. (Tiffany Chen/MEDILL)