Friday, July 5, 2013

Chinatown, Chicago

 • A Day in Chicago's Chinatown •
Saturday, June 29, 2013

Tea at Little Three Happiness
This particular day trip drew my attention rather strongly to the apparent fact that "Dana Goes to Madrid!" which transitioned into a globe-trotter blog, is now a Midwest travel blog focused in Chicago.  Maybe I should rename it "Dana Goes to the Midwest" and remove the exclamation point.  I think this trip underscored the change because the names "Chinatown" and "China" are so similar.

I had been intending to check out Chinatown as part of my "Chicago is more than the Magnificent Mile" effort for the past few months, and finally found the time to go.  Though it is possible to arrive in Chinatown on the L, I took the metra to McCormick Place and then walked the rest of the way.  Our first stop, even before really entering the heart of Chinatown on Wentworth Avenue, was at the Nine Dragon Wall.  The Nine Dragon Wall is similar to the three walls that each have nine dragons in Beijing.  A plaque in front of the wall explained that the dragon is a symbol of Chinese national spirit and that nine is considered the most prestigious number.  Dragons and these walls were meant to show supremacy of imperial power during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Nine Dragon Wall
Chinatown Gate
As we entered Chinatown's bustling center through the gate of Chinatown, we found ourselves zigzagging through a crowded street lined with too narrow sidewalks.  People constantly bumped into me as if acknowledging that even though there were too many people for the amount of space, that they personally were determined to get through the crowd despite having to push everyone else out of the way.  With a combination of the residents and the shops' workers shoving to get around me, and the tourists meandering like snails, walking down Wentworth Avenue takes some serious patience...not exactly one of my more developed qualities.  To be fair though, walking down Michigan Avenue requires expert tourist dodging/weaving skills as well.  Also, I seem to walk a lot faster than most people regardless of where I go.

As we wove our way through Wentworth Avenue, we stopped into tons of little tchotchke shops which sold little figurines of Chinese women, turtles, smiling Buddhas, and anything else.  One of these shops included the Chinatown Bazaar at 2221 S. Wentworth, but to be honest, the shops are all the same; you can barely distinguish one from the next.  Most shops sold traditional Chinese attire - mostly dresses made from exquisitely patterned fabrics.  Each dress had a theme color, and the pattern complemented it.  Many sold extremely wide, wooden flip flops.  In a few shops, we found plastic purses posing as leather, or really, posing as pleather.  Same with the bedazzled pleather belts. Many fake jade (plastic) bracelets were sold, and a shopkeeper explained to us that jade is considered lucky.  In one store, they had real jade bracelets, similar to those I had seen in Taipei last summer, behind the counter.  Aside from the few bracelets behind the counter, the quality of the purses, belts, jewelry, and shoes seemed really poor just because it was so plasticy...also like some of the merchandise I saw in Taipei.  The emphasis seems to be on quantity, not quality.  Many shops proudly displayed tags on their merchandise that read "Made in China".  Seeing these, I paused for a moment, and smiled, realizing that in Chinatown, "Made in China" tags communicated authenticity.

Plastic "jade" Jewelry
Found this guy in one of the tchotchke shops.
In one shop, I wanted to try on one of the beautiful dresses, and attempted to try one on, when a saleswomen rushed over to me and adamantly explained that I had to be measured first.  Next, another refused to let me try it on over my clothes in front of a mirror.  She made me go to a dressing room and go through the whole ordeal of changing clothes, and stood right outside the dressing room the whole entire time as if she thought I was going to break the dress or something.  Actually, nearly all the workers in the shops watched us intently as we browsed, and it quickly became uncomfortable.  Also, the dress she measured for me did not even come close to fitting; rather, it was both too tight and too loose in different places.

Each store has signs with poems that say things like, "Lovely to look at, Lovely to hold, But if you break it, Consider it sold."  Right after finding one of these signs, we would nearly always find an elaborate, very fragile, very expensive work of art placed precariously on the floor in our walking path.  It almost seemed as if the pieces were placed there in hopes that some unfortunate guest would trip, break something expensive, and become a customer.  Next to these signs and at the entrance of nearly every shop, we found signs forbidding us to take pictures inside.  I'm not sure why they were so worried about pictures, but between being suspiciously watched by the salespeople who mostly didn't speak to us and all these signs, we felt uncomfortable, tired of these tchotchke shops quickly and decided to go to lunch.
Lunch at Little Three Happiness
Satay Beef Ball Dumplings
For lunch, we had dim sum (yes, I know it's a breakfast food) at Little Three Happiness on Cermak.  Later in the day, we learned that eating dim sum is meant to bring people together socially at a meal time.  The portions are small, and you order a lot so that everyone can share.  It's sort of like tapas, but Chinese.  Not really knowing what to order, Ben and I decided to try curry chicken puffs, satay beef ball dumplings, and beef meatballs.  We almost ordered a beef stew, but the server shook her head and informed us that very few customers liked the stew.  The chicken was by far our favorite because it was delicious and because the beef looked ify.

Chicken Curry Puffs

The beef...well, we just couldn't figure out what you had to do to beef to get it to be the color it arrived as (photo below).  It looked completely unappetizing.  Honestly, it tasted fine, but the mental image was really hard to get over.  The chicken on the other hand, wrapped in fried stuff, presented a pleasant surprise of curry flavors that we enjoyed.  Tea customarily is served free of charge with meals, and I noticed that loose tea was used, but there was no little netted basket in the pot to contain the tea leaves.  Instead, the leaves floated from the spout into my teacup, and I had to drink around them.
Beef Meatballs - The color in this photo is real.

After lunch, we learned that the fortune cookie factory, where the guy who writes the fortunes works, was only open from 7 am until 12 pm.  Upon learning this frustrating bit of information, we turned back toward the center of Chinatown, walked through the neighborhood, and visited the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen museum, which displays the life events of the Chinese revolutionary for democracy, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen.

Leaving the one-room museum, we set out for the Chinese-American Museum, which turned out to be the gem of the day.  Looking back, we wished we had visited this museum first because its exhibits and curators explained many customs to us and helped us make sense of what we saw in Chinatown.  The museum staff explained traditions surround the lunar Chinese New Year to us, as well as the holiday about the shepherd and the weaver.

Lychee Smoothie
A documentary on the second floor explained to visitors the difficulties Chinese immigrants faced upon arrival in Chicago.  The film told us that family name associations were formed in which the members would look out for each other when they arrived in the United States.  For example, everyone with the last name "Moy" would belong to one family association while anyone with the last name "Lee" would belong to the Lee association.  Additionally, the video explained to us that dim sum is about interacting and socializing with others.  We learned that many small dishes are ordered so that people can pass them around and share.  It's a way to spend time with family and friends.

Tea Ren Tea and Ginseng Co. of Chicago Ltd.
Satisfied with our visit to the museum, we strolled over to Tea Ren Tea and Ginseng Co. of Chicago Ltd. (quite a name) to check out their loose teas.  To my surprise, they had lychee black tea.  The first time I ate a lychee, I was at a farmers' market in Sa Dec, Vietnam.  A lychee is very sweet, and in small amounts, delicious.  Earlier that day, I had mistakenly decided to order a full-sized lychee smoothie (smoothies and smoothie shops are everywhere and very popular in Chinatown), and it was not good.  It was tooth-rottingly sweet.  They probably added extra sugar.  The woman in the store informed me that the tea wasn't nearly as sweet, and she let me smell it.  I decided to buy a small amount and give it a try.  Later, I tried the tea, and enjoyed the subtle sweetness the lychee added.

Ping Tom Memorial Park
Our feet were getting a little tired, so we decided to relax in Ping Tom Memorial Park for a while before dinner.  The park runs along the river and has a decorative red fence lining a walking platform.  It's really just a nice place to sit outside.  Next week, the dragon boat races will be held here, but we're not able to go back.  Perhaps another year we'll return for the races.  I think the race raises money for charity.

Chinatown Square

After soaking in the sun for a while, we realized we were getting hungry and decided to eat at Lao Sze Chuan, one of the Chef Tony restaurants, in Chinatown Square.  The square is a collection of more tchotchke shops and restaurants built around a central square that has sculptures for all the zodiac symbols.  According to mine, I am graceful, elegant, extremely intelligent, and demanding.  None of the sculptures list any bad qualities; rather, they list positive qualities to varying degrees.  Although, there's some debate about which animal I actually am: snake or dragon.  Because this runs on a lunar calendar, the cutoff is always at a different place in the year, and different sources (these sculptures, Wikipedia, and menus at Chinese food restaurants) place me in each of the two categories.  Wikipedia and my friend Elizabeth say I'm in the dragon group. Everything else that just lists years with no specific dates says I'm in the snake group.
Lamb w/Pure Cumin Powder - Lao Sze Chuan
For dinner, we ordered "Tony's Chicken with Three Chili" and "Lamb w/Pure Cumin Powder", two of the restaurant's specialty dishes.  The chicken had a wonderfully complex, sweet flavor that actually presented three different flavors as you chewed.  The lamb was tasty, but overpowered by the amount of cumin in the dish and too fatty.  Like lunch, we were served complimentary tea right when we sat down, but this time, there was a net to catch the loose tea leaves.  We enjoyed the meal, especially the chicken, and appreciated that we were served with chopsticks.  Pleasantly, no one felt the need to give us forks just because we aren't Asian, and I appreciated that.
Tony's Chicken with Three Chili - Lao Sze Chuan
At dinner we discussed which parts of Chicago to explore next.  Some possibilities include the South Loop, Lincoln Park, the Gold Coast/Magnificent Mile/Streeterville/Near North side area, the Loop, Greektown, West Rogers Park, Little Italy, and anywhere else we think of.  Stay tuned!

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