For Chinese and Chinese-Americans, the word "jia" is not lost in translation. Loosely interpreted, it means family or home, even homeland.
For the Chinese who worked the railroad yards in Chicago in the 1870s and those arriving in the periodic waves of Immigration since, Chicago's Near Southwest Side provided the jia they were seeking.
It still does. The desire for jia remains a key factor for living in Chinatown as today's migration of both Chinese-Americans and immigrants attests.
It also is the reason that a number of Italian families have stayed in the neighborhood. They are descendants of immigrants who settled in the area before being displaced by the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway. Dorothy Albanese, a third generation Italian-American, is one.
"My grandmother left her home to my mother and I grew up here," Albanese said. "And my mother left it to me."
Albanese said most of the Italian-American families live between Wentworth and Princeton Avenues, and from Alexander Street to 24th Place.
"If you want to find Italians [in Chinatown]," she said, "stop at Feida Bakery after 8:30 mass or Chiu Quon [Bakery] after the 9:30," referring to the Sunday morning mass schedule at St. Therese Chinese Catholic Church on West Alexander Street. The promise of custard pie, coffee and conversation entices parishioners to gather at these Wentworth Avenue bakeries.
Still, the majority of the estimated 8,000 residents in Chinatown are of Chinese descent, according to Esther Wong, executive director for the Chinese American Service League (CASL).
The service area for CASL extends into Bridgeport and McKinley Park. "If we include those communities, the population [of residents of Chinese descent on the Near Southwest Side] is closer to 18,000," she said.
"The young professionals wanting to move back to Chinatown want to reconnect with traditional families and their heritage," said Chi Can To, co-executive director of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce.
That desire for connection does not surprise Kam Liu, principal at Kam L. Liu Realty. Liu, a Realtor since the mid-1970s, was one of the first full-time Realtors in Chinatown.
Chinatown's real estate ranges from older, traditional single-family homes to luxurious town homes and condominiums. Its boundaries are as informal as they are dynamic, changing as business areas expand and housing becomes available, and are identified by the language spoken on the street.
Today, the borders are the south branch of the Chicago River on the north, Clark Street to the east, 26th Street on the south and Halsted to the west. The tight housing market has caused Chinese-Americans to move into the adjacent communities of Bridgeport and McKinley Park.
"As a whole, Chinatown is mostly businesses surrounded by housing on the side streets and south of Cermak Road," Liu said. Properties for sale in Chinatown are few, he said adding that families that own their home stay in it for generations or sell it among themselves.
"The preference may be to buy a single-family home, but the cost factor in Chinatown is too great," he said. "So first-time home buyers choose condos."
Amy Mui and her husband, Perry Zhao, are among those first-time condo buyers.
Mui grew up in Chinatown and is accustomed to the accessibility it affords to the rest of the city and the benefits of the community. All played a part in their decision to stay in the area. When friends visit, they shop, go to a restaurant and take photos by Chinatown Gate. "And there's always karaoke," she said.
"We didn't want to leave the neighborhood," Mui added. "The people are very warm here, very nice and caring. I am used to that and want that for my family."
The couple, who have an infant son, bought a two-bedroom unit in the new 60-unit Canal Crossing condominium development at South Canal Street and West 23rd Place.
"Chinatown is a hidden jewel," said See Y. Wong, president and chief executive of Wabash Development Group, developer of Canal Crossing, adding that there are only a handful of developers and builders that work in the Chinese-American community. "We will never overbuild [because] we understand how many [homes and commercial properties] we can sell even in this tough market."
Wong recently completed a two-story, 12,000-square-foot retail center, which is one block south of Canal Crossing and is fully leased. He has a number of projects in the pipeline, including a hotel condominium, the 15-story Grand Imperial Hotel at 2150 S. Clark St. Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin in the spring with completion targeted for 2012.
Accessibility is important, but price still drives the market, according to Sharon Wong, a Chicago Realtor since 2002. "Young couples, retirees and families are buying condos because of the affordable prices and some can afford a town home."
She has a three-bedroom town home listed at $392,000. "That is high for Chinatown," she said.
Buyers want convenience in a neighborhood. For some it is access to schools. For others it is as simple as a nearby dry cleaner, pharmacy or grocery store for daily shopping. All want a safe area, she said.
Senior Services Officer Ruth Singleton of Chicago Police District 21 stresses safety in the programs that she presents to the seniors in Chinatown. Singleton enlists the help of the CASL for her quarterly programs. CASL arranges for a Chinese language interpreter and Singleton provides the presentation. Her programs include street smarts, identity theft and recognizing telephone scams. In addition, monthly police beat meetings are open to all residents.
The Chicago Police Department's incidents report for the area between May 22 and June 4 supports the perception of Chinatown as a safe place to live. It lists four incidents in this two-week period: one aggravated battery, three thefts and one robbery.
Chamber director To says that people are surprised at how many events there are in Chinatown. The Dragon Boat Race for Literacy brings residents and visitors alike to the riverfront. Asian American Heritage Month festivities and the Miss Friendship Ambassador of Chinatown Pageant are celebrated annually. A summer concert series is held at Chinatown Square and the Chinatown Summer Fair is celebrated all along Wentworth Avenue.
Wentworth is the historic street that stretches through commercial Chinatown. It is a magnet for residents and visitors alike. Boba tea shops and teahouses are scattered along both sides of the street. Herbal shops and grocers seemingly alternate with restaurants and alleyways that may or may not have a truck farmer hawking homegrown produce.
With the Chinatown Gate looming at its north end, Wentworth is visible from the Chinatown-Cermak stop on the Red Line, which serves the neighborhood as do two CTA bus routes.
During the summer months, the Chicago Water Taxi putt-putts between Michigan Avenue and Pin Tom Memorial Park. A one-way ticket for a 25-minute ride is $4. If water travel isn't your style, there's a new taxi stand on Wentworth.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun