(2001) 6-10-01

This is an earlier version of an essay entitled “CHINESE LANGUAGE USE IN CHICAGOLAND” which appeared as a chapter in Ethnolinguistic Chicago; Marcia Farr, (ed.). Lawrence Erlbaum Press. 2003. Pp.320-355.


In this chapter I will describe contemporary Chinese language use in the Chicago metropolitan area, referred to locally as “Chicagoland.”  Although Chinese live throughout the Chicagoland area, they focus their activities on, and in many cases live in or near, one of three areas: the older “(South) Chinatown” centered at Wentworth Avenue and Cermak Road (2200 South); the newer Southeast Asian “North Chinatown” centered along Argyle Avenue between Broadway and Sheridan (5000 North) in the Uptown area, and the newer more dispersed communities of professionals in such surrounding suburbs as Westmont, Naperville, Schaumburg and Hanover park, many of which focus primarily on the Di Ho Supermarket complex in Westmont, or similar communities in and around Arlington Heights, Morton Grove and Hoffman Estates. I will first explain the historical and socio-political background which accounts for this tripartite division of the Chicagoland Chinese community, and the corresponding linguistic divisions which correlate with them. I will also explain the historical and linguistic background of the different language and “dialect” variations in China and Southeast Asia which contribute to the linguistic and cultural diversity of the Chicagoland Chinese communities, as well as explaining briefly the nature of the Chinese written language, which both unites and yet sometimes divides them. Having established this historical and linguistic background, I will then specifically examine various facets of Chinese language use in these Chinese communities, specifically which Chinese “dialects” are spoken where and why, the Chinese language media in the area, religious and other specialized literacies, and Chinese language education in Chicagoland.


The present  South Chinatown is an outgrowth of the first Chinese community established in Chicago in the 1880s.  As in most Chinatowns in the U.S.A., the majority of the first Chinese in Chicago came from the Toisan area of Guangdong (Kwangtung) province in south China, and spoke some local variation of the Toisan dialect of Cantonese. The name “Cantonese” popularly refers to the group of related Chinese dialects forming the Yue language sub-family of Chinese because Canton is the English name for Guangzhou (Kuangchou) city, the capital of the southern province of Guangdong (from which the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong was expropriated in 1898) where various dialects of this related sub-family are spoken. As Canton city, and later nearby Hong Kong, were two of the few port cities open to Westerners in the 1800s, Cantonese speakers from this area were among the first to make contact with Americans. Given the chaotic conditions in China at that time — famine, the Taiping Rebellion, and the increasing encroachment of the Western powers on China — Chinese from the Toisan area southwest of Canton city began to emigrate to California, first to attempt to participate in the l848 California gold rush, then as laborers on the western section of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, and on farms and in industry in California. Toisan, a tiny rural district sixty miles southwest of Canton city, was the district most accessible to the sea when U.S. ships came to recruit cheap labor in the mid 1800s. Thus about 86 percent of Chinese–Americans trace their ancestry to Guangdong province, and most to the Toisan district.

Worsening economic conditions and anti-Chinese sentiment in the western U.S. at the end of the 19th century caused some Chinese to take the newly completed railroad eastward looking for employment opportunities and less socially prejudicial conditions. As the terminus of the western railroads and a major industrial center, Chicago was a natural end point for some of these Chinese to settle in their search for better economic and social opportunities. Although the original “Chinatown” at Clark and Van Buren Streets no longer exists, the branch neighborhood established around 1910 on the near south side around the intersection of Wentworth and Cermak (22nd Street) still flourishes and is now considered to be the city’s oldest existing Chinatown and a major residential, shopping, and tourist center. A traditional Chinese memorial arch inscribed with the Chinese characters for Tianxia wei gong (“Public spiritedness rules the world.”) over South Wentworth at Cermak acts as a gateway to South Chinatown; not only the store and restaurant signs but also the street name signs are in both English and in Chinese characters. Since the early l960s residents of this originally seven-square-block area have expanded into the Bridgeport area just south and west of Chinatown, and more recently into the abandoned railroad and industrial areas just to the north and west. Following the historical pattern of immigration based on clan and family connections with others from the same Toisan speaking area of Guangzhou, the majority of the residents of this expanded Chinatown community to this day speak some dialect of Cantonese. There are still a large number of Toisan speakers in Chinatown, but as emigration and immigration from China and other areas of Southeast Asia has become increasingly easier in the last twenty-five years more recent immigrants from Hong Kong, Canton (Guangzhou) city, and other dialect speaking areas have added to the dialect mix, and standard Canton city Cantonese has now become the standard. Despite their long history in the U.S.A., because Toisan is still a relatively impoverished rural area of China, more recent immigrants from the provincial capital of Canton (Guangzhou) city who speak the regional standard will claim that they cannot understand the Toisan dialect, while other recent immigrants from the (since 1997) former British Crown Colony of Hong Kong just to the south, who consider themselves to be much more cosmopolitan, consider their Hong Kong accent and more urbanized slang to be superior to both.

As we shall see, by no means all of the more than forty-three thousand people who identify themselves as “Chinese” on the census forms in the Chicagoland metropolitan area live in South Chinatown. For the historical reasons just described, however, the South Chinatown area continues to be a point of immigration primarily for recent Cantonese-speaking immigrants from China, Hong Kong, and other communities of “Overseas Chinese” resident in Singapore, Malaysia, and other parts of Southeast Asia.  In 1970, there were about 3,100 Chinese in South Chinatown, mostly still concentrated in the core area at the north end of the Armour Square district around Wentworth and Cermak, where they constituted 70.9 percent of the total population in that immediate area. By 1980 the Chinese population had grown to 3,926 and comprised 73.8 percent of the area’s population. In both the 1934 and the 1990 censuses, South Chinatown had 41 percent of the City’s Chinese population. By 1990 a total number of Chinese in the entire Amour Square census area was 5,546, concentrated in the four tracts north of 31st Street, of whom 5,059 stated that they used Chinese at home and 986 stated that they lived in “linguistically isolated households.” In the northernmost census tract immediately around  Wentworth and Cermak Chinese constituted 100 percent of the population, while they constituted 78, 53, and 68 percent of the other three census tracts immediately to the south down to 31st Street.

South Chinatown has also expanded south and west into the northeastern tip of Bridgeport, “with several Chinese developers buying lots and building townhouses heavily marketed to the Chinese community,” with the result that in 1990 “one in six people is Asiatic, practically all Chinese,” giving Bridgeport “the fourth largest Asiatic community in the city.” The population in the two census tracts of Bridgeport immediately bordering Chinatown in 1990 were each 66 percent Chinese, and in the three census tracts bordering them 23, 31 and 26 percent respectively. Every census tract in Bridgeport is at least ten percent Chinese. In the 1990 census, the total number of those in Bridgeport identifying themselves as Chinese was 4,889, with 4,335 using Chinese at home.

In the late 1990s, land in the old Santa Fe railroad yards along the Chicago River just north of Cermak and Archer Avenue was developed into a new “Chinatown Square” shopping and restaurant complex and the fourteen acre new Santa Fe Gardens residential area. In October, 2000 the Chinese American Service League, a social service agency that helps new immigrants, estimated that “about twelve thousand people of Chinese descent live in the Chinatown vicinity.”  With the increasing legal and illegal immigration from the Peoples Republic of China and other Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, and the continuing importance of Chinese speaking communities such as Chicago’s Chinatown for many limited English or non-English speaking immigrants, one can assume that the 2000 census will reveal steady or even increasing numbers for the present and future population of Chinese in these three areas of greater South Chinatown.

For the historical reasons described above, a majority of immigrants to Chicago’s South Chinatown have generally been relatively uneducated, consisting largely of rural or urban working class Cantonese speakers from south China, Hong Kong, or Southeast Asia. Because of this, until recently the adult population of the South Chinatown area was relatively undereducated. In 1980, the median years of school completed among those over age 25 was 10.4 years, compared to a Cook county average of 12.46 years of schooling.  Correspondingly, there is a lack of English skills in South Chinatown. In 1980, of 992 Chinese aged 5-17 years, almost 92 percent indicated that they “spoke a language other than English” (i.e. Chinese, usually Toisan Cantonese) and over 24 percent of them indicated that they did “not speak English well, if at all.” Among the 3,571 who were 18 years of age or older, almost 98 percent “spoke a language other than English in the home,” and over 50 percent reported that they or others in their home spoke English poorly, if at all.  By 1990, almost 17 percent of households in South Chinatown were linguistically isolated from the surrounding English speaking community. More than 60 percent of the Chinese in the area who were above five years of age “do not speak English very well.” If international immigration continues to provide a large part of the rising growth rate of the Chinese population in Chicago, then there is little reason to expect that these figures declined in the decade since 1990, or that they will decline in the first decade of the new century.

Racial discrimination and anti-Chinese exclusion laws effectively blocked any significant additional immigration of Chinese to the U.S.A. from 1882 through 1943. Laws against the immigration of Chinese women combined with anti-miscegenation laws and social prejudices against intermarriage on the part of both whites and Chinese prevented the development of any significant class of second and third generation Chinese-Americans more assimilated and integrated into the “mainstream” of American society. Thus, many second and third generation Chinese residing in the Chinatown area continued to be functionally bilingual, at least orally, as opposed to the pattern of language loss over the generations usually encountered with European immigrant families during that time period. At the same time, from their very beginnings in Chicago, many Chinese families had dispersed themselves throughout the city, initially in order to maximize the opportunities for their small owner-operated laundry and restaurant businesses, the two service occupations in which they suffered no competition. With the final repeal of the Exclusion Laws in 1943, and the flood of refugees from the Nationalist-Communist civil war after the end of World War II (1945-1950), the overall Chinese population of Chicago doubled from three thousand to six thousand, and some Chinese families began to move to the newly developing post WWII suburban areas in and around the City of Chicago proper.

This new possibility of immigration to the U.S. and special provisions in the immigration law for family reunification allowed the existing Chinese community in Chicago to expand and stabilize, while the communist “takeover” of the mainland of China in 1949-50 caused a major influx of new immigrants, not only of rural and working class relatives from the traditional Toisan area of Guangdong province in south China, but also of a totally other new group of primarily affluent and educated (usually U.S. or European educated), English speaking immigrants dispossessed by the communist revolution.  This later group came from all over China, speaking a variety of other Chinese languages and dialects, but almost all were literate, educated, and fluent in the national standard language of China, commonly known in English as “Mandarin (Chinese).” These other affluent, educated, English-speaking educated Chinese generally avoided their Cantonese speaking cousins in Chinatown, except for occasional forays in from other parts of Chicago or the suburbs to shop for Chinese foodstuffs or to visit more authentic Chinese restaurants.

We should explain here that the family of related languages spoken by Han Chinese all over mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong is usually divided by linguists into eight major sub-families of mutually unintelligible spoken languages (“regionolects” or  “topolects”), which are then subdivided into numerous related “dialects.” It must be stressed that the various sub-families of the Chinese languages, and even some “dialects” of the same language sub-family, are mutually unintelligible, although the shared written Chinese characters are at least in principle intelligible to all who are literate enough to read them. “Mandarin” Chinese is a standard national language “Guoyu” (Kuo-yü), created in the 1920s after the “May Fourth Movement” of 1919. It is based on the dialect of Beijing (“Peking”), the traditional “northern capital” of China, from which scholar-officials or “Mandarins” ruled all over China in the emperor’s name until the fall of the last emperor of the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty in 1911. Technically speaking, the English term “Cantonese” should only be used to refer to the regional standard dialect of Canton (Guangzhou) city, and the term Yue used for the larger sub-family of dialects (e.g., Toisan dialect, Hong Kong dialect, etc.) related to it.

Although it was not as severely isolated as the Chinatown ghettos on the U.S. west coast in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nevertheless limited English skills and a general feeling of racial prejudice combined with a distrust and ignorance of the surrounding white community did serve to keep Chicago’s South Chinatown community to a certain extent socially and linguistically isolated at least through the first half of the 20th century. The primarily working-class and small business Chinese population of South Chinatown and the adjacent areas continued to conduct their daily affairs in Cantonese and to read and support Chinese newspapers in Chicago as well as from New York and California. Their community business and social organization in the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and in the local branches of the two major “tongs” or merchants’ associations which until recently dominated all of America’s Chinatowns, the On Leong Tong and the Hip Sing Tong (many of whose leaders did not speak English), was also conducted entirely in Toisan Cantonese. The few part time Chinese classes offered by these associations or by the Protestant and Catholic churches in Chinatown served only to attempt to give minimal literacy in Chinese characters to children and adult illiterate native speakers of Cantonese.


The class of educated, Mandarin-speaking refugees from communism were the vanguard of the second group of Chinese in the Chicagoland area. The majority of these and those who followed them now live scattered throughout the city and in such surrounding suburbs as Wesmont, Naperville and Schaumberg, focusing many of their activities on the DiHo Supermarket complex in the suburb of Westmont, or in other suburbs around Chicago such as Arlington Heights, Morton Grove and Hoffman Estates, which have developed similar but smaller shopping areas catering to the Asian immigrant community.  Initially many of these refugees dispersed themselves throughout the major urban areas of the U.S, usually based on their professional or business opportunities. As they integrated into American society they spoke their family dialect and/or Mandarin only at home or with Chinese friends, while speaking English at work and elsewhere. Starting in the 1950s and 60s, this more educated and affluent group continued their strong tradition of education for their children by encouraging them to enter U.S. colleges and universities to prepare for careers in medicine, dentistry, or engineering, science and technology. This pattern naturally gave rise to the more commonly encountered American immigrant phenomenon that their children became fluent, literate and educated in English, with some having a passive knowledge of the oral Mandarin or Shanghainese or whatever Chinese language was spoken by their parents and grandparents at home, but only as a  “kitchen language,” in a pattern similar to other second generation children of European immigrants to Chicago.

After 1950, when diplomatic relations between Communist “Red China” and the United States were severed and anti-communism flourished, there was virtually no immigration from the newly established Peoples Republic (PRC) on the mainland of China, and only a little from Hong Kong and Taiwan. From the early 1950s through 1965, the few immigrants from the latter two places consisted primarily of either relatives of Hong Kong Chinese already in the U.S., or additional refugees from mainland China who had fled across the southern border to the tiny British Crown Colony (leased from China until 1997) or across the Taiwan Straits with Chiang Kai-shek’s retreating Nationalists to the island of Taiwan (“Formosa”), which had been reclaimed by Nationalist China in 1945 after fifty years of Japanese occupation. These immigrants to the Chicagoland area largely followed the settlement and linguistic patterns outlined just above. However, changes in immigration policy passed by Congress in 1965 replaced the quotas which had for more than eighty years severely restricted immigration of Chinese and other Asians to the U.S. with equal quotas for each country. These new policies also gave preference to Asian immigrants with professional skills or those wishing to unite with their families. In addition, beginning in the mid-1960s, increasingly large numbers of college graduates from Taiwan and Hong Kong began coming for post-graduate study at American universities, and – under liberalized immigration laws – staying on as immigrants working in the expanding U.S. economy, and later bringing over their relatives to join them in the U.S.A.

After graduating with Master’s or doctoral level degrees in science and technology, these U.S. educated Chinese immigrants and other professionally trained immigrants from Taiwan followed the earlier refugees of the 1950s, working and residing either in Chicago itself or in the rapidly expanding belt of technology firms in the surrounding suburbs. While using English in the workplace and speaking Mandarin or Taiwanese at home, the increasingly large numbers of these families began to form social bonds and loose social communities in the suburban areas. While encouraging their children to become fluent and educated in English in preparation for college and university study as described above, many of these educated families also desired to preserve their families’ Chinese linguistic and cultural heritage. To this end they established Chinese heritage language schools in an attempt to promote their children’s education in the Chinese national language, Mandarin, both in speaking and in reading and writing. In the Chicagoland area,, as elsewhere in the U.S., the majority of  “Saturday schools” for these “heritage language learners” are supplied with Chinese language teaching materials by the offices of the government of the Republic of China on Taiwan in downtown Chicago. The schools are usually staffed by volunteer parents with teaching experience in Taiwan, and supported by a local Chinese community or a Chinese Christian church congregation for the children of their parishioners. The Taiwan government also subsidizes teacher training workshops and conferences as well as summer language camps in the Midwest and in Taiwan for students in these programs.

The Republic of China, which relocated to the island of Taiwan in 1949 after the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist party by the Chinese communists on the Chinese mainland, had superimposed a population of slightly over one million Mandarin and other dialect speaking mainland Chinese refugees from all over China onto an existing population of ten million ethnic Taiwanese speakers , who had been ruled by Japan and educated in Japanese for fifty years. Taiwanese is a dialect of Fujianese (“Fukienese”) belonging to the Southern Min (Min Nan) language sub-family of Chinese, also spoken in the adjacent mainland province of Fujian (Fukien), whence Chinese speakers of this dialect had emigrated to Taiwan beginning in the 1600s. During the fifty years of Japan’s occupation of the island (1895-1945), all education was in Japanese, and the Chinese national language was not taught. After Taiwan’s retrocession to China in 1945, Mandarin Chinese began to be taught in Taiwan’s schools, but Taiwanese continues to be spoken at home by the majority of the population, and much scientific work and business continued to be conducted in Japanese by the older generation through the 1970s. In addition, the forced imposition of the exiled Nationalist government onto the ethnic Taiwanese majority compounded tensions between the two ethnic groups to the extent that intermarriage was initially infrequent, and the two groups remained and continue to remain separate. This pattern to some extent continues in the social patterns of the two groups of immigrants from Taiwan in the U.S. That is, religious and social groupings tend to be segregated between Taiwanese speakers and Mandarin speaking descendants of mainland refugees, although both groups are fluent in the national language, Mandarin. Although separate social and religious activities may be conducted in these two different Chinese languages by the two different immigrant groups, nevertheless the Chinese language Saturday schools organized by both groups teach their children only the national language, just as is done in the educational system in Taiwan. With the passage of time and in the immigrant situation, some of the inter-ethnic tensions between the two groups have begun to diminish, and when they interact they will speak either Mandarin or English. (More details on the present status of these Chinese language Saturday schools will be given below.)


After the fall of Saigon in 1975 many ethnic Chinese resident in Vietnam for generations, who were mostly business people and thus considered “capitalist,” were expelled by the new communist government or fled as “boat people.” After their immigration to the U.S. many of these Southeast Asian ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam or other countries in Indo-China were sponsored or assisted by Chinese communities in the U.S. The majority of these ethnic Chinese refugees from Indo-China were “overseas Chinese” originally from the coastal province of Fujian (just north of Guangdong province, opposite the island of Taiwan), who in addition to their own Chaozhou (“Teochew”) or “Hokkien” (Fukien) dialects of Fujianese, had also learned Cantonese and/or Mandarin in order to conduct their businesses. (Until 1975, the Chinese in Vietnam, especially those in the Cholon section of Saigon, had their own Chinese newspapers and school system in which spoken and written Mandarin were taught as a second language.)

In Chicago in the mid 1970s these Southeast Asian refugees joined a second smaller Chinese community which had relocated to the Uptown area when the remnants of the original downtown Chicago Chinatown at Clark and Van Buren Streets was cleared to build the new Metropolitan Correctional Center. Argyle Street between Broadway and Sheridan began to be known as North Chinatown, as many Southeast Asian Chinese refugees opened Chinese stores and Chinese or Vietnamese restaurants and many purchased homes in that area. Upon first arrival they were supported by various public and private social service agencies. While the On Leong Tong Merchant’s Association at that time remained in South Chinatown, the rival Hip Sing Tong moved its headquarters to Argyle Street and encouraged development in the area.  Similarly, while the Chinese American Service League opened as a new federal and state funded social service agency in South Chinatown, the similarly funded Chinese Mutual Aid Association and other similar agencies for refugees from Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries located their headquarters in or near this burgeoning new “North Chinatown.” The CTA elevated train stop which visually dominates Argyle Street now sports a Chinese style red and green roof and rivals the Chinese memorial arch over Wentworth Avenue at Cermak Road in South Chinatown. These social services agencies both serve the immigrant community in their own languages and dialects, and also offer classes in English, citizenship, and other useful topics taught in Chinese and Vietnamese.  As in Vietnam and the other Southeast Asian countries whence they had come, these families may speak the Chaozhou or Hokkien dialects of Fujianese at home and in their social groups, but in doing business they can usually also speak some Mandarin and/or Cantonese, and often the non-Chinese language of their country of origin (Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Thai, Burmese, Malay, etc.) Like their Cantonese speaking counterparts in South Chinatown, however, those who are literate in Chinese do read American Chinese newspapers published in Chicago or in New York or California, and watch videos either in Cantonese or Mandarin. In 1990 In the Uptown census area surrounding North Chinatown, 1,678 people identified themselves as Chinese of whom 1,404 said they used Chinese at home.  In the Edgewater area immediately to the north, 1632 identified themselves as Chinese, with 1,519 using Chinese at home, and in the neighboring Rogers Park and West Ridge census areas just to the north and west of Edgewater, the figures were 788 Chinese with 722 using Chinese at home, and 1,268 Chinese with 1,242 using Chinese at home, respectively.

Under the 1965 immigration law, each country in the eastern hemisphere with which the United States has diplomatic relations was given a quota of twenty thousand immigrants a year, not including family members of those already in the U.S. In 1979 the United States established full diplomatic relations with the Peoples Republic on the mainland of China and three years later in 1982 the PRC was also given a similar quota. Since that time, the greatest number of arrivals of Chinese in the U.S.A have been from mainland China. Relatives in Toisan and elsewhere in South China of Cantonese speakers from China and Hong Kong already in the U.S., plus other Cantonese and Fujianese speaking Chinese from south China, both legal and illegal, have tended to follow the well-beaten path to America’s Chinatowns, including Chicago’s, for the usual reasons of family connections, familiarity, limited English skills, etc. These new arrivals from “Communist China,” not being connected through or schooled in traditional Chinese family ties because of the deliberate destruction of such institutions by the Chinese communist government, contribute to the swelling of the two Chinatowns’ populations, but do not always participate in the traditional Chinatown social structures, which have begun to erode in recent years. Strauss (1998: 108) notes that because of the increased immigration to Chinatown of speakers from Hong Kong and other parts of South China and Southeast Asia, the “Chinatown lingua franca” after the 1970s has shifted from the Toisanese dialect of Cantonese to a more standard Guangzhou Cantonese. It is estimated that twenty years ago, ninety percent of new immigrants to the Chinatown area spoke Cantonese, but that today only half of the new residents speak Cantonese, the remainder speaking some other Chinese dialect, with Mandarin as a first or second dialect. Printed signs in stores and restaurant menus are usually written bilingually in Chinese and English as are official governmental public notices, while handwritten signs and publicly posted notices such as apartments for rent and job advertisements are handwritten in Chinese only.

Both Chinatowns now provide a wide variety of services in Chinese directed at Chinese speaking clientele. Public and private Chinese-run enterprises such as stores, travel agencies, driving schools, law offices, doctors, social service agencies and banks all employ staff who speak Cantonese and whatever other Chinese language or dialect local customers are likely to speak: Mandarin, Chaozhou, and Fujianese. The banking slips and materials in the Chinatown branches of various banks are printed in both Chinese and English. The Chicago Chinese Yellow Pages telephone book, updated yearly, contains over two hundred pages of listings and advertisements in Chinese and English for a wide variety of goods and services in the Chicagoland area, plus an additional 120 pages of similar material for Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Ohio. Nevertheless, the common language and cultural background which these new immigrants share with those already in Chicago’s two Chinatowns and the public and private social services located there do continue to provide a cultural “bridge” for these immigrants, as they did for the Southeast Asian refugees in the l970s.

A smaller number of “long lost” relatives of those refugees who had fled (often through Taiwan) from other parts of mainland China in the early 1950s now join their more educated Mandarin speaking Chinese relatives in the Chicago suburbs. As with the Taiwanese in the l970s, however, the majority of educated immigrants from the Peoples Republic of China come on student visas for post-graduate study in the U.S., usually graduating with degrees in engineering, computer science or accounting from the University of Chicago, Northwestern, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Illinois Institute of Technology, or other Chicago area or U.S universities. They then follow the path pioneered by the Taiwanese to the many “high tech” companies located in the suburbs surrounding the City of Chicago. As college educated speakers of Mandarin, while in graduate school they coexist with their fellow graduate students from Taiwan, whom they now outnumber, occasionally forming superficial friendships, but more often remaining separated by more than half a century of political differences, suspicion, and economic and cultural differences. (Generally speaking, students from mainland China, Hong Kong, and the two different language communities from Taiwan – native Taiwanese and “Mainlanders” – have separate social organizations on U.S. campuses and do not socialize across group boundaries. These social separations tend to continue after graduation for those who stay in the U.S.) In recent years, many of these American-educated immigrants have also sought employment and moved to Chicagoland’s surrounding suburbs after graduation, and like the Taiwanese before them, they have now set up their own separate part-time Saturday schools (called “Xilin Chinese Language Schools”) for their children, assisted by the Chicago consulate of the Peoples Republic and staffed by volunteer teachers with a teaching background from among their number.

With the opening up of American society to its economically deprived ethnic “minorities,” residents of Chicago’s two “Chinatowns,” including some of the newer immigrants who have been successful, have begun to send their children for higher education and they or their children have begun to move to other areas of the city or to the suburbs. Beyond the boundaries of the City of Chicago proper there is a continuation of this pattern of dispersion. By 1980 there were nine cities, towns and villages in the remainder of Cook County with more than one hundred residents identifying themselves as Chinese; the largest was Skokie Village, which had 721 Chinese in 1980. In Dupage County there were four cities or towns with more than one hundred Chinese. Lake Country had just over a thousand Chinese, and Kane, McHenry and Will Counties each had fewer than three hundred Chinese residents apiece in 1980. In contrast, by 1990 there were 21 cities, towns and villages in Cook County beyond the Chicago City limits with more than one hundred Chinese residents each. The largest was still Skokie, followed by the City of Evanston.  In Dupage County there were fifteen cities or towns with more than one hundred Chinese and over one thousand Chinese residents living in the western suburb of Naperville.

The 1990 U.S. Census shows that the 49,936 Chinese living in Illinois gives Illinois the sixth largest

Chinese population of any state in the union, and the largest concentration of Chinese (as well as of many other Asian groups) in the Midwest.  More than forty-three thousand  (86 percent) of Illinois Chinese live in the Chicagoland area.  In the 1960s and 70s the rate of growth of the Chinese population in the Chicagoland area surpassed the increase of Chinese in the United States as a whole. Between 1960 and 1970, the U.S. Chinese population almost doubled, growing from 237,292 to 435, 062. During the same time interval the Chicagoland Consolidated Metropolitan Statistical Area (CMSA) Chinese population grew from 5,289 to 12,653, a per annum increase of 9.11 percent. As a result, the proportion of all Chinese living in the Chicagoland CMSA rose from 2.23 to 2.91 percent of the total population in the area between l960 and 1970. While the rapid growth of the Chicagoland Chinese community slowed to 6.94 percent a year in the 1970 to 1980 decade, it was still higher than the overall U.S. Chinese growth rate of 6.34 percent. By 1980, the Chicagoland  Chinese community included 3.01 percent of all the Chinese in the U.S.A.

Since 1950 the Chinese population in the City of Chicago proper has increased, as opposed to the general trend towards suburbanization of the population in northern Illinois and most other metropolitan areas in the U.S. over that time. While Chicago proper lost about two percent of its overall population to the suburbs during the 1950-60 period, its Chinese population grew by 74 percent. In the following decade the City of Chicago lost another five percent of its total population, while its Chinese population again grew by 84 percent.  In the following decade between 1970 and 1980 the City proper lost an additional ten percent of its population, while the Chinese population doubled, standing at 13,638 in the City (and 24,755 in the overall CMSA) by 1980.  As a result of these demographic changes, the proportion of Chinese in Chicago’s total population rose six-fold from 1940 to 1980, increasing from 0.1 to 0.6 percent of the City’s population. However, during the 1980-1990 decade, the total population in the City of Chicago as a whole has been increasing at a rate of 7.63 percent, while the Chinese population within the City grew only at a rate of 5.80 per year. On the other hand, the rate of Chinese population growth in the suburban regions of the Chicago CMSA (6.68 percent per year) grew faster than that in Chicago City (5.04 percent per year). This shows an increasing trend of diverging settlement and suburbanization of the Chicagoland Chinese population as they become more affluent and educated.

The educational level of Chinese living in the Chicagoland area continues to improve. Recent immigrants from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are better educated than previous immigrants due to a gradual improvement in economic and educational conditions in those places. In addition, of course, many legal immigrants to the U.S. who do not have relatives here must demonstrate professional expertise, which presupposes a high level of education. By 1990, most Chinese in South Chinatown had achieved either basic schooling (nine years) or some middle level schooling (nine to twelve years). But in 1990 in the core South  Chinatown area (census tracts 3402, 3403 and 3404) only 12.7, 20.3, and 25.3 percent respectively of the Chinese living there had obtained a Bachelor’s degree or higher, which was far lower than the same figure for Cook County in the same time period (46.5 percent). This is possibly accounted for by the continuing immigration into the South Chinatown area of more relatively undereducated people, and the out-migration to the suburbs of those who have become more educated noted above. In contrast to the overall figure of 46.5 percent of college graduates in cook County just cited, in Evanston, where many Chinese reside, 77.9 percent of the population have Bachelor’s degrees or higher, and in Skokie, another high Chinese residency area, the figure for college graduates is 51.2 percent. Similarly, suburban Chinese report a much higher level of English proficiency: the proportion of the population of Chinese over age seventeen who are reported as “not speaking English well” ranges from a low of only 2.6 percent in the far south suburb of South Holland to a high of 32.9 percent in the nearby northwest suburb of Norridge. Given that international immigration has and likely will continue to provide a large portion of the U.S. Chinese population, there is little reason to expect these figures to decline in the 2000 census or in the first decade of the 21st century.

The increasing influx of Chinese speaking immigrants particularly into the Chicago City public schools has necessitated the development of special bilingual education programs for these children. (Federal and State law require that schools having a certain number of non-English speakers from one language background must provide instruction in that language. Because of this, four of the elementary schools in the South Chinatown area (Haines, Healy, Sheridan and James Ward) provide bilingual education classes in Chinese. In practice this means Cantonese, and in more recent years Mandarin for children from other Chinese speaking areas.  In addition, the Kelly and Curie High Schools adjacent to South Chinatown also provide similar bilingual education classes in Chinese. In support of these efforts, the Office of Language and Cultural Education of the Chicago Board of Education makes available a “Chinese Language and Culture Curriculum” produced by the Illinois State Board of Education, as well as a 294 page “Chinese Heritage Curriculum Resource Guide.” In addition, St. Therese elementary school run by the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago in the heart of South Chinatown also provides similar bilingual education instruction, as well as Chinese language and culture classes. English as a Second Language and other classes for adults are provided by two state and federally funded social agencies, the Chinese American Service League in South Chinatown and the Chinese Mutual Aid Association in North Chinatown and in Westmont, as well as by some smaller church affiliated groups.


Mention has already been made of the part time “heritage” or “Saturday schools” set up by educated immigrant parents from Taiwan and the similar Xilin Saturday schools more recently set up by educated immigrant parents from mainland China for their respective children. Both of these types of schools, as well as a few similar ones set up in the Chinatown communities, are supported either by the government offices of the Republic of China on Taiwan in Chicago, or the consular offices of the government of the Peoples Republic on the mainland of China, depending on the origin of the group running the school. As we have noted, in the suburbs, the language of instruction and the object of study is spoken and written Mandarin Chinese, the official national language of both governments. In the few Chinatown schools, the language of instruction may be Cantonese, at least at the beginning levels, but the ultimate object is still literacy in standard Chinese and some command of Mandarin Chinese, which is everywhere considered to be the national standard, and also useful for business dealings with Chinese from the suburbs and elsewhere.

One significant difference between the Saturday schools run by Taiwanese or Hong Kong immigrants vs. the newer Xilin Chinese language schools supported by the Peoples Republic lies in the type of Chinese characters which are taught and in which the materials supplied are printed. While both governments (and the Hong Kong educational system as well) recognize Mandarin Chinese as the official national language of China, there is in fact a small but significant difference between the “old style” Chinese characters used to write and print modern Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong (even after 1997) vs. the new style “simplified characters” used to write and print Chinese in the Peoples Republic. In the 1950s, in an attempt to facilitate widespread literacy throughout the mainland of China, the newly established government and educational authorities of the Peoples Republic undertook to “simplify” the printed and written forms of about forty percent of the traditional Chinese character forms. Note that the thousands of different characters used to print and write Chinese are not alphabetic, but rather (for simplicity’s sake) they may be thought of as part “ideographic” and part “phonetic,” having evolved out of ancient pictographs and ideographs. They often require writing quite a number of complex strokes in small box-like shapes, one separate character for each syllable of a spoken word. In the early 1950s the educational leaders of the newly established government of the Peoples Republic of China researched and then promulgated a number of simplified forms of many of the traditional Chinese characters, abandoning the older forms still used by Chiang Kai-shek’s refugee government on Taiwan, in Hong Kong, and in all the overseas Chinese communities throughout the world, as well as in Western universities teaching Chinese. To repeat, although the Chinese characters are in fact not alphabetic, the resulting simplification was sumwat unalogus tu raiting Ingliš dis wey, confusing to the uninitiated used to the traditional English writing system, but transparent to native speakers willing to make the effort to adjust to it.

Unfortunately, but perhaps understandably, this attempt to “simplify” the burden of learning thousands of complex shapes in order to facilitate the education of millions of illiterate Chinese was taken by the exiled government on Taiwan and by many other refugees from China to be a “Communist plot,” a deliberate attempt to cut off China’s people from thousands of years of traditional Chinese culture and values. Thus materials printed in the new simplified Chinese characters were for many years banned in Taiwan and in the United States, and simplified characters were not taught outside the Peoples Republic, except as a variation to be learned by a few specialists doing intelligence work on Communist China.

After the Peoples Republic replaced the Republic of China (Taiwan) in the United Nations in the l970s, technically these simplified characters became the international standard, but in fact habit and years of social and political prejudice have prevented Chinese communities outside of mainland China from adopting them. Therefore all Chinese newspapers printed in the U.S.A, in Hong Kong, and in most of the overseas Chinese communities whence Chinese immigrants to the U.S. have come do not use these P.R.C. simplified characters. However, the new Xilin heritage language schools established throughout the Chicagoland area are provided by the PRC consulate with teaching materials written in these simplified characters, which Chinese from other Chinese communities in Taiwan and even (until recently) Hong Kong cannot or will not read. One irony little commented on is that all Chinese newspapers and magazines printed in the U.S. (as well as all imported from Taiwan and most from Hong Kong) are printed in the “old style” Chinese characters. Most immigrant Chinese from mainland China who continue to read the American Chinese press (including the parents of children in the Xinlin schools) quickly accustom themselves to reading the older forms of the characters, primarily because they often find materials from PRC boring or propagandistic. A second irony is that many of these same PRC immigrant parents continue to insist that the heritage language schools their children attend teach the new “simplified” characters presently used only in the Peoples Republic, even though they themselves have quickly accustomed themselves to reading the traditional old style characters still used in all U.S. Chinese publications, in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and throughout most of the overseas Chinese communities throughout the world.

The 1998-99 Chicago Chinese Yellow Pages lists 33 Chinese language schools, eight in South Chinatown, one in North Chinatown and twenty-one in the Chicagoland suburbs, not counting the five additional Xilin Chinese language schools in Chicago and the suburbs run by mainland Chinese immigrants for their children. As noted above, regardless of whether these “heritage language schools” are run by groups of parents, churches, or other Chinese social groups and whatever the home dialect of the parents (Cantonese, Taiwanese, Mandarin), all of these schools, like all schools in mainland China, Taiwan, and now Hong Kong, teach standard spoken and written Mandarin Chinese, the recognized national language of China.  In addition, beginning in 1999 the Chicago Public Schools implemented teaching Chinese and Japanese in four elementary and seven high schools. The four elementary schools which offer Mandarin Chinese are Bell, Healy, McCormick and Solomon. The eight high schools which offer Mandarin are Clemente, Curie, Jones, Juarez, Kelly, Lindbloom, Northside College Preparatory, Payton College Preparatory, and Whitney Young.

In recent years conflict has arisen in some New York and San Francisco area Chinese language programs. These programs originally catered primarily to the children of immigrants from Taiwan, but since the mid-1990s increasingly include the children of the more recent immigrants from the Peoples Republic. Emotional conflicts have therefore arisen between the two groups of parents about whether old style traditional Chinese characters or the new “simplified” characters should be taught in those suburban public schools and even some of the private programs attended by children of both groups.  The number of different heritage language schools dispersed throughout the Chicagoland area, each tailored to the needs and desires of its sponsors, may explain the absence of such conflicts here at least up to the present, but they perhaps may be anticipated in the near future.

The American born Chinese children (“ABCs”) of the earlier more educated, primarily suburban immigrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong are, as noted above, fluent and educated in English, and – if they attend such part time heritage language “Saturday school” programs at all as children – they often tire of them in their teen-age years or become involved in other more “mainstream” American activities. As the well-educated children of suburban professionals, they usually hope to attend the more prestigious American colleges and universities within Illinois or throughout the nation, and are welcomed as members of a “model minority” by such institutions. Thus, college students from Taiwanese or Mandarin speaking families in the suburbs, if they do not go out of state, often attend the University of Chicago, Northwestern, or the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. The minority of these students who have completed one of the heritage language programs through the high school level may either “test out” of their college level foreign language requirement using Mandarin Chinese if their speaking and writing ability is adequate, or may at least place into second or third year level Mandarin classes by examination. On the other hand, those children of more recent adult immigrants (who are in fact immigrants themselves) and who are usually Cantonese speakers who often live in or near one of the two Chinatown areas within the city are more likely to attend local institutions such as Roosevelt University or the University of Illinois at Chicago within the City itself.  As with other “heritage language speakers” of Spanish, Polish, Hindi, Russian, etc. in the Chicago area and increasingly throughout the nation, if they have some level of spoken fluency in Cantonese, but no real command of Mandarin or of the written language, they present a special problem in terms of their college foreign language placement. On the U.S. west coast and in Hawaii such cases are sufficiently numerous that they are often handled, at least in the larger public universities, the same way non-literate speakers of Mexican Spanish are handled in Illinois: they are put in special “heritage language learner” sections separate from non-native speakers and taught literacy and standard grammar and usage on an accelerated track designed especially for them. As the number of such Chinese students in Chicago is not as numerous as in San Francisco, Los Angeles or Honolulu, and the total number of students, both Chinese and non-Chinese, wishing to study Mandarin is not large, special arrangements must be made for them to satisfy their college foreign language requirement using either Cantonese or Mandarin Chinese.


Turning now to the question of literacy in Chinese in the various Chicagoland Chinese speaking communities, we must first examine the concept of “literacy” in the Chinese context, as well as the linguistic concept of differing types of “literacies” in a language community. It should be recalled again that the system of Chinese characters is not alphabetic, but rather that each syllable in a Chinese spoken word is represented by a different Chinese character; most characters are usually part “ideographic,” — that is, suggestive of the syllable’s general meaning — and another part, which is often suggestive of the spoken word’s pronunciation at some time in the far past. The problem is compounded in that every one of the thousands of characters has a differing pronunciation in each of the hundreds of “dialects” of the various Chinese language families and regionalects. The 20th century solution to this age-old Chinese problem is that (1) “Mandarin” Chinese (based on the dialect of Beijing (Peking), the national capital) has since the 1920s been recognized by all parties as the standard “National Language” (Guoyu), and (2) since that time modern Chinese has been written using Chinese characters, but in a literary style which approximates that new spoken standard. This has meant that Chinese newspapers (themselves basically a 20th century import) are in principle intelligible to all sufficiently literate Chinese, regardless of the Chinese language or dialect which they speak.

The State Language Commission of the Peoples Republic of China has determined that a person knowing approximately 3755 Chinese characters can read ninety percent of the characters normally occurring in ordinary newspapers, magazines and other commonly encountered printed matter. A knowledge of 6763 Chinese characters allows one to read approximately ninety-nine percent of such commonly encountered printed material. Given the need to learn to recognize and write thousands of different characters, combined in different ways in different (spoken) words, it is perhaps easy to see why non-literacy or only functional semi-literacy restricted to one’s immediate needs (e.g., business accounting, etc.) was and is rampant in China. The governments of the Peoples Republic of China on the Chinese mainland and the Republic of China on Taiwan are to be congratulated for their great strides in promoting both Mandarin as the standard national language and at least minimal literacy in Chinese characters among many of China’s 1.4 billion people,  but it is also easy to understand how the Chinese character literacy of immigrants to the U.S.A. may vary greatly, depending on the educational and regional background of the people in question.

As noted above, educated first generation immigrants to Chicago’s Chinatowns and suburbs who are literate in Chinese continue to read Chinese newspapers, but most prefer to read Chinese newspapers printed in the U.S. In the Chicagoland area, Chinese read either the Midwestern editions of several U.S-wide Chinese papers printed in New York or California and/or one or more of several Chinese papers printed in Chicago. The most popular national Chinese paper is the Shijie Ribao or “World Daily News,” which keeps local reporters in Chicago, carries national and local financial news and prints primarily advertisements from Chicago Chinese businesses in its Midwestern U.S. edition (circulation: 50,000 in the Midwest). It is the only Chinese newspaper sold on the street in vending boxes in the two Chinatowns, near those of Chicago’s major universities which many Chinese foreign students attend, and in the Chinese stores and supermarket complexes in the suburban Chicagoland area. Like most other U.S. Chinese newspapers it carries national and international news of particular interest to the Chinese community, and now may be said to have a more or less neutral political position with regard to internal Chinese politics. It also has an associated weekly news and feature magazine, Shijie Zhoukan or “World Weekly.”  A second national Chinese newspaper popular in the Chicagoland area is the Qiao Bao or “Overseas Chinese Daily,” founded in 1991, briefly published in Chicago, and now relocated to New York. This paper, with a Midwest circulation of ten thousand copies, is similar in coverage to the World Daily News, but tends to lean more towards a viewpoint compatible with that of the Peoples Republic. A third less popular national paper is the Xingdao Ribao or “Sing Tao Daily,” published by a Singapore-based conglomerate in New York for American Chinese. There are also a number of other newspapers and magazines in Chinese printed both in the U.S. and abroad available for sale or by mail for those interested.

Lastly should be mentioned the Peoples Daily – Overseas Edition, published in Beijing (Peking). This is a special overseas edition of the leading national daily in the Peoples Republic, published by the Chinese Communist Party for the benefit of its citizens overseas. It is now available only by subscription, and is usually only read by PRC nationals visiting the U.S. for a short time who intend to return to China and whose interest lies in keeping abreast of the “Party line” in internal PRC politics. It is interesting to note that from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, this Overseas Edition of the Peoples Daily was deliberately printed in old style traditional characters and distributed free overseas as a propaganda gesture towards the American Chinese community. Because of its parochial and propagandistic content, however, it was not well received, and therefore is now again printed in the simplified characters used throughout the PRC and is now available only by subscription at a subsidized rate of US thirty dollars a year.

Before the innovation of computerized typesetting and layout programs, Chicago had a number of Chinese printing businesses, which set up restaurant menus, advertisements and other announcements in old style Chinese characters to be printed by local printers. Now, after local Chinese newspapers and other materials are formatted completely in Chinese by Chinese software computer programs, the layout is then sent to local English language commercial printers for final printing. Although new style simplified character programs and even old-to-new style character conversion programs are now easily available, material is only formatted in the new style simplified characters on special order. In 1979, when the only Chinese news publication seen in Chicago from the Peoples Republic was the above-mentioned Overseas Edition of the Peoples Daily, especially printed in traditional old style characters for free distribution in North America as a propaganda gesture, I enquired (in Mandarin) in one of South Chinatown’s print shops on South Wentworth as to whether they also could print in mainland Chinese simplified characters. The owner-operator replied dismissively that there was no point in his investing in them. “They’re giving those up,” he said. “Look, even the Peoples Daily is now printed in old style characters!”

The growth of the Chicagoland Chinese community, coupled with the development of computer assisted newspaper layout programs for Chinese in recent years have made it possible for small groups of two, three or four people each to produce local newspapers. There are currently four locally-published Chinese papers of much smaller circulations in Chicago, dependent primarily on local advertising and distributed cheaply or free throughout the Chicagoland area in those restaurants, stores and supermarket complexes which cater to the Chinese community. These include the Meizhong Xinwen or “Chinese American News,” an independent local paper started in l989 with a circulation of around three thousand; the Chen Bao or “China Star;” the Shenzhou Shibao or “China Journal – Chicago,” a locally-produced version of a California-based newspaper chain, and the Zhijaige Shibao or “Chicago Chinese News,” the local newspaper of  the Dallas-based Southern Chinese Newspaper Group with affiliate Chinese papers in eleven U.S. cities. In addition to a few other locally-produced “supermarket throwaway” papers,  a number of other weekly newspaper style publications are also distributed free in the Chicagoland area. In addition to the Hongguan Bao, or “Macroscopic Weekly,” an economic overview from Taiwan printed in California, there are also the Buddhist Tsu Chi World Journal, published in California by a Taiwan based Buddhist association; the Zhen Fo Bao or “True Buddhist News Weekly,” also distributed throughout North America by another Taiwan based Buddhist organization; and the Christian evangelical Jiao Hao or “Herald Weekly,” published monthly by Chinese Christian Herald Crusades, Inc.  in New York City.

It should be noted in passing that for the reasons stated above all of these Chinese language newspapers available in the U.S. are in old style, traditional Chinese characters, but that their physical format can be an interesting hybrid of old and new layouts. Traditionally, Chinese characters were written and printed from right to left and vertically from top to bottom. More modern publications, including most contemporary books, newspapers and magazines published in the Peoples Republic, follow the Western style in being printed in horizontal lines from left to right. Many U.S. Chinese newspapers mix both formats, running some stories (and their headlines) horizontally from left to right in the Western fashion, and some other stories vertically from right to left in the traditional Chinese fashion. The problem comes when a news story or article printed vertically from right to left is wide enough to permit the headline to also be printed from right to left across the top of the vertically printed story, instead of having the headline also printed vertically down the right hand side of the story in the traditional fashion. In such cases, readers occasionally have to pause and look at how the story below is laid out before determining whether to read the headline from right to left, or from left to right!

The 1998-99 Chicago Chinese Yellow Pages lists twelve Chinese language bookstores in the greater Chicagoland area, three in South Chinatown, one in North Chinatown, one downtown in the Chicago Loop, one each near the University of Chicago and near Northwestern University in Evanston, and the remainder in those suburban areas with the greatest concentration of Chinese immigrants listed above. Catering to their more literate clientele, these books stores primarily stock a wide variety of Chinese bestsellers, cook books, etc., almost all from either Taiwan or Hong Kong, and thus all printed in traditional old style characters. Those of such books which are permitted by the censors are now equally sought after in the Peoples Republic (often being reprinted in simplified characters), while very few books which are published within Mainland China are of interest to Chinese readers outside the country. Any rare exceptions would quickly be converted by computer printers into old style characters in Hong Kong and/or Taiwan for readers in those places and by overseas Chinese communities elsewhere.

The main branch of the Chicago Public Library, as well as the local branches of the CPL located in both South Chinatown and North Chinatown have small collections of dictionaries, general reference works and Chinese books similar to those sold in the Chinese bookstores just described. Serious scholarly readers must find a way to access the East Asia research collections of the libraries at the University of Chicago or Northwestern University. Adjacent to the Di Ho Chinese supermarket complex (where one of the three Chicagoland branches of the World Journal Bookstore is located and all of the Chinese newspapers are available) the government of the Republic of China on Taiwan has for more than twenty years subsidized a Chinese Cultural Center for propaganda purposes. In addition to a fairly sizable free lending library of books published in Taiwan, this Center holds free classes and social activities, including Chinese heritage Mandarin language classes; sponsors Chinese language visiting speakers from Taiwan and speaking contests and Mandarin language camps in the Midwest and Taiwan for children; and promotes Taiwan satellite television subscriptions. As Taiwan recognizes dual citizenship, which the PRC does not, representatives from all three Chicagoland communities are invited to join representatives from other U.S. Chinese communities as all-expense-paid “overseas Chinese” guests in Taipei, Taiwan every year on October 10th (“Double Ten”), the anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China by Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 1911. Both the Peoples Republic and the ROC on Taiwan make sure that a number of the diplomatic level representatives in their Chicago offices speak either Cantonese or Taiwanese in addition to Mandarin. Both governments subsidize annual U.S. tours of popular Mandarin speaking professional entertainers and amateur youth entertainment groups.


Turning to other media, the Chinatown community in the city, like many other Chicago ethnic communities, has long supported “Global Radio,” a commercially available Chinese radio station, until recent years mostly all in Cantonese, which is accessed by purchasing a specially programmed radio set to receive broadcasts over a restricted frequency. This service has recently expanded its broadcasting range to a sixty-mile wide radius from downtown Chicago, and added some programming in Mandarin Chinese for the benefit of the increasing number of suburban listeners. A few hours per week of Cantonese language programming is also available free over two local radio stations specializing in ethnic programming.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the Taiwan government provided two hours weekly of Mandarin language television programming from Taiwan to be shown over a local for-profit ethnic programming station (WFBT-TV), with local Chicago advertising in Cantonese or Mandarin Chinese. In the 1990s, similar programming from mainland China became available and for a few years in the late 1990s, ninety minutes of Mandarin news and features from the PRC were made available every evening, plus two hours on Sunday afternoon, while the Taiwan news retreated to one half hour of news in Mandarin in the late evening. With the advent of Chinese television programming on cable in some of the (affluent) western Chicagoland suburbs and by satellite throughout the Chicagoland area in the late 1990s, early in 2001the subsidy for the half hour of free nightly television news from Taiwan was ended by the Taiwan government. However, the same late evening time slot continued to be filled with news from Taiwan and the local Chicagoland Chinese community, supported by a local Chinese newspaper, Meiguo Xinwen. Satellite television news and entertainment programming directly from Taiwan and the PRC in Mandarin and from Hong Kong in Cantonese are now commercially available twenty-four hours a day, making the free, often more propagandistic television programming from mainland China increasingly less attractive to viewers. With the advent of less expensive computer graphics, commercial programming for the free PRC television news and feature programming can be produced locally. It is here that those who purchase and repackage these television news and feature programs from the PRC make their profit advertising Chicagoland’s numerous Chinese goods and services to local viewers in either Cantonese or Mandarin.

Unlike larger Chinatowns in North America, Chicago’s Chinatown has not been able to support a permanent Chinese movie theatre, although sometimes Cantonese operas and popular films in Cantonese are shown in nearby theatres or other rented space on a limited basis. This lacuna has of course been satisfied by the increasing availability, first of video-taped movies, and now by VCD and DVD disks.

Both Chinatowns as well as most of the stores and supermarkets in the Chicagoland suburbs which cater to the Chinese immigrant community have video rental sections or stores. As both Hong Kong and Taiwan are among the world’s largest film producing areas, hundreds of films in Cantonese and Mandarin are now easily available to overseas Chinese communities throughout the world. And because almost all of these films and music videos, etc. are shown and exported to various overseas Chinese communities all over the globe, the majority have printed subtitles (in old style characters) at the bottom of the screen, in recognition of the wide variety of spoken Chinese languages and dialects, and the shared common written language within these communities described above. On some of the newer DVD disks, however, viewers may chose from a menu whether to hear the film in the original Cantonese or dubbed into Mandarin, and whether to have the subtitles in old style characters, new style characters, or in English translation. The latest award-winning films from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the PRC are now shown (subtitled in English and Chinese) on a limited basis at the annual Chicago Film Festival and replayed at the City’s local art house cinemas, usually attracting a mixture of non-Chinese interested in foreign films and a small number of local Chinese students and intellectuals. Prof. Barbara Sharres, the Director of the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago has a done a great deal to organize retrospectives of the major Chinese directors from those three areas, and she has shown a special concern for promoting the better films from Hong Kong. Chinese films supplied by the government offices of the PRC and Taiwan are also sometimes shown at the major local universities for their respective Chinese student groups.


As a sociolinguistic term, “literacy” or “literacies” is used to refer to sets of cultural practices which readers said to be “literate” in some written language (or other set of symbols) bring to material written or printed in that language which allows them to interpret those materials in a culturally appropriate and meaningful manner. It is therefore possible to speak of “religious literacy,” “musical literacy,” “numeracy” (i.e., ability to deal with systems of written numbers), and a variety of other such specialized “literacies” within various groups. In this context, we may note a number of such literacies in the Chinese-speaking communities in Chicago.

One such specialized type of literacy found in America’s Chinese communities is religious literacy. It should first be understood that traditional religious practices have been under some siege in mainland China for at least the last half century. But many immigrants from more traditional Chinese communities in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia may bring with them their knowledge of the specialized literacies of Buddhism, Taoism, and local folk beliefs or religions. This may be termed a specialized literacy in the sense that certain terms, both spoken and written, are not always intelligible to those uninitiated in one or another of those particular belief systems, particularly given the deliberate attack on all such religious practices – native and foreign – carried on by the Chinese Communist Party within the Peoples Republic of China since its founding in 1949. Because of this, not only are certain spoken terms, locutions and concepts often understood only by those who have been initiated in one set of practices or another, but also certain special Chinese characters or specialized combinations of normal Chinese characters also may not be understood. (One might be able to sound out these latter combinations, but the meanings of the words would not make any sense to anyone not  “literate” in that particular religious culture.) Thus the religious instruction classes held at the Taiwan Ling Shen Ching Tze Buddhist Temple in Bridgeport or the newer Southeast Asian Chanh-Giac-Tu Buddhist Temple on North Broadway near North Chinatown consist largely of teaching new characters and new combinations of characters or “words” with new meanings to converts. This is even more true of Chinese Christianity, which – because it is a religion imported from the West – has some special made-up Chinese characters and imported names, concepts, words and locutions in its rituals which simply do not make an sense to non-Christian Chinese.  It should also be mentioned that some Chicagoland Chinese Christian groups hold their services in spoken Cantonese or Taiwanese, and sometimes use printed materials which contain some special Chinese characters employed only when writing those dialects which ordinary educated readers and writers of standard Chinese do not understand.

Another type of specialized literacy is traditional Chinese musical notation, different from Western musical notation, which is sometimes used in hymnals and sheet music for popular singing and by some of the seven Chinese music and choral groups listed in the Chicago Yellow Pages, plus other such singing groups on local university campuses. Yet another specialized literacy involves the ability to read a kind of “numerical code” used to write prices of popular dishes on slips of papers pasted on the walls of Chinatown restaurants which cater primarily to local residents. Rather than using either Arabic numerals (as Chinese often now do, even in China) or in regular Chinese number-characters, Cantonese restaurants may use this numerical shorthand, originally designed to display prices in Chinese currency in China, to refer to the price in U.S. currency.  Other sets of coded  Chinese characters or symbols are sometimes used on Chinese lottery tickets sold in lotteries in American Chinatowns. Even more esoteric are certain Chinese characters and  “gang symbols” long associated with Chinese “secret societies,” “triads,” and gangs, many of which long ago crossed the Pacific Ocean and continue to do so.  As with other ethnic gangs in Chicago, these specialized locutions, symbols and combinations of symbols are used for mutual recognition and solidarity among the initiated, and members usually swear on a blood oath upon initiation not to betray them to outsiders. Naturally, for a variety of reasons these are not normally discussed in the Chinese community, and especially not with outsiders.


Chinese language use in Chicagoland, as in the rest of the world’s Chinese communities, has been greatly affected by the development of global, “transnational” communities among what has been called the “Chinese diaspora.” In a world of increasingly permeable borders, with greatly facilitated intercontinental transportation and instant global communication, Chinese communities in Chicagoland and throughout the world find themselves in a new context which greatly affects patterns of Chinese language use. This new context includes increased facility of immigration to the U.S. and of international travel back and forth, ubiquitous telephone credit cards with discounted long distance rates to Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China, the rapid spread of cell phones in those areas, and simultaneous satellite and cable broadcasting of television programming from those three areas and from other larger Chinatowns within the U.S. All of these new facts of transportation and communication mean that Chinese speakers, both adults and children, resident in any of Chicagoland’s Chinese communities are no longer linguistically and culturally isolated from ongoing participation in Chinese culture. The development of Chinese software and instant internet access to all types of information in Chinese, from the latest Hong Kong music videos to university classes from both within and without the U.S., all promise unlimited cyberspace possibilities, but do require literacy in Chinese characters. More tolerant and sophisticated bilingual education programs and services in the Chicago public schools and social service agencies do not discourage the use of their Chinese language(s) within the community. All of these factors allow and even encourage immigrants and their American-born children to maintain their Chinese language skills. In business and diplomatic dealings with Chinese communities in Asia, being able to read and write Chinese and familiarity with traditional Chinese culture and behavior provides a natural advantage.  At the same time of course, the level of English teaching in Hong Kong, Taiwan and even the Peoples Republic continues to improve as English continues to be the “world language” of commerce and communication. Traditional pressures on all immigrants to U.S. society to “assimilate” into “mainstream” American society also continue to entice and even force them to develop their English language abilities, both spoken and written. In the increasingly fluid transnational world of the globalized 21st century, members of U.S. Chinese communities will continue to participate as bi- and multi-lingual members of multi-ethnic America’s increasingly pluralistic culture.




Adler, Jane. “ Family Ties: Former Residents of Chinatown Find Roots Pulling Them Home.” Chicago Tribune. October 8, 2000. Section 16, pp.1, 7-0.

Chao, Julie. “Chinese School Days: Language Links Kids to Culture; But Which Form of Characters They Learn is Question of Politics.” The San Francisco Examiner, March 2, 1997. Page B-1.

Chen, David.W. “In Learning Chinese, Less Is More Complex; Westchester Parents Are Divided Between Tradition and Simplicity.” The New York Times. (Late edition, final.) November 29, 1996. Section B, p.1.

Chen Hui-ying  “Meizhong Zhongwen Xuexiao Jiaoxiehui Jianjie” [“A Brief Introduction to the Association of Midwest Chinese Language Schools”] 1993Chinese Yellow Pages / Chicago–Mid- U.S.A.

Chicago, Illinois: Chinese American Newspapers Co. 1993. Pp.55-60.

Chicago Fact Book Consortium. Local Community Fact Book: Chicago Metropolitan Area – Based on the 1070 and 1980 Censuses. Chicago, IL 1984.

Chicago Fact Book Consortium. Local Community Fact Book: Chicago Metropolitan Area – 1990. Chicago, IL 1995.

Gates, Hill. Chinese Working Class Lives. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. 1987.

Imber, Brenda. Official and Popular Literacies in the Peoples Republic China: A Search for Shared Perspectives. Ph.D. dissertation. The University of Michigan. 1990.

Kiang, Harry. Chicago’s Chinatown. Lincolnwood, Illinois: The Institute of China Studies. 1992.

Moy, Susan Lee. “The Chinese in Chicago: The First One Hundred Years.” In Melvin G. Holli and Peter Jones, Ethnic Chicago. 4th Edition. Grant Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995, pp.378-408.

Ni, Ching-ching. “Which Character to Teach? School’s Class in Chinese Splits.” Newsday. (Nassau and Suffolk editions). May 2, 1999. N.p.

98-99 Chinese Yellow Pages /Chicago/Mid-U.S.A.. Chicago, Illinois: Chinese American News. 1998.

Norman, Jerry. Chinese. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1988.

Ramsey, S. Robert. The Languages of China. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1987.

Rohsenow, John S. “Can Taiwanese Read Simplified Characters?” Sino-Platonic Papers 27(1991)


Statistical Abstract of the United States 1996, U.S. Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration, Bureau of the Census.

Strauss, Daniel M.W. Chinese Multilingualism in Chicago. Ph. D. Dissertation. Northwestern University. 1998.

Street, Brian V.  Literacy in Theory and Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1984.

2000-2001 Chinese Business Directory [Chicago/Midwest edition]. Whitestone, N.Y.: World Journal Press. 2000.

Tsai, Shih-shan Henry. The Chinese Experience in America. Bllomington: The University of Indiana Press. 1986.

Wang, Xueying. A View from Within: A Case Study of Chinese Heritage Community Language Schools.

Washington, D.C.:National Foreign Language Center. 1996.

I wish to thank Sarah Caldwell and the Chinese Mutual Aid Association, Richard Barrett, Jennifer Lee, Annie F. Liu, Michael Luo, Susan Lee Moy, Piotr Sromek, Daniel Strauss, Chinliang Wang, Wei Wang, Shawn Zhang and Lisa Zhao for assistance with this paper. Interviewing for this paper was conducted under UIC IRB Research Protocol #2000-0405. No humans or animals were harmed in the researching of this paper.

For the history and development of Chicago’s Chinese community, see S. L. Moy (1995).

Chinese place and dialect names will be given in the now standard Hanyu Pinyin romanization with the more traditional Wade-Giles romanization immediately following in parentheses. However, following customary practice and for ease of understanding, Cantonese and other traditional names for places and dialects, etc. commonly encountered in English [e.g. Toisan; Canton(ese)] will be substituted where appropriate.

Cf. Ramsey (1987) p. 98.

Specifically, census tract 3402. These and all subsequent statistical data are from the Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1996 and the Chicago Fact Book, 1990. I am grateful to Ms. Wei Wang and Prof. Richard Barrett of the University of Illinois at Chicago for assisting me in obtaining and interpreting much of the following census data.

See Kiang  (1992) p.6, 9.

Chicago Fact Book – 1990, pp. 381,399.

Census tracts 3401-3404 in Chicago Fact Book – 1990, p.121.

Chicago Fact Book – 1990, p.175.

Chicago Fact Book – 1990, p.176.

Chicago Fact Book – 1990, pp. 384, 402.

Adler, Jane. Chicago Tribune, October 8, 2000. Section 16, pp.1, 7-0. These and other census figures of those listing themselves as “Chinese” probably underestimate the actual number of Chinese speakers because of  “the reluctance of respondents to report an ethnic identification that still carried a social stigma, as well as the inability or unlearned people to understand the complex questionaires … Others did not respond or could not respond … because they feared any contact with the federal government.” (Tsai 1986, p. 151).

Historically, S. L. Moy notes that a small percentage of Chinese born in the U.S.A. were sent back to be educated in China from the late nineteenth century until the enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Laws. This “reverse immigration” was prominent among the merchant class of Chinese immigrants who valued education and who felt that their sons should be educated in the Chinese classics if they were to become successful and respected among their peers and family. Although a majority of the early immigrants were illiterate, they worked hard to provide funds for their children to become educated in China. Later immigrants from the 1920s on were more educated and many enrolled in English classes offered at the local Chicago Baptist churches across Chicago. These Chinese Sunday Schools used English lessons to preach Christianity to these immigrants. (S. L. Moy, personal communication, February 19, 2000)

An exception was the small number of Chinese students from more educated families who attended the University of Illinois at Urbana during the 1920s through the 1940s who remained in the U.S. to become active members of the Chinese community. Because of their status as students, they were able to bring their wives and children to America and were exempt from the Chinese Exclusion Laws. (S. L. Moy, personal communication, February 19, 2001)

See S. Moy, op. cit., p. 383.

See Norman (1988) p. 214.

Cf. Wang, Xueying (1996).

There also exists a minority of speakers of another Chinese language “Hakka” (Kejia) and very small minority of speakers of the non-Chinese languages of the aboriginal peoples who inhabited Taiwan before the large migration of Han Chinese from neighboring Fujian province across the straits to Taiwan in the 1600s, but these are not statistically significant for this discussion.

See H. Gates (1987) pp. 44-46; 54-57.

See Moy  op.cit., pp.386-7.

Under “Associations” the 1998-99 bilingual Chicago Chinese Yellow Pages lists 15 Chinese social organizations in the North Chinatown area, including the Fukien Association and the Teo Chew [Chaozhou] Mutual Assistance Association, while there are 51 such associations listed in the South Chinatown area.

For a fascinating study of the complex linguistic history of many of these immigrants, their varying command of different Chinese languages and dialects, and their ability to “code switch” between them, see Strauss (1998), especially chapter 6, pp.106-139.

Chicago Fact Book – 1990, pp. 387,395-6,404. It is possible that some additional ethnic Chinese speakers may have identified themselves by the Southeast Asian country whence they had emigrated. Also see footnote (xi) above.

Adler, Jane, op.cit.

In 1999 international student enrollment at Illinois colleges and universities climbed eight percent to 22,807, and Cook county, Illinois had the third highest foreign student enrollment of all U.S. counties, at 12,322, the majority of whom were from China, India, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. (“Open Doors,” Institute of International Education, Washington, D.C., November 13, 2000)

Unlike the Taiwan government, the PRC government is not as generous to its emigrants as the Taiwan government, providing only books printed in mainland Chinese “simplified characters” (see below) and the now standard Hanyu Pinyin romanization used in the PRC, but not teacher training and supplements or trips to the home country or subsidized “Chinese summer camps” in the U.S. and Taiwan, which the ROC government on Taiwan continues to provide to its emigrants for propaganda purposes.

These statistics usually do not include foreign students at universities.

See S. Moy, op.cit., p. 408.

Statistical Abstract of the U.S. (1996) See footnote (vi) above.

In recognition of the growing number of Chinese in the Chicagoland suburbs, the Chinese Mutual Aid Association in North Chinatown opened a branch next the DiHo Chinese supermarket complex in Westmont in January, 2001.

See Rohsenow (1991)

As in mainland China, PRC teaching materials also employ a version of the Latin alphabet known as Hanyu Pinyin as a sort of “Initial Teaching Alphabet” in order to assist Chinese children to learn the actual pronunciation of the Chinese characters, while teaching materials from Taiwan continue to use a somewhat cumbersome older system invented in the 1920s which employs a specialized set of Chinese phonetic symbols (not characters) something like the Japanese kana syllabary to teach Taiwanese children how to pronounce Chinese characters. One of the many debates between the two immigrant groups is whether the additional “burden” of learning this specialized set symbols is better or worse than having the children become “confused” between the phonetic values of the Latin-based Hanyu Pinyin initial teaching alphabet and the sound values of those same Latin letters that they are learning in their regular American school classes.

Interestingly, the tiny but influential island Republic of Singapore, which is dominated by a large overseas Chinese community ever mindful of future business opportunities in Asia, teaches mainland simplified characters in the majority of its schools.

A partial annotated listing of many of these schools appeared in the 1993 Chicago Chinese Yellow Pages telephone book [Chen Hui-ying l993:55-60]

S. L. Moy, personal communication, February 19, 2001.

See Chao, Julie (1997);  Chen, David (1996); Ni, C.C. (1999)

Since a large number of female babies from the Peoples Republic have been being adopted by suburban U.S. parents in the 1990s, a small number of those (Caucasian) parents have been sending their adopted Chinese children (adopted at too early an age to know any language at all) to the beginning levels of these Saturday schools so that these China-born children can be “exposed to their native language and culture.”

In Chinese language classes at the University of Illinois at Chicago over the last twenty years, in addition to the ten to twenty students per year who satisfy their two-year foreign language requirement based on their knowledge of either spoken Mandarin or spoken Cantonese and their command of the written language, there are usually about forty students in the first year Chinese class and about twenty in second year, seventy-five percent of whom are of Chinese ancestry, but not all of these students know Cantonese or any other Chinese language or dialect.

See B. Imber (1990)

These figures are in fact for the new “simplified” characters used in the PRC, but there is no significant difference in these figures for materials printed in the “old style” Chinese characters used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and all U.S. Chinatown newspapers.

Of course, in most cases word order and context make the choice obvious.

Video Compact Disks (“VCDs”) are a cheaper video format popular in Asia, not common in the U.S.A. because of their poorer sound and picture quality.

Cf. Street (1984); Imber (1990).


While the two groups have learned to coexist in American Grad schools (fn education requirement; sep from Toisan and Fukien relatives and illegal immigrants due to prof  INS rule) and occasionally do for personal relationships in the restricted context, they nevertheless have different cultural bkgds, a long history of pol differences, have even less in common that  the two ling groups from TW and remain in competition for univ resources and later employment, so altho scattered in physical proximity in the suburbs, like the TW and mainlanders from TW, they remain mostly socially separate in Chicago society, generally  “not interested” in each others’ media (newspapers, TV, internet) nor interacting socially or in terms of Saturday schools (remember govt support by both sides), but nevertheless patronizing the same brick and mortar commercial enterprises both in the South and North Chinatowns in the city, and in suburban Chinese stores, the largest of which is the DiHo Supermarket complex in Westmont (many of which are run by enterprising southern Cantonese spkrs whose owners and staff also now speak functional Mdn; also note TW cult Ctr there.) It would appear that Mutual interest in having access to familiar products and cultural artifacts makes such public places “neutral ground” for this dispersed and finitely numbered community. Also Us Chinese newspapers, diff websites, etc.


p.2 During the ten years from 1980 through 1990, the residential area for South Chinatown continued to expand, so that the original core census area actually decreased to 3,618 Chinese, who nevertheless then comprised 77.8 percent of the population of the original area, while the Chinese population in the two immediately adjoining areas had grown to 770 and 1,109 respectively, constituting 54 and 65 percent of the total populations of each of those two areas.

In 1980 there were an additional 500 Chinese in the census area just to the southwest and 450 more in the area just to the south, in which areas they constituted 40 and 36 percent of the populations of those two areas, respectively. THIS WAS FROM BARRET AND HUANG.

In 1980 people identifying themselves as “Chinese” in the two census tracts which contain the Uptown North Chinatown area were 442 and 114 respectively. By 1990 those identifying themselves as Chinese in these same two areas were 660 and 298