Red Lanterns are a Traditional Decoration for the Lunar New Year [Image: Wikimedia Commons/ Dileep Kaluaratchie - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0]

Chicago’s Chinatown Forges Ahead with Hybrid Lunar New Year Celebrations


Despite COVID-induced cancellations in other major Chinatowns in the United States, Chicago went ahead with their 15 days of Lunar New Year festivities, starting on February 12th, to celebrate the year of the ox. In line with public health guidelines, local businesses were able to adapt to a hybrid style event with both in-person and socially distant lion dances in town and online music celebrations. Local restaurants could participate through hanging red lanterns and offering take-away and delivery options of traditional New Year dishes, such as steamed chicken, dumplings, and Peking duck.

Indeed, Chicago has a bustling Chinatown and has held a Lunar New Year Parade for the past 6 years. The area was first established in 1912 and has over 20,000 Chinese residents, with the population continuing to grow. This is in contrast to other cities in the United States where Chinatown populations are shrinking (such as Washington DC, New York City, San Francisco) due to changing demographics from gentrification and immigration patterns. In fact, according to the Chicago Sun Times, “between 2010 and 2018, the Chinese American population increased 20% in the metro area and 32% in the city.”

Percent Increase in Chinese Population by City, 2015 - 2019

[schema_chart chart="horizontal-bar-chart" height="300" data="195" series="Percent Increase" axis="City"]

Source: US Census Bureau, ACS-5 Year Estimates; Asian alone or in any combination by selected groups; Los Angeles city, California; San Francisco city, California; New York city, New York; Chicago city, Illinois; Houston city, Texas

This growth trend is in line with an increase of Asian and Chinese populations nationally. Behind Mexicans and Indians, Chinese people represent the third largest foreign-born population in the United States with approximately 2.5 million in 2018. While a majority of Chinese immigrants head to California and New York, the metro Chicago area is still the 6th largest destination for Chinese immigrants—with approximately 72,000 immigrants arriving between 2014 and 2018. According to the 2019 American Community Survey, Chinese people represent the third largest Asian population in metro Chicago, behind Indians and Filipinos, with about 127,000 Chinese Americans—which is 18% of the Asian population in the metro area.

The influx of immigrants and Chinese Americans to Chicago has been important for the city’s growth and innovation. As a large percentage of Chinese residents in Chicago are foreign born, this allows many businesses to operate bilingually. The growth of the city’s Chinatown is also driven by the arrival of entrepreneurial young Chinese immigrants, who are attracted to the area as they find the environment more favorable for financing new businesses. One example is the popular Asian food delivery app Chowbus, which was started in Chicago and has expanded to over 20 US cities. Further investments by the city to offer affordable housing, quality education, and bilingual services aim to attract more ethnic Chinese residents.

Hence, the Lunar New Year celebrations this year, while scaled back due to the pandemic, signify the growing importance of the Chinese community to the city of Chicago. An active Chicago Chinatown Community Foundationis responsible for planning and carrying out New Year festivities. Despite the difficulties this year, the foundation plans to hold dragon boat races this summer and hopes to bring back a full-fledged Lunar New Year celebration next year.

Kristin Wilson is a Research Intern and participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East West Center in Washington.