November 7, 2023

Documenting Chinese American Stories at the Pui Tak Center and Think!Chinatown

As vibrant destinations where generations of Chinese Americans have found safe spaces to raise families, build businesses, and establish cultural institutions, Chinatowns are repositories of narratives integral to the history of the United States. Yet, as is often the case when it comes to historically excluded groups, their stories are untold, their significance insufficiently documented.

At a time when Chinatowns around the country are facing existential threats, the Pui Tak Center in Chicago and Think!Chinatown in New York City are among the organizations working to preserve the social fabric of these vital neighborhoods. In 2022, both were awarded grants from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Telling the Full History Preservation Fund, created “to support humanities-based projects that focus on the preservation, interpretation, and activation of historic places important to underrepresented communities.”

A view of some of the artistic detail on the Pui Tak Center in Chicago.

photo by: Jantzen Loza

Detail view of the Pui Tak Center in Chicago, Illinois.

“Supporting the Pui Tak Center and Think!Chinatown through the Telling the Full History Fund illuminates the rich historical and cultural legacy of Chinatowns nationwide,” said Seri Worden, a senior director of preservation programs with the National Trust. “In cities such as New York and Chicago, these bustling enclaves continue to thrive as hubs for Asian American enterprises, community initiatives, and the lives of residents.”

The funding was possible with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. In total, 80 organizations across 39 states received $2.5 million in grants.

Here’s a look at how the Pui Tak Center and Think!Chinatown have used their grants for the preservation of their Chinatown communities.

Pui Tak Center/On Leong Merchant Association Building

With its pair of pagoda towers, terracotta facades. and green roof tiles, the On Leong Merchant Association Building on Wentworth Avenue is the most iconic building in Chicago’s Chinatown. It was constructed between 1926-28 as headquarters for the namesake society that organized and looked after the interests of the Chinese immigrant community. A rendering of the building, which was designed by the firm Michaelsen & Rognstad featuring a Western interpretation of traditional Chinese architecture, was published in the Chicago Tribune on July 4, 1926 with a caption that declared it “one of the most expensive and elaborate buildings ever constructed in America by the Chinese.”

In 1993, the Chinese Christian Union Church purchased the building from the U.S. federal government, which had seized it on the grounds that it had been the site of an illegal gambling operation. The building is now home to the Pui Tak Center, a nonprofit that offered a wide variety of services to local Chinese residents, such as language classes, counseling, and enrichment programs for young people, since 1994.

Designated a Chicago Landmark in 1993, the On Leong Merchant Association Building is the only structure in the city’s Chinatown that has attained that recognition. As its steward, the Pui Tak Center is now aiming to have the structure included in the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places to ensure its place in the national history. By doing so, the owners would also be eligible for tax credits to be used for rehabilitation of the building.

View from the street of a large building with clay tiling in the heart of Chicago's Chinatown.

photo by: Jantzen Loza

Exterior view of the Pui Tak Center.

“It's a building that's important not only in Chicago’s Chinatown,” said David Wu, who has served as executive director of the Pui Tak Center for almost three decades. “Especially because historic Chinatowns are under threat, it's important for buildings like ours to be on the National Register.”

In order to gain listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the organization must submit an application to the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office to be later approved by the National Park Service. The Pui Tak Center used a $25,000 grant to hire a historic preservation consultant to conduct research and write the application. Wu said the funding also allowed the Pui Tak Center to partner with the Chinese American Museum of Chicago to interview approximately 20 elders in the community and document their memories of the building.

It is not the first time the Pui Tak Center has received support from the National Trust; in 2007, the organization was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Trust’s Partners in Preservation program, sponsored by American Express, to restore the terracotta elements on the building’s exterior.

“We're hoping that the building can continue to be used to help the community and community members flourish,” said Wu.

A view of a detailed design of a peacock on the Puit Tak Center in Chicago.

photo by: Jantzen Loza

A detail view of a Peacock in the Pui Tak Center.

Telling the Full American Story: Preserving America's Chinatowns

View of the San Francisco Chinatown in 2021

America’s Chinatowns sit at an irreplaceable crossroads of history, culture, and identity. Learn more about the National Trust for Historic Preservation's work to help preserve and protect these important places.

Think!Chinatown’s “Our Chinatown Landmarks” Project

In Manhattan’s Chinatown, the intergenerational, women-led, place-based nonprofit Think!Chinatown is also working to preserve places of local importance, albeit with a different approach and different definition of “landmark.”

The organization used a $50,000 grant in part to help fund their “Our Chinatown Landmarks” project, which entailed interviewing members of the local community to create audio recordings of memories of locations in Chinatown that hold a special significance—in some cases a school, a café, or a tea parlor. Yin Kong, director and co-founder of Think!Chinatown, noted that some of these locations no longer exist physically.

A view of a visitor engaging with some of the audio recordings as part of the Think! Chinatown's Our Chinatown Landmarks project.

photo by: Kate Levy

A visitor accesses a recording from Think! Chinatown's Our Chinatown Landmarks project using a QR code at 88 East Broadway.

As part of the broader project, Think!Chinatown partnered with artist Warren King, who crafted cardboard sculptures to pair with some of the recordings. Three of these installations can be viewed 24/7 in different spots in Chinatown, including one at Think!Chinatown’s studio on Pike Street. The recordings are also available online for anyone to access.

The Telling the Full History grant made it possible for Kong and her team to not only acquire the necessary audiovisual equipment to complete the project, but also to develop their own skills and knowledge in conducting interviews and training volunteers to complete the recordings.

One of the cardboard sculptures that accompanied audio recordings from Think! Chinatown in New York City.

photo by: Kyle Lee

One of the sculptures, "Dancer," designed by Warren King to accompany the recordings from the Our Chinatown Landmarks project.

One of the cardboard sculptures that accompanied audio recordings from Think! Chinatown in New York City.

photo by: Kyle Lee

Warren King's sculptures for the Our Chinatown Landmarks project are designed using cardboard. This one is called "Lion Dancer."

“There's so much building and work that needs to be done in the community before you even hit record,” said Kong. “They need to know that you're going to treat their stories with respect and accuracy and present them well. The grant allowed us to build up our team’s storytelling capacity.”

For Kong, preserving memories and stories of personally significant landmarks is pivotal to the physical survival of Chinatowns. “The more we bring out these histories through these storytelling practices, the more people will realize how important these places are and worth saving,” she said.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

Nathalie Alonso is a freelance journalist and children's author based in New York City. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Outside, Refinery29 and TIME for Kids. She holds a B.A. in American studies from Columbia University.

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