Shanghai surprise

Go beyond the gate to spot Chinatown's coolest alley.

GREAT WALLS This Chinatown alley offers views of Pui Tak Center, fire escapes and probably a rodent or two.

Step past the herb shops stocked with exotic unctions, past the dim-sum joints, past the tchotchke huts crammed with satin slippers, and you’ll find a tiny sliver of a more authentic, everyday Chinatown.

It’s easy to miss the alley between the Chinatown gate and the Pui Tak Cultural Center—a gritty little passageway lined with fire escapes and hanging laundry—on your way to buy a paper dragon or a straw hat. It’s shady. It’s a little stinky. And seeing a rat scuttle by would be no big surprise. Yet with that wall of metal fire escapes, it’s visually interesting. Plus, it’s a good peek into the real lives of Chinatown’s 10,000 residents, lives that are much more interesting than sweet-and-sour pork and lucky bamboo.

“It’s an alley we don’t see too often in Chicago,” says Z.J. Tong, who owns the Chinese Cultural Bookstore (2145B S China Pl, 312-842-1988) and has given Chinatown tours for eight years. Tong prefers the alley’s old-school design to the newer strip-mall style sprouting in Chinatown in recent years. “It’s reminiscent of the Chicago of the past.”

Just how unvarnished is this alley? Perfect for a bad-guy tête-à-tête, apparently. The alley made its big-screen debut in 2005, after Clive Owen spent a day by the Dumpsters filming the thriller Derailed. Chinatown locals served as extras, while a bus packed with high-school kids circled the block, screaming for a glimpse of the rapper Xzibit.

Apartments and small homes line one side of the alley, which smells of warm garbage, Chinese food and laundry soap. On a recent day, a row of white gym socks hung on the line, swaying in the breeze, while a family tended its fenced-in garden and a shoeless, old Chinese man sat perched on the curb, reading a newspaper under a TARGET: RATS sign.

The alley runs along the side of the ornate Pui Tak (“cultivating virtues”) Center (2216 S Wentworth Ave), which was bought by the Chinese Christian Union Church in 1993. The Chicago historical landmark, constructed in 1926–28, now serves as a learning center for recent immigrants.

Originally it was called the On Leong Merchants Association Building and housed Chinatown’s city hall, and the Feds raided the building in the 1980s during a gambling bust. Today, the center seems to be cultivating virtues of a more uplifting kind. But stroll down the alley just a few steps away and you can still take a walk on the seedy side.