Often, as I’ve strolled past the colorful storefronts of Chicago’s Chinatown, I’ve noticed many cheap department-store-type mountain bikes—Huffys, Murrays, and Magnas—cable-locked to racks, poles, and fences along Cermak Road and Wentworth Avenue. I wondered if they belonged to recent immigrants to the neighborhood, toiling at blue-collar jobs in pursuit of the American dream.
So I set out to find out more about who’s riding bikes in the midwest’s largest Chinese community. I learned that while lots of new arrivals, as well as seniors and children of immigrants, are getting around on two wheels, unfortunately there seems to be a cycling generation gap. It seems that many adults who’ve moved to the U.S. and worked their way up the economic ladder are choosing to drive instead.
Biking appears to be fairly widespread in Chinatown and other nearby neighborhoods with sizable Chinese populations, even more so than in the city as a whole. A transportation survey done as part of the Chinatown Community Vision Plan, a neighborhood blueprint published last year by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning in cooperation with local stakeholders, examined the habits of residents of “greater Chinatown,” including neighborhoods like Bridgeport, McKinley Park, and Brighton Park. It found that 10 percent of respondents use bikes for trips of any kind, including work commutes but also errands and other excursions.
A similar study commissioned by the Active Transportation Alliance estimated that, citywide, biking accounts for roughly 2 percent of all kinds of trips. (U.S. Census data suggests the percentage of work trips made by bike may be lower in Chinatown than in the city as a whole, with 1 and 2 percent respectively, but it’s possible that data omits some of the neighborhood’s undocumented immigrants.)
“Many residents, and especially workers in Chinatown’s core, use bicycles as their main form of transportation,” according to the vision plan. The plan calls for adding more bike infrastructure to “help Chinatown evolve into one of Chicago’s most bike-friendly neighborhoods.”
David Wu, director of the nonprofit Pui Tak Center, says anecdotal evidence also suggests plenty of recent arrivals are bicycling. “When we hold our morning English classes, it’s common to see a dozen bikes locked outside,” Wu says. “About 60 percent of our students are restaurant workers.”
With this information under my belt, I hit the pavement to interview folks in the neighborhood about their biking habits. I had translation help from Debbie Liu, a community development coordinator for the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community who’s responsible for implementing the vision plan and who grew up in Chinatown as the daughter of immigrants.
On a side street off of Wentworth, we encountered 61-year-old Kent Moy, who’d set up a makeshift bike repair shop with plastic buckets for chairs. He was fixing a flat for a buddy, inflating the tire with a foot pump. Moy, a native of the southern Chinese city Taishan, said he moved to the U.S. 34 years ago, first living in New York City and then Detroit, before coming to Chicago. Moy told us he rides for his health and for environmental reasons, and said he doesn’t charge for repairs.
“I do it for God, and for my heart,” he said in English.
At Sun-Yet-Sen Park at 24th and Princeton, we saw men playing Xiangqi, a board game also known as Chinese chess. Near the park we flagged down 75-year-old Xing Hua Wu, pedaling from the grocery store to his sister’s home. A former employee of Chinatown restaurant Lao Szechaun, Wu is also from Taishan, and said he rides his bike everywhere he goes.
“It’s convenient,” he said in Cantonese.
Back on Wentworth, we encountered several other older immigrants pedaling slowly on the sidewalk with grocery bags hanging from their handlebars. One of them was Bao Ju Huang, 62, who immigrated from the southern province of Guangdong four years ago with her husband, sponsored by their daughter. As retirees, they help look after their young grandchildren. Both of them do errands by bike “for convenience,” she said. (Liu noted that bike lanes are planned on Wentworth as part of an upcoming project to straighten out its kinked, confusing intersection with Cermak, adding that the lanes should help people like feel comfortable biking in the street.)
There also seem to be plenty of younger first- and second-generation Chinese Americans pedaling sleek single-speed road bikes around the neighborhood. American-born Jason Wu, 13, was slowly riding on the Wentworth sidewalk with a smartphone strapped to his bars, playing Pokémon Go. He said his immigrant parents don’t own bikes.
During another visit I spoke with 25-year-old Henry Guan and his cousin, 14-year-old Daniel Lau, from McKinley Park and Brighton Park respectively, taking a breather in the plaza beside Chinatown Square mall. While they were born in Chicago, their parents immigrated from rural southern China decades ago.
“It’s pretty common for immigrants to use bikes to get around,” said Guan, who’s studying to be an occupational therapist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “Biking has always been a big form of transportation in China so, for many people, when they come here, it’s the same thing.” However, the guys said their parents no longer ride bikes either.
When I visited the Chinese American Service League, another nonprofit that contributed to the neighborhood vision plan, youth coordinator Kevin Kwong told me that most middle-aged, middle-class Chinese people, both in the old country and the diaspora, are uninterested in cycling. Kwong, who’s 67, grew up in Hong Kong and immigrated to Chinatown in 2003. He lives a ten-minute pedal away in Bridgeport, and rides daily for transportation and recreation.
Kwong also said the 20th-century phenomenon of vast crowds of bike riders in the streets of large Chinese cities is no longer a reality. “Bicycling is getting less and less popular there, because people are getting richer and richer—they don’t have to rely on bikes like they used to,” he said. “My impression is the motorists are taking over Beijing. The air quality is so bad.”
—Bike shop worker Angela Chan
Angela Chan, 38, agrees that cycling has become unpopular with middle-aged, upwardly mobile Chinese people, despite its continuing popularity with elderly and young folks. Chan worked at Rapid Transit bike shop in nearby University Village until the store closed last fall, and now does art restoration. She occasionally works at the Bridgeport shop Blue City Cycles, which is co-owned by her fiancé, 37-year-old Owen Lloyd.
Chan says a large chunk of Blue City’s repair business comes from Chinese immigrants, mostly retirees who moved here to help care for grandkids and who ride bikes because they never learned to drive back home. She adds that trendy single-speed bikes are increasingly popular with high school students and young adults who are the children of Chinese immigrants.
But, Chan says, the parents tend to shun bikes and drive instead. That was her experience as the child of immigrants from Hong Kong who opened a restaurant in Milwaukee. She says her folks have had a hard time understanding why she would want to ride a bike instead of driving in a big city.
“I think part of that comes from a concern for my safety,” she said. “But part of it comes from their own ideas of what I should have in life as a measure of success. For my parents it was part of the American dream to come to the U.S., get a good job, a house, and a car, so [those values were] supposed to be passed on to me.”
It was disheartening to hear that many Chinese people are rejecting the bicycle as they become more affluent, both in China and as immigrants to the midwest. But it was encouraging to talk with young people and youthful seniors who still see the value of two-wheeled transportation. Hopefully as Chinatown’s bike infrastructure improves, more neighborhood residents from all walks of life will embrace the practical and pleasurable aspects of cycling. v