Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Pui Tak / On Leong Tong Building & Some Chicago Chinatown History

Anybody that has paid a visit to Chicago's old Chinatown on the cities south side will have noticed the ornate building on Wentworth just south of Cermak. With it's twin towers and Terra Cotta ornamentation it is a striking building that has been designated a official Chicago landmark.  It is now home to a church based community organization but like a lot of the cites landmarks it has a darker side to it's history.

Chicago was one of the first cities  where Chinese settled in the 19th century. They originally settled on the west coast and helped build the trans continental railroad. But there was a great deal of animosity towards them because they were willing to work for low wages so once the rail line was completed in 1869 they started heading east and with Chicago already a melting pot and rail center many ended up there settling in an area just south of the loop.

In the early 20th century they moved south and settled in an area just west of Chicago's notorious Levee vice district. The community was controlled by the the On Leong Merchants Association which engaged in serving and protecting the community. They were also a Tong a secret society that controlled gambling, prostitution and vice in the area. The Tongs were a nationwide organization that fought turf battles like any other criminal organization.

In 1912 O Leong built their first headquarters right on Cermak Rd the building in the opening shot of the video. In 1926 with expansion of the Chinatown area and the association they bought the property on Wentworth and prepared to build a more majestic building. There were no Chinese architects so representatives of On Leong took Chinese acrhitecture books to the local firms in the area and solicited proposals. The job went to the firm of Michaelsen and Rognstad who came up with ornate building you see here. And after spending a million dollars (and that's 1920's dollars) the building opened on May 2, 1928.

The downfall of On Leong came about when they began trafficking in narcotics in the 1970's. This led to violence which led to increased police scrutiny that in finally led the building being raided and seized when the gambling operation was uncovered. Wilson Moy the head of the association and the unofficial mayor of Chinatown along with others were eventually imprisoned. The building was then sold by the government to it's present owners.

I also came across the original drawings on the National Archives.

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