Asian-American Wealth Shows in Thriving Chinatowns

For centuries, the sights, sounds, and aromas of Chinese culture have declared vitality and good fortune: the rich sheen of satin gowns, the sharp tang of ginseng root, storefronts in imperial crimson with gold trim, the petalled scent of jasmine, and the torrential exuberance of firecrackers.

Today in Chicago's Chinatown, the many ancient signs of prosperity are accompanied by the roar of jackhammers. After decades of languishing within the grip of an elevated train, two interstate highways, a railway yard, and a "sanitary canal," Chicago's Chinatown is booming.

It is as if residents have engineered a tiny stateside eruption of the same raw energy that has made mainland China the world's fastest growing major economy.

The vitality of Chicago's Chinatown, the largest such neighborhood in the American heartland, helps explain how Asian Americans could become the biggest bankrollers among US minorities of national campaigning for the 1996 election.

Across North America, Chinese ethnic communities are thriving with an influx of recent immigrants and the investment of prospering citizens of Chinese decent, says Bernarda Lo Wong, executive director of the Chinese American Service League Inc. in Chicago.

"There is a new awakening in Chinatown," Chunwah Chan, president of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, says between a barrage of calls to his wholesale seafood business.

Six bank branches now operate in a community that 15 years ago relied on two. The number of restaurants this decade has more than doubled to about 75. City Hall is spending $3.5 million to gussy up the neighborhood's entryway avenue before the August Democratic convention.

In the past decade, private and public investment totaling more than $20 million has bankrolled the cleanup of old railway land and the construction of stores and lower- and middle-income apartments.

'THE economy is more diversified," Mr. Chan says: "It used to be restaurants and a tourist trade, now it is much more of a convincing neighborhood."

Most important, the neighborhood's population has swelled threefold since 1979 to more than 10,000. While most new residents have come from mainland China's high-growth Guangdong Province, as much as 15 percent of the new arrivals have immigrated from other Chicago areas or the suburbs.

"The economic level is higher, there is much more buying power, and there is more social balance in the community," Ms. Wong says.

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