How Chicagoans Are Celebrating Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

“Chicago Tonight” is hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders.

May marks Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Across Chicago, members of those communities have made the city their home while keeping their cultural traditions alive.

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Chicagoans of Asian descent are the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the city, according to the most recent census — making up about 7% of the population.

“Chicago Tonight” visited three communities this week — West Ridge, Uptown and Chinatown — where people are celebrating their heritage and increased representation and visibility.

Interactive map: More from our community reporting series

On a recent night, Shalaka Kulkarni and her fellow dancers with Mandala South Asian Performing Arts were hard at work, rehearsing for an upcoming performance festival.

Born in India, Kulkarni wanted to dance at a young age. She made a deal with her dad that she’d take dance classes — and learn martial arts.

“He thought that if you are going to learn dance, then you may as well be strong,” Kulkarni said. “Personally, it helped me in school, too. It made me appreciate anyone else who’s putting time and effort in doing something.”

Mandala presents classical Indian dance, but Kulkarni’s work is also inspired by being part of the South Asian diaspora. She recently collaborated with a classical Japanese dancer.

“Together, we created something very unique,” Kulkarni said. “Chicago artists are going out of their ways right now to present each other and help each other.”

Mandala often presents its work at the Indo American Center in West Ridge. In June, Mandala is hosting an arts festival on Devon Avenue. It’s a community with many members of Pakistani and Indian descent — but Mohammed Bozai said it’s changed a lot since he was a kid helping out at his family’s restaurant.

“Now, if you look around, we have every walk of life, race, religion, culture in and out, and it’s an amazing place,” Bozai said. “It’s a melting pot, it really is.”

Bozai started working full-time at the popular Ghareeb Nawaz after he graduated college, and now runs the restaurant.

“Everybody’s favorite is butter chicken, which is mine also,” Bozai said. “I can put butter chicken on everything.”

From its original location on Devon Avenue, the business has expanded to include locations in Lombard, in Lincoln Park, at UIC — and next month, in Dallas. In recent years, new fans learned about Ghareeb Nawaz from a quirky Twitter account started by a fan of the restaurant — but even if you missed the memes, Bozai said there’s something for everyone.

“It might be scary at first — like, what is Pakistani, Indian food?” Bozai said. “Just give it a try, and I’m sure you’ll find something that you like.”

There’s plenty for potential diners to find along Argyle Street, too. The Uptown mainstay is well known as an Asian culinary hotspot and is home to many Vietnamese restaurants.

“(We’re) from central Vietnam and our food is very, very different from everybody. I think that’s why people like to come and try our food,” said Sydney Le, owner of DaNang Kitchen.

Le said central Vietnamese cuisine means lots of seafood dishes and bright flavors like turmeric. The daughter of street food vendors, she didn’t learn to cook until she was older. Le eventually went to culinary school in Vietnam and opened her restaurant nearly five years ago.

“We’re trying to do a special of the month every month to create new dishes,” Le said. “The longer we have the business, the more I enjoy it because when I see a customer appreciate and enjoy our food that makes us so happy.”

DaNang was one of several businesses along the street that’s gotten things like microgrants, promotional help and other boosts from the grassroots group Celebrate Argyle.

“The pandemic really hindered and hurt the community with all the anti-Asian hate sentiment that was going around,” said Sany Nguyen, co-founder and director of Celebrate Argyle. “We’re really trying to find a way to uplift, not just from pre-pandemic times, but actually for the future.”

The group is also organizing a community cleanup Saturday and a 5K on Sunday.

“We have been really finding agency in our community, trying to find local volunteers and community members who are finding that voice in themselves to really be proud of our culture,” Nguyen said.

“The great thing I’m seeing right now is just the whole AAPI voice, everyone celebrating Asian heritage,” Spencer Ng, owner of the Triple Crown restaurant, said. “Chinatown is busy and it’s a great change to see.”

Ng is glad to see busy streets after three challenging years, but he said he’s still struggling to find enough staffers to keep the beloved dim sum restaurant open as long as he used to. He’s hopeful about his community’s future, though — especially with the election of the ward’s first Chinese American alderperson, Nicole Lee.

“First time Chinese majority ward, which is big,” Ng said. “Growing up in Chinatown, never thought that would happen. But yeah, we’re here.”

“You know what they say: You’re on the menu if you’re not at the table,” Lee said. “And now we really have a seat at the table, and we’ve got the opportunity to really advocate for the issues and voices that need the assistance and need to be heard.”

Lee is now the second Asian American member of the City Council, along with the 48th Ward’s Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth, who is of Filipino descent.

“I’m ever hopeful that with the new administration and 13 new colleagues that we’ve got an opportunity to come together, to keep people safe, to make sure that people have the opportunities that they deserve,” Lee said.

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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