One of the more unique L stops in Chicago, the Chinese-style pagoda at Argyle stands out in an area mostly known as a home to the city's Vietnamese population. Architectural historian Erica Allen-Kim, who's presenting a lecture about the pagoda and its place in the neighborhood during the Society of Architectural Historian's conference later this month in Chicago, was struck by the disconnect between a traditional feature of Chinese architecture appearing in a mostly Southeast Asian enclave. Her research into its construction brought to light the intricacies of race and resettlement in Chicago's Asian neighborhoods.
"Many Chinatowns across the United States were dying by the '70s," according to Kim. "Chicago is an interesting case, since it has one of these amazing historic Chinatowns. I noticed in passing mentions of Argyle as Chinatown North, but it's actually more Southeast Asian."
According to Kim, the Chinese-style pagoda at Argyle reflects the fact that many Asian immigrants and refugees in a neighborhood many associate with Southeast Asia are actually ethnic Chinese. Since Chicago's Chinatown was relatively small, especially compared to those in other large North American cities, resettlement agencies in the '70 and '80s felt that setting up recent arrivals from Southeast Asia in cheaper housing on the north side made sense, especially since a direct connection to the existing Chinatown was available via the Red Line.
Home to Laotian, Cambodian, Chinese and Vietnamese populations, the Argyle area was referred to as "Little Saigon" as early as 1986, as well as the Argyle International Area. The first Vietnamese restaurant, Lam Ton's Mekong, opened in 1983 to glowing reviews, and a Vietnam War Museum, which bounced between locations before closing, eventually found a home at Broadway at Argyle in 1988.
But the influence of ethnic Chinese Vietnamese was also an important force in the neighborhood. The Chinese Mutual Aid Association (CMAA) at 1016 West Argyle Street, founded in 1981 by ethnic Chinese Vietnamese, featured a mural with Vietnamese script reading "Nhan Ai" (Kindness), "Ho Tro" (Support), "Phuoc Loc Tho" (Luck, Happiness, and Prosperity) and "Hoa Binh" (Peace).
The roots of the Argyle pagoda stretch back to the '60s, when Chinese-American businessman and restaurateur Jimmy Wong proposed the creation of a satellite Chinatown on Argyle with a pedestrian mall, pagoda and reflecting pool. The proposal was a non-starter, and Wong passed away shortly thereafter.
But the torch was picked up by Charlie Soo, another Chinese-American businessman often called the Mayor of Argyle, who helped form the Asian-American Small Business Association in 1979. In 1986, he convinced the CTA to take a look at the then-derelict Argyle Red Line Stop and approve $250,000 to renovate and paint the station in a traditional red-and-green color scheme symbolizing good luck and prosperity. According to a Tribune article, the ticket booth was even remade to look like a tea house.
Soo's timing synced with a wider trend across the country, since the mid-'80s was a high point in Chinatown gate designs across the U.S., according to Kim.
The "ultimate one-man city booster," Soo pushed for a more international identity for the neighborhood. In 1991, he sold Aon Corporation, which had an office nearby, on the idea of funding the pagoda roof design as part of the CTA's Adopt-A-Station program, a way to brand the area and draw more attention and business. Completed that year, the redesigned station arrived well before the Cermak/Chinatown station remodel, which opened in 2002 with lion-dogs, Chinese masks and tiles.
The Argyle Station has since been renovated, and in 2012, received a new paint job, the "Cornucopia" mural by Lynn Basa and a red-and-green Asia on Argyle sign. The refurbished pagoda roof "functions as an architectural and spatial landmark, serving more as billboard and signifier of ethnicity," according to Kim.
"Business owners were very aware of the touristic appeal of these symbols," she says. "The were using the West's view of these stereotypes to create a rich ethnic economy."