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This historic building was constructed between 1926-1928 for the On Leong Association, an organization that served the Chinese residents of Chicago. In the decades before and after this building was completed, the association provided support to recent immigrants and protected the interests of Chinese entrepreneurs at a time when many of them experienced discrimination. The elaborate building cost $250,000 to construct and remains one of the most prominent features in the Chinatown neighborhood. The building once held the headquarters of the association as well as a school, meeting halls, and a shrine. It now functions as the Pui Tak Community Center.

  • The On Leong Assocation Building/Pui Tak Center
  • The building in 1928, shortly after its construction
  • An artist's rendering of the building, around the time of its construction
  • Close-up of some of the terra cotta details
  • Close-up of details on the roof
  • Tile work around the entrance
  • Community gatherings are held inside one of the meeting spaces

This Chicago community organization was established in 1905 as a branch of the national On Leong Association. Originally founded in the US in the 1890s, the association’s name “On Leong” translates to “bringing peace.” Both a social organization and one that protected civil rights and financial interests of members, the organization served the Chinese-American community with a special interest in serving recent immigrants as they adjusted to the different cultures, languages, and experience of living in the United States. The association was also a response to the discrimination experienced by many Chinese with members providing aid to one another and working collaboratively to protect their interests both politically and financially.

It is important to note that while the organization served all Chinese immigrants, membership was once restricted to the merchant class. For this reason, the organization was formally known as the On Leong Merchants Association. In later years when laborers and others were allowed to join, the organization became the On Leong Merchants and Laborers Association.

The first Chinese residents arrived in Chicago in the early 1870s and created many successful businesses within the Loop. (More information about the “Old Chinatown” neighborhood can be found in a separate Clio entry). In the 1910s, these businesses gradually began to move to the area now known as Chinatown. The On Leong Association first occupied one of the buildings in the 200 block of Cermak Street. However, association members planned a much grander headquarters, consistent with the prominent role they played in the community.

In 1926, this vision began to take shape when the On Leong Association hired Christian S. Michaelsen and Sigurd Anton Rognstad, sons of Norwegian immigrants, to design their new building. Michaelsen and Rognstad studied and incorporated traditional Chinese elements in their design, but the layout was also spacious and practical, with storefronts taking up the bottom floor. The façade was covered in custom-made terra cotta tiles. Two distinctive pagoda-topped towers and elegant open-air corridors on the second and third floors dominate the front of the building. The structure was completed in 1928 at a cost of $250,000. The Chicago Tribune called the three-story building, “One of the most expensive and elaborate buildings ever erected in America by the Chinese.” [1,2]

In addition to serving as the On Leong Association headquarters, the building also held a shrine, a school, and meeting halls for formal functions. It was such a central part of the Chinese community that it was dubbed “Chinatown’s City Hall”. In 1988, an illegal gambling operation was discovered in the building, and it was seized by the FBI. In 1993, the Chinese Christian Union Church purchased the building for $1.4 million. It was renamed the Pui Tak Center and functions as a community center, similar to the building’s original purpose as a support center for recent immigrants. English-As-A-Second-Language courses, youth activities, and restaurant sanitation certification are some of the services offered in the building. In 2008, a preservation grant was awarded to renovate the historic building.

1.      Ling, Huping. Chinese Chicago: Race, Transnational Migration, and Community Since 1870. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012. Accessed January 5, 2020.

2.       “On Leong Merchants Association Building.” Commission on Chicago Landmarks. September 1988. Accessed January 5, 2020.

3.      Bronson, Ben, Chuimei Ho, and Joe Chiu. “Historic Places.” Chinese-American Museum of Chicago. 2008. Archived, accessed January 5, 2020.

4.      “WJE Projects: On Leong Merchants Building.” Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates. Accessed January 5, 2020.

5.      Garza, Melita Marie. "Changing Fortunes Turn Chinatown's Secret Club into Immigrant Center". November 20, 1995. Accessed January 5, 2020.

6.      “Pui Tak Center.” Pui Tak Center Official Website. Accessed January 5, 2020.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

City of Chicago:

Chicago History Museum:

Tim Samuelson/National Museum of American History:

Chicago History Museum/Caroline N. Stevens:

moonrat42 (Creative Commons):

Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates:

City of Chicago:

Pui Tak Center: