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Shifa Zhong Strives For Unity Through Culture

Written by on February 16, 2023

13 years after coming to the United States from China, 26-year-old Chinese American community organizer and social media influencer Shifa Zhong has dedicated himself to building bridges between his home neighborhood of Chinatown and the rest of Chicago.

Shifa Zhong by Instagram user cielkatt, courtesy of Shifa.

Five years ago, Shifa Zhong and his team started Hip-Hop In Chinatown, an annual multicultural music festival/block party celebrating the hip-hop culture that exists in both China and the U.S. Since then, he’s consistently used his platform to host a variety of events that highlight local businesses and artists in Chinatown, while building bridges between cultures. Inspired by legendary martial artist, Hollywood actor and philosopher Bruce Lee, Shifa moves with love in order to bring these two parts of the world together.  

Photo by Raye, courtesy of festival organizers.

On January 22, Asian communities worldwide celebrated Lunar New Year. Instead of relying on the Gregorian calendar (which is predicated on the time it takes for the earth to revolve around the sun), this ancient tradition uses the lunar calendar. It is typically celebrated during the second full moon after the winter solstice. In Chicago, many members of our city’s Asian communities took to the streets to celebrate. From Argyle to Chinatown, fireworks lit up the night sky while parades of people in traditional garments danced and marched the streets. 

A week later in Navy Pier’s Aon Ballroom, a cultural exchange festival (part of the Global Connections series) highlighted a variety of Asian cultures and celebrated Lunar New Year. The event broke the venue’s attendance record, and was spearheaded by Shifa (also known as ChinatownShifa on social media). Recently, journalist Alejandro Hernandez checked in with Shifa to discuss how the event figures into the influencer’s work. They also discussed why amidst the recent rise of hate crimes against Asian communities, and ever growing tensions between the U.S. government and the Chinese Communist Party, the work of

bringing cultures together is more important than ever.

Alejandro Hernandez: When did you first move to Chicago?

Shifa Zhong: I came here 13 years ago. So half of my life is here in the United States and another half is in China. With all this spy balloons s–t going on, it just made me realize that I’m in a really important spot right now.  How can I bring two countries together? I just realized that it’s very easy to repeat our history [from the first Cold War]. I don’t want that. I just want to learn from the history books, you know what I mean?

AH: You’ve always been passionate about uniting your culture with [other] cultures. What was that trigger for you to decide to be an advocate for your community?

SZ: Because I want to know the truth. I’m reading news from both sides. Of course, anything that China says, America is just going to go against it. With this balloon, the Chinese government released a press release saying it was a weather balloon blown off course. From the American side, they say, “This is a Chinese spy balloon.” But, you know how America glorifies spies with James Bond and Tom Cruise movies. I think America has spies in other countries, so [the spy allegations are] a reflection of what they’re doing… You know, maybe this is how we start the next war. I don’t like to think that way, so I just want to say “Let’s be cautious.”

AH: I hear you. Shifting gears a little bit. Lunar New Year’s just passed, and the Global Connections event your team organized broke the attendance record for an event at Navy Pier’s Aon Ballroom. 

SZ: I’m happy to hear that our event was record-breaking. I want to start off saying that every Asian culture is different. That applies to all cultures. Different communities go through different issues. Going into it, people were like “Is this gonna be a Lunar New Year event or Chinese New Year event?” There was tension, because if it’s a celebration of every Asian culture, then we shouldn’t say it’s just Chinese New Year. I think in Chicago especially, we just really have to highlight the success of Asian Americans. We only got like three or four percent of the total population.

Left: Shifa Zhong via Instagram; Right: photo by Instagram user trufflemore, courtesy of Shifa.

In order for Chinatown to become more inclusive, we have to invite other people, even though they don’t identify as [Chinese]. We need to open up our culture, embrace who we are, and not be ashamed of who we are… For many of us who identify as Asian Americans, we’ve been away from home for too long. So the whole message is for the people to come home. Come home to see what Chicago is doing to highlight Asian cultures through Chicago Loves Chinatown [the organization that organized the Lunar New Year event at Navy Pier].

AH: You mentioned your social media page Chinatown Loves Chicago. What is Chicago Loves Chinatown?

Chicago Loves Chinatown is a platform born out of hate. I was actually having a conversation about this with the Black Student Union at IIT… like this “Stop Asian Hate” thing… that slogan alone isn’t going to actually stop Asian hate. The people that hate us I actually want to talk to. How do we use love and how can we promote positivity? The only thing I can do is show people that there are a lot of people that love Chinatown, and through that platform I can let people know what’s happening in Chinatown with love, and love is positivity.

AH: What exactly is Lunar New Year and what is the symbolism of the Year of the Rabbit?

SZ: In the Chinese zodiac, there’s 12 animals, and 12 is a really good number.  Everything we see in life is pretty much a pattern, we call pakua. So with this pakua, the people before us were able to observe these incidents. The Year of the Rabbit, there is a lot of good luck, but also a lot of difficulty and challenges that you need to prepare for by becoming conscious. I’m still learning what it means. My first 13 years were in China, but I’ve lived in America for 13 years now. Now it’s time for me to catch up with my Chinese side by learning what happened in the past so that now I can be like Hannah Montana… because I’m the best of both worlds.

Written by Alejandro Hernandez

2022 Hip-Hop in Chinatown Festival Images by @raye.optic

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