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John S. Tan, founder of Wah King Noodle company who helped Chinatown expand, dies at 89

John S. Tan  |  provided photo

John S. Tan | provided photo

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Updated: April 8, 2013 8:00AM

John S. Tan helped expand Chicago’s Chinatown, creating new stores, restaurants and housing that attracted young Chinese-American families and immigrants who put down roots in Chinatown instead of moving to the suburbs.

Mr. Tan, an entrepreneur and developer who founded Wah King Noodle company, often held meetings in his home on ways to keep Chinatown vibrant, said his daughter, Phyllis Tan.

“He always wanted to expand Chinatown” from the pagoda-style gates at Cermak and Wentworth, because the growing community had limited housing and land, she said.

He and other Chinese-American civic leaders helped found the Chinese American Development Corp., which worked to acquire 32 acres of land from the Santa Fe railroad. In 1986, when community leaders unveiled plans for the property, a jubilant Mr. Tan said, “Who says America is not the land of opportunity?”

“He worked his butt off for nine years” on the project, his daughter said.

The new property allowed Chinatown to grow to the north, where Mr. Tan built the Chinatown Square mall.

More than 1,200 new town homes and condos were built on the railroad land, said Kim K. Tee, a founder, with Mr. Tan, of the Chinese American Museum of Chicago.

“All the new immigrants, an influx of new immigrants from China, they all flocked to Chinatown Square,” Tee said.

The development also includes a park, a community center and a senior center, Tan said.

Before the development, “Kids were growing up and moving to Skokie or Glen Ellyn, because the quality of housing wasn’t there,” she said.

Chinatown Square, Mr. Tan’s two-story mall, is known for the traffic-stopping art that he commissioned, including bronze figures of the Chinese zodiac. Its mosaics depict Chinese inventions, discoveries and cultural contributions, including gunpowder; noodles; numbers; the Great Wall, and American railroads. The dragon gates are carved from granite from Mr. Tan’s hometown of Xiamen, China. Its central square is a place where people can enjoy watching a dragon dance or a qigong demonstration.

Mr. Tan died Feb. 22 in Arcadia, Calif., where he had moved a few years ago to be closer to family. He was 89.

During World War II, he served as a captain in the Chinese Army, battling the Japanese on the Burma Road, his daughter said.

“He lost a lot of people,” she said. “He was pulled out of his battalion, and went to officer training, and when he went back to his designated location, he was the only one who survived. Everyone else had died.”

In 1954, Mr. Tan immigrated to attend a technical college in Chicago, where he met and married his wife, Rhea. Once they started a family, they decided to start a grocery store, Wah May, which translates roughly into the “The Culture of America,” their daughter said. Their original storefront, on Wentworth Avenue in Chinatown, was a place where in-the-know gourmets and foodie police officers could find Rhea Tan’s homemade egg rolls, wonton, sweet-and-sour sauce and hard-to-find imported delicacies.

“Every day she was selling out of things,” their daughter said.

It grew into a large grocery store, and Mr. Tan also founded Wah King Noodle. The firm has expanded to Los Angeles and remains in the family. It supplies wheat noodles nationwide for wonton, stir fries and beef noodle soup.

After President Richard M. Nixon’s diplomatic overtures helped open up China, Mr. Tan returned and reconnected with his family. He also founded a grade school in his hometown. Mr. Tan enjoyed travel and visited 60 countries.

He also was a founder of the Asian American Coalition of Chicago and the Chicago Fukienese Association.

Mr. Tan is survived by his wife, six children, 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Services have been held.

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