It’s all about the neighborhoods here in Philadelphia, and Billy Penn will take a deep dive into many of them with these “postcards” throughout the year. We’ll go over their history, their demographics, community centers and their neighborhood legends — and the most Instagrammable spots. Love Chinatown? Buy the stuff.
Chinatown started with one laundromat in the 19th century and has boomed since then. Though several development projects have threatened its existence, the neighborhood thrives, with top Asian restaurants and markets, and population that continues to grow.
Chinatown fits between Arch Street to the south and Vine Street to the north. It stretches east and west from Broad Street to Seventh Street.
1,003 (45 percent)
Rent vs. own
587 vs. 411 (59 percent)
Chinatown traces back to 1870, when a man named Lee Fong opened a laundromat at 913 Race Street. But before then a small population of Chinese settlers had already settled in Philadelphia. According to “Global Philadelphia: Immigrant Communities Old and New,” a Chinese museum existed from 1839 to 1842 at 9th and Sansom.
A restaurant, Mei Hsiang Lou, was built above Fong’s laundromat and was followed by several Chinese grocery stores. The next big boom traces to after World War II, when Chinese Americans who fought in the war brought their families to America.
The neighborhood has stayed majority Chinese throughout the years, with other Asian groups settling and lately a boom of young professional white people. According to Census numbers from five years ago, there were 315 white people in the neighborhood. That number has more than doubled. In the same time period, the Asian population increased by 14 percent.
Chinatown, the fourth largest of its kind in the U.S., still retains its aura. People can live there and truly feel like they are in their own enclave where little else matters besides their neighborhood. Even now, according to the Census, nearly half of Chinatown’s 2,097 residents age 5 and older speak English “less than very well.”
How a tennis star nearly derailed the Chinatown Friendship Gate
You know that cool gate you get to walk through at 10th and Arch streets when you’re in Chinatown? Well, it was installed in 1984 with tiles from Philadelphia’s Chinese sister city Tianjin. But the plans were nearly cancelled.
In 1983, China cut all cultural ties with the United States after the U.S. offered asylum to teenage tennis sensation Hu Na, who showed up for a tournament in California and never returned home. The gate had already been planned, but it was suddenly in jeopardy. Fortunately, China and the United States made peace by the end of the year, and the gate was installed and dedicated in January 1984.
Chinatown restaurant guide
How many restaurants are there in Chinatown? According to Yelp, it’s well over 200, ranging from Chinese to Japanese, Vietnamese and beyond. Inquirer food critic Craig Laban made a list of his favorite Chinatown restaurants last year. Among them: Terakawa, M Kee and Lee How Fook.
Many times throughout its history, Chinatown residents have worried their neighborhood will be destroyed due to development. And with good reason: Pieces of the neighborhood certainly have been taken away.
The Convention Center, Independence Mall and Jefferson Station have all led to the demolition of Chinatown homes or buildings or changed the borders of the neighborhood. The largest blow came in the early ’90s, when — after years of talks and planning — the Vine Street Expressway was completed. It stunted Chinatown’s northern growth and effectively cut off the Callowhill neighborhood (also known as Chinatown North) from Chinatown.
When the Phillies were looking to move out of Veterans Stadium, Mayor John Street originally supported plans to have a new one built in Chinatown. Community leaders opposed the move, believing it would permanently change the neighborhood, and won out when Street backed down from the plans.
Community gathering place
For years, Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church and School has been the place for newcomers and longterm Chinese residents to meet for worship and send their children to school for an education that caters to new immigrants. The school/church was set to be torn down in the original plans for the Vine Street Expressway but was saved when the expressway was scaled back.
Thing to check out
Chinese New Year. Chinatown has plenty bars and restaurants, but the neighborhood is especially hopping on Chinese New Year’s Eve. Every year, the neighborhood hosts a Midnight Lion Dance with firecrackers, music and more.
In 1983, Penn State grad student Jade Wong was in Philadelphia for summer break working as a manager at a Chinatown restaurant. Three men involved with Chinatown New York gang life came in and extorted her for money. When she called police, she was shot in the head. One man, Ah Thank Lee, was arrested weeks later and another one two years later.
But after the trial in 1988 in which Lee was convicted for murder, the case was reopened based on a confession from the third man in the case. In 2004, after a series of appeals, the conviction was vacated and Lee was freed. The city settled with Lee for $3 million in a civil suit.
Your food. Yeah, if you’re going to Instagram food, you might as well do it in one of the best food neighborhoods of Philadelphia.
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