Comedian Jenny Yang filmed an Instagram reel in Chinatown before her Philly show. (Instagram/@jennyyangtv)

The white-and-red posters declaring “No Arena In Chinatown” fit right in amid the dimly lit graffiti art, sculptures, and mini murals adorning the staircase down to Underground Arts’ subterranean space in Callowhill, where comedian and actress Jenny Yang was preparing to perform in an Aug. 3 stop of her “Fiancé Energy” tour. 

In some ways, the signs and large table staffed by Chinatown activists with petitions and T-shirts were the real opening act to Yang’s show, before the stage performances by three up-and-coming comics — and before Yang herself incorporated the anti-arena message into a nearly seven-minute portion of her set. 

Between jokes about being engaged to be married, interracial relationships, growing up as a tomboy daughter of immigrants, intergenerational trauma, and self-help methods, the Swarthmore alum swallowed a Tastykake in one go. She talked about how “Philly is so special” to her, and how trips on the Regional Rail into Philly’s Chinatown “kept me alive” and helped her “feel at home” while away from her family in California. 

Then she lit into 76 Devcorp and its proposal to build a new home for the Sixers on the site of the Fashion District mall and recently vacated Greyhound bus terminal. 

Comedian Jenny Yang performs her Fiancé Energy tour at Underground Arts in Philly on Thursday, Aug. 3. (Photo by Heather J. Chin / Billy Penn)

“These billionaire assholes want to establish a sports arena right up against historic Philadelphia Chinatown. Did you know this,” Yang asked the crowd, somewhat rhetorically, to a chorus of boos. 

“And I want to be very clear who I think the villains are. I don’t think the villains are the 76ers. I don’t think the villains are sports fans in Philly,” she said. “What I do not like is the fact that very rich billionaires have decided that they are going to take advantage of the importance and the real estate that Philadelphia Chinatown is on, and extract its profit off the back of the little guy. That is not okay. . . Don’t fuck with Philadelphia Chinatown.” 

Later in her comedy set, Yang incorporated Sixers owners David Blitzer and Josh Harris and lead 76 Place developer David Adelman into a Top 10 list.

Titled, “Eat The Rich,” the segment suggested what kind of food different billionaires might be. “Between the three of them,” Yang said, “their companies have been accused by human rights organizations of taking away affordable housing” on campuses and in West Philly. “I would want to eat them in a dish of delicious stir fry,” she declared. “Kung pao billionaires!” 

The 76 Place arena plan was officially proposed just over a year ago. It faces opposition from some residents and businesses in Chinatown, West Philly, and other communities impacted by real estate development that they say eliminated affordable housing, shuttered small businesses, and destroyed established communities of color. Developers have responded by promising to hire local and union workers, not to use taxpayer money or subsidies, and to add a mixed-income housing tower to the site. 

The proposal still needs zoning change approvals and local Councilmember Mark Squilla wields influence due to councilmanic privilege. If everything pans out for developers, the projected timeline would see demolition begin in 2026, construction in 2028, and an opening in 2031.

Representatives for 76 Devcorp declined to comment on Yang’s statements.

Comedian Jenny Yang came to Philly’s Underground Arts on her Fiancé Energy tour, incorporating an anti-arena message in support of the Save Chinatown Coalition. (Photo by Heather J. Chin / Billy Penn)

Asked after the show why she felt it was important for her to speak out on the issue, Yang explained that changing a comedy bit to fit a tour location was “very uncharacteristic,” but when local activists reached out, she was happy to accommodate. 

“I was also familiar with previous fights for Philly Chinatown to fight off development. I have a lot of respect for Deborah Wei. So to hear she was involved, too, made it an easy decision,” Yang said. 

Wei, a founding member of Asian Americans United, joined Jenny Zhang of the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance (APIPA) in a call with Yang a week before the show, to ask for help bringing visibility to the Save Chinatown Coalition cause. 

“I thought it was a shot in the dark; if [Yang] doesn’t respond, no harm no foul,” said Zhang, lead organizer of the Philly branch of APIPA. “And then she just responded ‘Yes! What else?” and offered preemptively to do a chunk of [her] set” on the issue. 

Save Chinatown Coalition members brought petitions and merch to Jenny Yang’s comedy show at Underground Arts on Thursday, Aug. 3. (Photo by Heather J. Chin / Billy Penn)

Before becoming a nationally recognized comedian, Yang got a political science degree at Swarthmore and has a background in student community organizing, urban planning, and as a labor organizer with SEIU. And as a dual member of WGA and SAG-AFTRA, the comedian noted, she is currently double-striking, unable to write, perform, or promote Hollywood projects, including one she was just cast in alongside Michelle Yeoh

“I see myself as an entertainer or comedian, and the ability to provide a morale boost to the people who are fighting so hard on the campaign? That, to me, is the main goal of mine,” Yang said.

“The USO had entertainers tour military bases for a reason because when you are a foot soldier in the fight, it takes a lot out of you. So if there’s any kind of morale boost or entertainment or laughter or joy to the foot soldiers, so to speak, of the Philly Chinatown campaign, then I can do that.”

On the use of comedy to bring important issues to new audiences, Yang said the fight for Chinatown is something that should resonate for everyone, not just Asian Americans. 

“Asian Americans are often used as a wedge between Black and white. In a city historically important to the Black community, it’s important for people who support Philly Chinatown to not make it like we are against sports or the NBA or sports fans,” she said. “If you love Philadelphia and the city and you love how it’s able to represent the diversity of Philadelphia, then you should care about how these billionaire bullies are trying to take advantage of this important community.”

Heather Chin is Billy Penn's deputy editor. She previously was a digital producer at the Inquirer and an editor at outlets both print and digital — from national breaking news service Flipboard to hyperlocal...