The colorful, 40-foot Chinatown Friendship Gate created by artist Sabrina Soong marks the entrance to Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood. The neighborhood features eclectic shops, neighborhood festivals and events, and a wide selection of delicious Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai and Burmese cuisine. (Rachna Mohan ('25))
The colorful, 40-foot Chinatown Friendship Gate created by artist Sabrina Soong marks the entrance to Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood. The neighborhood features eclectic shops, neighborhood festivals and events, and a wide selection of delicious Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai and Burmese cuisine.

Rachna Mohan ('25)

Philadelphia’s Chinatown

June 1, 2023

For some, Chinatown is a place to visit: you can grab a cup of boba, pick up a box of steaming takeout noodles, and buy dragon fruit. But, to the more than 3,000 people who live there — and thousands more who count on it for cultural connection — it’s home. Born in 1870, Philadelphia’s Chinatown’s parameters extend across Arch Street to Vine Street and from 11th Street to 8th Street. As a bustling hub of restaurants, K-beauty stores, and Asian supermarkets, Chinatown represents Hong Kong, Cantonese, Fujianese, Northern Sichuan, and Taiwanese cultures, with an addition of Korean, Thai, Malaysian, Burmese, Vietnamese, and American ideology mixed in the pot.

The History behind Chinatown

The beginning of Philadelphia’s Chinatown is marked by Lee Fong, a sojourner, who was one of the many who fled “anti-Chinese sentiment in the west” and relocated east to form small “bachelor societies” as recorded by the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC). At the same time, laundries and restaurants near Philadelphia’s commercial harbors emerged due to Cantonese immigration to Philadelphia. So, for many decades around the 900 block of Race Street, a concentration of Chinese businesses emerged – the cluster soon becoming Chinatown. After World War II, loosened immigration policies toward the Chinese metamorphosed Chinatown into a family-oriented community.

In the coming years, the Asian American community battled against urban renewal plans such as the Vine Street Expressway in the 1960s. Officially known as Interstate 676, the expressway has split the neighborhood in half, causing a stint in Chinatown’s community development and significantly contributing to air and noise pollution in the area. In 2020, over 100,000 cars and trucks traveled along the expressway daily, according to state traffic counts. The highway cuts through Chinatown, resulting in children and community members living in unsafe public spaces, with cars, highway traffic, and big loading trucks as everyday phenomena in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. Nevertheless, the neighborhood’s ethos emulates immigration ideology: resilience, hard work, and community orientation.

Popular Restaurants

Restaurants like Pho Calí — a Vietnamese restaurant on 1000 Arch Street — continue to thrive. Similarly, Dim Sum Garden on 1020 Race Street draws in hungry eaters daily; Penang’s — a Malaysian restaurant on 117 N 10th Street — does the same, with many rushing in to have Roti Canai, steaming Pad Thai noodles and crispy spring rolls. Ocean Harbour on 1023 Race Street, a Chinese restaurant, produces authentic dishes like Lo Mein, vegetables seasoned with authentic Chinese spices and handfuls of Bok Choy; not only is Ocean Harbour a place for visitors to experience Chinese culture, but it is a place for the community to rally behind activism to fight Philadelphia’s urban renewal projects, lending a place for community meetings, most recently in December to discuss a newly proposed basketball arena.

The Future of Chinatown

Throughout Chinatown, giant white letters on posters taped to the neighborhood walls read, “Save Chinatown! Basketball Arena: It’s not a done deal!”

This past summer, The Philadelphia Sixers announced plans to build a stadium on 10th and Market streets. Residents fear that if plans for the proposed Sixers Arena are confirmed, the arena will bring displacement of current community members, and local restaurants fear they may be unable to compete with flashy new spots in or next to the complex.

“It is very sad; I don’t like it,” said a restaurant owner.

Many fear that Philadelphia’s Chinatown will disappear, just like Washington DC’s. As a result of urban renewal projects, what was home to 3,000 people in D.C.’s Chinatown is now home to just 300. The Capital One Arena in Washington D.C. is a poster child for Philadelphia’s urban renewal. With Washington’s Asian-American community enduring a second wave of gentrification, many restaurants had to shut their doors due to high rents, no parking, and heavy traffic.

Historically, Asian immigrants created their safe havens out of neglected neighborhoods for their safety and families. Chinatowns originated as a result of trying to seek protection from anti-Asian violence, including government-imposed 6 p.m. curfews and deadlines on moving out or dying during the pre World War I era. So, many Chinatowns exist because Chinese people had to have somewhere to live. With a 339% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes across the country in 2021, according to an NBC News report, Philadelphia’s Chinatown community fears displacement again at a harrowing moment in the American socio-political climate.

Over 40 Chinatown associations and organizations formally announced the Chinatown Coalition to Oppose the Arena — and joining the coalition is the national civil rights organization Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF).

Philadelphia’s Asian-American community has continually voiced concerns over the issues posed by gentrification projects to their community — the events revealed a needed evaluation of the more significant problem of urban redevelopment. Nonetheless, urban development has disrupted Chinatown’s social fabric.

“I see the activism from the community… reflect the history of what immigrants have faced in America… I see the pagoda-type buildings, the friendship arch, and the celebration during the lunar new year, and I feel my culture, myself protected,” said Matthew Wang (’25), a Chinese-American student at East.

The Sixers developers claim that there are Chinatown groups, business owners, and residents who are supportive of the proposed arena. However, many have voiced their concerns and complained that the Sixers are trying to portray a false image of public sentiment in the neighborhood.

Chinatown represents the hard work of Asian immigrants in America to create better lives for themselves. In the face of bitter oppression, strong opposition and racism throughout history, Chinatown has become a cultural symbol of Asian Americans.


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