Philadelphia Chinatown

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  Chinatown History

During the late 1840’s, many Chinese laborers, mostly male, starting coming into the United States. They were drawn to the states due to the rumors and promises of higher wages. This was during the time of the civil war and economic stagnation in their home town of China. Many of these Chinese wanted to strike it rich by coming to work in the states, and possibly find gold. They were to return to their hometown once they received the gold to live high with their families. Many of the Chinese did not strike it rich and lived in poverty for the majority of their lives. Discriminatory laws prevented most of the Chinese to establish families within the United States. This was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Once the dreams of the gold rush lightened, the Chinese moved across the country, and gathered in Chinatowns throughout the United States. They were all poor neighborhoods where the majority of the residents were male. Chinese immigrants who ended up in Philadelphia came from New Jersey and San Francisco. There were very few work opportunities for the Chinese. They would have to operate hand laundries, run small specialty shops, and work in restaurants. A lot of the men would send the money home to their families, so they had little to live off of when working in the United States.

Due to the Japanese atrocities against China during the 1930’s, and the help from the United States during the World War II, the Chinese were viewed at a different stand point. This changed federal policies against the Chinese, and opened up many new job opportunities for them as well. Since the Chinese heard, saw, and sensed the changes that came with the news of Japanese bombardment of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Many grieved the loss of American soldiers on that day, and also the devastation that the war brought on their country, but they still toasted to the occasion because they knew they were paired with America during the Second World War.

The discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was lifted in 1943 from the Chinese. The immigration of their people was still limited by the national quota system, but they still had a door open to allow their friends and family to travel over. A lot of Chinese brought their wives and children over due to the war. This gave them the name, “war brides.” The community grew more and more as families started settling in Chinatown after the war. Many businesses, churches, as well as cultural organizations also grew with the Chinese for the Chinese, ran by the Chinese. This also helped to provide services for the growing families.

Over time, churches were established in Chinatown. This allowed the Chinese to attend religion services, as well as provide schooling for their children through the churches, recreational activities and community activities were also funded and thrown by the churches. The churches helped Americanize the Chinese immigrants, and helped to merge cultures together. There were Chinese associations that then grew such as the Chinese Benevolent Association which was created in 1951. They bridged the differences in various community organizations throughout Chinatown. They mediated disputes about various sections of the town. They also provided services such as food and housing to the immigrants and worked to preserve the Chinese culture within Chinatown. A newly formed YMCA came out in 1955 by six young men. They had very limited gathering spaces for recreational purposes, and thus created the YMCA for the Chinese community where anyone could go to learn cooking and English.

The residents of Chinatown worked to turn Chinatown into an actual community rather than a red light district. While planning the community, developers were planning to build a larger downtown area. This threatened the future of Chinatown’s community during the 1960’s. Construction plans for Market East, Vine Street Expressway, and the Convention Center boxes Chinatown in from all sides of entry and exit. This also meant that many Chinese would lose their homes and businesses due to the construction. During the year of 1966, the community of Chinatown was informed of the construction of the Vine Street Expressway. This meant that the Holy Redeemer Church would be destroyed. This meant no schooling and community togetherness due to the fall of the church. Some of the older organizations wanted to stop the demolition, but the language barriers and tradition made it reluctant to try.

The younger generation of Chinese took matters into their own hands and went over the older generation to stop the demolition. Cecilia Moy Yep became the first Chinese woman to speak out in the public forums about Chinatown and the demolition. With others of higher standing in the Chinese community, she organized an entire committee for the preservation of the Chinese community. This later developed in 1969 as the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation. Many men, women, and children labored to save the church and their neighborhood through various coalition groups.

The Chinese, who were once voiceless, became involved intensely in the American political process in order to save their town and community. Not only did they speak out, but they also did demonstrations, petition drives, and media campaigns to save their community. They put pressure on the state officials and strong pressure to stop the construction of the new buildings. After 20 years of negations and trying, the community and city agreed on a solution. They modified a new plan for the Expressway in the late 80’s. The new plans spared the church and the Chinatown community.

This movement marked a large transition for the Chinatown community. This is because they went from secluded immigrants to an engaged and involved Chinese community. The movement lasted throughout the years due to the increase of fighting for survival because the threat of ongoing urban renewal throughout their town. The PDDC now works with the city, state, and federal governments to preserve and revitalize Chinatown through their urban development plans instead of destroying it.

There recently was an influx of Chinese immigrants from China which has diverged the Chinatown residential and business community. This has presented Chinatown with new challenges to services that provide the community services. Because of the Chinese tradition, activism continues to be a part of their everyday lives. Asian Americans United was founded in 1985, and they protested all of the immigrants points of views and gave them a voice. They protested against welfare cuts, challenging anti immigration sentiment, and pushing for any type of reform for education.

Chinatown has now become a full on community. They have hopes for the future and expanding options that come about every day. There are families who work, live, play, and learn throughout their communities. Even though their population is steadily growing to this day, they still have plenty of room and services in order to accommodate the new arrivals. Chinatown in Philadelphia has become a popular attraction to tourists around the world wanting to get a taste of Chinese culture without having to visit China to get it.