The history of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation is inextricably tied to the history of Chinatown.
1871: The Birth of Philadelphia Chinatown
Philadelphia’s Chinatown was born in 1871 with a laundry at 913 Race Street, owned by Lee Fong, one of the many sojourners who fled anti-Chinese sentiment in the west and relocated east to form small “bachelor societies” in many cities. When Chinatown was established in the late 1800s, this area was known as Philadelphia’s “tenderloin” or “red light” district. Chinatowns across the United States often sprung up in such areas because parts of the city regarded as dangerous or undesirable were the only places Chinese immigrants would be accepted. For many decades Chinatown consisted of a concentration of Chinese businesses clustered around the 900 block of Race Street.
On October 8, 2010, the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission dedicated a historic plaque at 913 Race Street recognizing the founding of Chinatown.
1950S: Post World War II
By the 1950s, little had changed. Chinatown wasn’t known for its cultural vibrancy and residential life, but rather for bars and vice. The area was Philadelphia’s “skid row”: not a good place to raise a family. However, for the people who lived here it was a community. Despite challenging surroundings they built a home, and it was the only home they had.
After World War II, liberalized immigration policies toward the Chinese transformed Chinatown into a family-oriented community. Churches, businesses, and social and cultural organizations were established to improve neighborhood life, preserve Chinese culture, and provide services to growing numbers of immigrants.
1966: PCDC is Born
In 1966, PennDOT unveiled its new plan for the Vine Street Expressway, which called for the razing of the Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church and School. Concurrently, the city initiated plans for Metropolitan Hospital and Market Street East that would box Chinatown in on all sides, preventing relocation. It seemed Chinatown would be destroyed without even having a chance to speak. For many residents, this was the last straw.
Led by Cecilia Moy Yep, a young widow with three small children, residents decided to fight for their homes and community. The Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA), the only organization representing Chinatown at that time, assisted in organizing the first Town Meeting.
On March 27th 1966, associations, business owners, church leaders, sympathizers and residents gathered at the On Leong Merchants’ Association to discuss how we could counter plans proposed by the government agencies that would seriously impact the community. From this meeting, the Committee for the Advancement and Preservation of the Chinatown Community was formed. The Committee was later incorporated into the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) in 1969.
In 1969 George Moy was elected PCDC’s first President. In 1982, George would receive the William Penn Human Rights Trophy for his volunteer service to the Chinatown community.
1975 – 1984: Building Resources
In 1975 a decade of struggle began to pay off, as PCDC got a City grant to complete an urban design plan and policy recommendations for Chinatown. The 1975 study, the Chadbourne Report, led Mayor Frank Rizzo to commit funding to build houses in Chinatown for low and moderate income residents displaced by government action.
The fight against the development projects proposed by the city in the sixties continued through the seventies and beyond. By organizing the community and bringing attention to Chinatown’s plight, PCDC finally made the government listen.
PCDC made replacement housing within for the displaced a top priority. If we could not stop the government from demolishing houses, at least we could force them to relocate the displaced within Chinatown. The buildings might be different, but the community would survive.
PCDC goes full throttle to preserve Chinatown. Three projects in three years deliver 138 new residential units
Mei Wah Yuen in 1982: Development of 25 townhouses on Spring Street from 9th to 11th Streets. Preserved the residential character of Chinatown’s streets.
Wing Wah Yuen (Dynasty Court) in 1983: Development of 55 units (Section 8) at Race Street between 10th & 11th Streets.
On Lok House in 1984: Development of 55 units (Section 8) rental units for the elderly & 2 commercial units at 219 North 10th Street. Innovation of incorporating commercial in affordable developments.
1977: Community Garden Program
To bolster spirit and unity, PCDC launched a community garden program in the late seventies on vacant land acquired for the expressway. Under the direction of Anna Ku Lau, it was met with great enthusiasm and won second prize for best garden in the PA Horticultural Society’s city-wide neighborhood gardens’ contest in 1977. The garden would receive many prizes over the years, including the Decade Award in 1984. Annual bumper crops of fruits and vegetables were the pride of the community, and helped augment the food supplies of many needy families.
1982-1984: The Friendship Gate
In November 1982, Cecilia Moy Yep, with architect Sabrina Soong, and James Guo represented Chinatown in a Trade Mission to China. The Mission resulted in an Agreement with Philadelphia’s Sister-City, Tianjin, to provide materials and technical assistance for the Gate.
Twelve Chinese artisans arrived in Philadelphia in October, 1983. PCDC Board Members and other volunteers provided food, housing and entertainment for the artisans during their stay. Extreme cold that winter made the project difficult, but thanks to George Moy’s creative heating system it was finished on schedule. The Friendship Gate was dedicated in January 1984, with Mayor Wilson Goode, Mayor Green, and Vice-Mayor Li of Tianjin in attendance.
Late 1980s: More Relocation
In the late 1980s the construction of the Convention Center, which had long been proposed, finally appeared inevitable. PCDC organized seven businesses whose properties were located on the proposed Convention Center site to demand that the city honor a promise to build replacement units equivalent to what was taken. As a result seven new commercial structures were built on the east side of 9th Street to house the displaced businesses and their tenants. Again, Chinatown was relocated but preserved.
Gaining the land on east 9th Street from Race to Cherry was a struggle. The land, which community members regarded as the eastern border of Chinatown, was taken from Chinese families for redevelopment but was then given away to Podiatry College. When PCDC suggested the land should be returned to Chinatown, the government challenged PCDC to have a project ready within two weeks. PCDC proposed a development of 14 units of residential (28 apartments) and commercial (14 stores), and community members in need of housing agreed to immediately place down payments to finance construction. Within two weeks enough money was raised for a construction loan, and within a year Gim Sam Plaza was completed. Lily Yeh, a prominent local artist, created a mural on the Race St. side of the façade.
1990s: The Struggle to Expand
Given the repeated development projects that had taken Chinatown land and boxed in the community, the only way for the community to expand was north. In the early 1990’s, PCDC commissioned Dr. Jon Lang for a comprehensive design study to formulate a strategy to expand Chinatown northward. For the first phase of this strategy PCDC identified the site at 9th and Vine Streets for construction of Hing Wah Yuen, a 51-unit mixed-income affordable housing development.
Of course, building homes in Chinatown is never easy. Competing for the site was the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which was interested in putting a 750 bed Metropolitan Detention Center at 8th and Vine Streets. PCDC organized the community and won support for the battle. Cardinal Bevilacqua spoke out against the prison. In 1994, the Federal Bureau of Prisons decided to locate the Detention Center closer to the Federal Court, another victory for Chinatown’s growing residential community. This allowed us to move full speed forward with Hing Wah Yuen’s development.
PCDC had already received a challenge grant from HUD for Hing Wah Yuen, which would match every dollar (up to $25,000) that PCDC raised for the Chinatown North Project. PCDC matched the challenge with funds raised at our Chinese New Year Fundraising Dinner in January 1993. Hing Wah Yuen was a difficult project because it encompassed an entire city block, with the CCCRT Tunnel running underground in the middle of the site. However, PCDC completed the project in 1997, and in 1999 it received the national Maxwell Award for Excellence in Community Development from the Fannie Mae Foundation. In 1998, PCDC designed and constructed our new office on the same site, at 9th and Vine Streets.
In 2003, PCDC completed Sing Wah Yuen as the second phase of the Chinatown North Project. Located next to Hing Wah Yuen and Holy Redeemer Church and School, Sing Wah Yuen consists of 11 units of housing for first-time homebuyers. The development has 10 low-moderate income residential units and l market rate mixed commercial/residential unit.
2000: The Stadium Fight
In 2000 PCDC’s new Executive Director John Chin immediately had to mobilize the community against a massive threat, as the city announced its intention to locate a new baseball stadium at 11th and Vine Streets.
The stadium would have paralyzed Chinatown with traffic and illegal parking during events, harming both residents and businesses and blocking any further opportunities for Chinatown’s growth.
PCDC drew on its growing resources and reputation to fight this imposition, forming a coalition of local community and national Asian American organizations. A law suit was filed to keep the Stadium out of Chinatown, and ultimately Mayor Street decided to build the Stadium in South Philadelphia.
The stadium fight showed that even after decades of advocacy, Chinatown still needed to be wary of outside plans. Chinatown’s status as a viable home for low-income residents has also been threatened by internal pressures, as private developers have been rapidly converting former warehouses and factories in the area into office buildings and loft apartments.
The gentrification of Chinatown North has succeeded in driving up land prices out of the reach of the community, especially for affordable housing for low-moderate income persons. By the 2000s Chinatown had established itself as a thriving live-work community, yet it was still under constant pressure.
2021 and Beyond:
Continued activism by community members has allowed the community to survive and today many look to the future of Chinatown in new housing and businesses north of Vine Street.
Today, PCDC leverages it’s 55 years of experience as the premier grassroots, community-based organization addressing the affordable housing, financial empowerment, small business assistance, youth wellness, community advocacy, and neighborhood planning needs of Chinatown and the Chinese immigrant community of Greater Philadelphia. Our language-accessible and culturally-appropriate bilingual programs and services are driven by our mission to protect, promote, and preserve Chinatown as a viable ethnic, residential, and business community.
More recently at the start of 2020, PCDC expanded our services to support the need for COVID-19 relief and recovery, information, and vaccines. PCDC actively organizes against anti-Asian hate through town halls, a bilingual survey of anti-Asian incidents among our Chinese immigrant community, an Asian Women’s Wellness Day providing self-protection workshops and activities, a community rally on May 12th, and our community advocacy program. We will continue to draw upon decades of cultural resilience, organizing, and advocacy work to overcome the challenges our communities face.
In the words of PCDC Co-Founder George Moy, “This is, was, will be Chinatown.”