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Big projects like the Sixers’ arena plan have often threatened Philly’s Chinatown. But the AAPI community always fights for the neighborhood.

“We might speak a different language — but we have a right to exist just as any other neighborhood,” said Mary Yee, founder of Yellow Seeds.

Pedestrians walk along North 10th Street on the northern edge of Chinatown.
Pedestrians walk along North 10th Street on the northern edge of Chinatown.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Taryn Flaherty is mayoral candidate Helen Gym’s daughter, and Kaia Chau is the daughter of Asian Americans United co-founder Debbie Wei.

Oil-stained pink pastry boxes. The cat she always played with. The sight of ginger and garlic, and the smell of spices and sauces.

Every weekend, Debbie Wei’s parents would drive from their Upper Darby home — where back then there were few other Asians — to Center City’s Chinatown, seeking pieces of their Shanghai home that was thousands of miles away. Now 65, Wei still vividly remembers details of those weekends from her childhood — and the sense of comfort and belonging the weekly trips brought to her immigrant parents.

For 150 years, Philadelphia’s Chinatown has served that exact purpose to each generation of the Asian American/Pacific Islander community: for new immigrants, a familiar home and safe haven from discrimination and isolation through community, culture, and language, and a strong connection to and immersion in the heritage and roots for each generation after that. And for 150 years, the Chinatown community has fought for its life as big development project after project has targeted the neighborhood, threatening not only its existence but its unique authenticity — most recently with the 76ers’ proposal for a new arena on the neighborhood’s southern border. Today, it’s one of the few remaining communities of color and low-income communities in Philadelphia’s downtown core, and one of few authentic Chinatowns left in the country.

» READ MORE: Everything we know about the Sixers' plans for a new Center City arena

“It’s [because of] a history and legacy of fight,” said Wei, cofounder of Asian Americans United. “Traditional arts and culture, and reclamation of culture and community, are underpinnings for how we fight.”

Building a community

Chinatown became Cecilia Yep’s home at the age of 7 and has remained her home for the 85 years since.

Yep’s father moved the family to Chinatown from North Philly in an attempt to escape discrimination and connect his kids to the language and culture. They followed a trending immigration pattern at the time: Many new immigrants from China were choosing to settle down among one another in the neighborhood, searching for community and affordability.

“It was the only destination,” said John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation. “And Chinatown had nine benevolent associations. Their role was to help resettle immigrants in Philadelphia — so providing temporary housing and employment for new settlers.”

Though the area was rundown in its early years, the new residents slowly worked to make Chinatown a more family-friendly community.

“An influx of immigrants came that helped revitalize a lot of the commercial stuff that was happening in Chinatown,” said Mary Yee, founding member of the youth advocacy group Yellow Seeds. “There’s that new money coming in, and new expertise, so that all helped stabilize and revitalize Chinatown so that much of the property became at least Asian-owned, whereas before it was owned by non-Asians.”

» READ MORE: AAPI-owned businesses in Philly to support year-round

Over the years, the community always took care of itself, establishing not only businesses but also places of worship, schools, and community centers to serve residents and help them thrive — filling the service gaps left by the city.

Most notable to the community is the Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church and School, founded in 1941.

“There was a strong affinity for this school and church because it actually created a community place for families where people looked like one another and spoke the same language, and there was no [anti-Asian] prejudice or racism,” said Chin, who grew up in Chinatown.

For many in the community, Holy Redeemer was the school they grew up in, the church they married in, and where they laid loved ones to rest. It was the threat to this church and school that first mobilized the community as a whole against one of the first urban renewal projects they were faced with in 1966: the Vine Street Expressway.

“An influx of immigrants came that helped revitalize a lot of the commercial stuff that was happening in Chinatown.”

Mary Yee

“I think the residents at the time realized that if you take the church, the school will eventually disappear,” Chin said. “And a community without a school is sort of on a pathway toward extinction.”

Last one standing

Homes were being torn down all around Yep’s house at Ninth and Race Streets, until hers was the last one on the block. Still, she refused to leave.

“I had the largest backyard in Center City,” she said, laughing.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the city used eminent domain to destroy blocks of houses and evict dozens of families to make way for the Center City Commuter Connection. Yep, recently widowed and with three children, refused to leave her home — especially for the meager $10,000 the city was offering in exchange.

Yep gave the mayor at the time an option: I’ll leave voluntarily if you build more housing in Chinatown. He proposed a $60,000 comprehensive plan in Chinatown, and three housing developments were eventually built: one for residents who owned and lost their properties, one for senior citizens, and one for Section 8 holders.

“What I found was that the elders had so much wisdom and heart.”

Debbie Wei

That was Yep’s first of many acts of resistance to protect her neighborhood and community. Over the decades, Yep was on the front lines fighting against the Vine Street Expressway, Convention Center, a federal prison, two casinos, a baseball stadium, and more. Within the community, she’s widely referred to as the godmother or grandmother of Chinatown.

“It wasn’t a case of deciding whether you wanted to do it — you have to do it,” she said.

The projects were always different, but the concerns remained the same: gentrification, displacement of families, pricing businesses out of existence, environmental racism, and the loss of Chinatown’s cultural authenticity (or, as many community leaders say, becoming the Chinatown of Washington, D.C.).

There are some projects community members have been able to halt completely with their activism, such as the casinos and federal prison. They were able to get scaled-back versions of others, such as the Vine Street Expressway — which still ultimately split Chinatown in half, leaving the northern part blighted save for the church. The community has also lost 25% of its housing due to these projects, leaders say.

Through petitions, protests, strikes, and consistent attendance at common council meetings, the community fought back time and time again. But one of the most significant fights community leaders recall was the one against the proposed Phillies stadium.

“Because of language, there were two different coalitions that worked together: one primarily English, one primarily Chinese-speaking, so the entire community could have a voice,” said Wei. “What I found was that the elders had so much wisdom and heart.”

“Chinatown holds history and memory, that is a marker of what makes community.”

Debbie Wei

The elders decided all of the protesters needed to wear matching T-shirts, and collected the money to design and print them. The elders suggested a strike across all of Chinatown, shutting down each business, so everyone could march to City Hall in opposition to the stadium.

“They were tapped in to the business owners,” Wei said. “The English-speaking kids, we could have never pulled that off.”

Chinatown’s secret

While other neighborhoods across Philadelphia have fallen victim to gentrification, such as Fishtown, Chinatown has resisted: It’s one of the last communities of color and low-income communities in Philadelphia’s downtown core. And while many other Chinatowns across the country have just become a collection of Chinese characters on the window fronts of chain businesses, Philadelphia’s Chinatown has managed to preserve its authentic culture.

Leaders point to the unification and mobilization across generations and languages as essential to the Chinatown community’s successes over the years: Organizers such as Wei got every person, from restaurant workers to garment-factory workers, involved in the activism to preserve the community. Younger generations are key to that success, too.

Kaia Chau, Wei’s 20-year-old daughter, grew up going to protests and common council meetings with her mother while the community was fighting against the casino. Now, Wei is bringing her into the fold of organizing at Asian Americans United, saying that passing the torch on to the next generation is critical to the future preservation of Chinatown.

“I was young at the time, but I still knew it was very important to fight for,” Chau said. “Right now, I’m mostly just observing what organizing is like, what it entails, the processes that my mom and her peers go through in trying to tackle a big issue like this. It’s just a really great experience learning these organizing tactics, and hopefully I can pass it down when we inevitably have to fight any other large development that threatens Chinatown.”

The fact that people actually live in Chinatown, preserving the authenticity of the neighborhood’s culture, is what has allowed people such as Chau to shape their Asian American identities through immersion. It’s also what has built community in Chinatown: Today, Yep’s children are friends with the children of her former classmates. It’s those long-standing relationships that anchor Chinatown and build a sense of camaraderie in the neighborhood.

“Chinatown holds history and memory. That is a marker of what makes community,” Wei said.

And without the residents, leaders say, Chinatown would lose its authenticity like D.C.’s Chinatown, which has lost its vibrancy when residents were displaced after big development projects.

“To build a strong, vibrant, and sustainable community, the businesses are really important,” said Andy Toy, formerly with PCDC and current policy director with the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations. “But if you don’t have the people living there, which could go away pretty quickly if people get either gentrified or bought out in some way, you could have a really temporary type of neighborhood.”

“It’s just a really great experience learning these organizing tactics, and hopefully I can pass it down when we inevitably have to fight any other large development that threatens Chinatown.”

Kaia Chau

The community has pushed to rezone parts of Chinatown to keep out big developments and high-rises where possible, maintaining the neighborhood feel with smaller rowhouses. And PCDC has invested significantly in building affordable units, particularly as residents lost their homes to development projects, to further build out Chinatown’s residential core.

That’s not to say that gentrification is not creeping into Chinatown — fewer and fewer new immigrants can afford the climbing prices in Chinatown and are choosing to settle in more affordable South Philly and Northeast Philly, instead. But even so, the neighborhood remains a cultural and spiritual hub for immigrants and their descendants seeking their roots, home, and safety — no matter which neighborhood they reside in.

“It’s important for people to understand that this is part of the American social and cultural fabric,” Yee said.

“This is a vibrant community,” she continued. “It’s a community that has all the features of other neighborhoods — it has churches, community centers, small businesses, homes, playgrounds, beauty parlors. So this is a neighborhood just like any other neighborhood except we look different, we might speak a different language — but we have a right to exist just as any other neighborhood.”

The work produced by the Communities & Engagement desk at The Inquirer is supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project's donors.