Philadelphia’s Chinatown is small in size, but what it lacks in city blocks, it makes up for in rich history, deliciously diverse foods and handfuls of surprises.
Historically, most Chinatowns, including Philadelphia’s, grew from the edges of a commercial downtown like Center City. According to the Philadelphia Multicultural Affairs Congress, the borders of our Chinatown lie between Arch and Callowhill Streets and 8th and 12th Streets.
Chinatown’s most recognizable landmark is the Friendship Gate at 10th and Arch. This 40-foot tall structure built by artisans from China is a symbol of friendship and cultural exchange between Philadelphia and Tianjin, China.
Contrary to stereotypes, the neighborhood has more to offer than just restaurants and groceries. A thriving community of Chinese and other Asian Americans reside there because the services they need are met within walking distance. Insurance companies, nail and hair salons, tattoo parlors and one-hour photo shops are all found in Chinatown. Residents have their necessities covered – the area even has as funeral home.
Lisa Tsang, a Temple freshman, grew up in Chinatown. She chose to stay there during college because she enjoys the neighborhood.
“I like that it is a convenient place to live for Chinese people and that it feels like home for Chinese immigrants,” Tsang said. This home for Asian Americans has a long history of struggle, poverty and assimilation to the American way.
Chinese immigrants, most of them male, arrived to Philadelphia around 1845. A wave of immigrants came to America in the mid 1800s with the dream of finding gold. The unsuccessful turned to major cities for work, gathering in soon-to-become-Chinatowns and running hand laundries and restaurants. Philly’s first Chinatown business, a laundromat, opened at 913 Race St. in 1870.
Chinatown remained predominately male until 1943 with the end of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Women and children arrived and the neighborhood transformed to become a family-oriented community.
Recently, Chinatown has struggled to survive. Since the 1960s, urban developments have pushed the community into a smaller space. Construction of the Convention Center, the Gallery and the Vine Street Expressway has boxed in this ethnic enclave. A generation of American-born Chinese helped establish organizations to preserve the community. The Chinese Cultural and Community Center, which sponsors the annual Chinese New Year parade, formed at the YMCA in 1955. The Holy Redeemer Catholic Church was founded in 1941 to assist immigrants with balancing Chinese and American cultures.
Mary Qi, the owner of Q Jade, a small wholesale store at 1009 Race St. which sells jewelry, hair accessories and Chinese apparel, has witnessed a change in the neighborhood over the last 20 years.
“It was dirty before and the business was slower. Before, the American customers were worried to come into the area, but now it is much better,” Qi said.
Qi’s store is one of the many hidden treasures in Chinatown. Another, the Asia Crafts Co., at 123 N. 10th St., is perfect for the inner child and Hello Kitty lover.
Shanghai Bazaar, at 1018 Race St., is a good choice for newcomers to the area. It stocks Asian retail on two massive floors.
Another delight is the Chinese Cookie Factory, at 155 N. 9th St., which sells freshly-baked Asian cookies to nearby restaurants. A bag of fortune cookies with X-rated fortunes can be purchased for $3.
The Fo Shou Temple at 1015 Cherry St. is a practicing Buddhist Temple open to the public everyday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
As far as markets go, two top the list. Asia Supermarket may be difficult to find, but it is worth the work. This underground market has fresh fish, produce and even kitchen wares. There are two entrances to this market, 1030 Race St. and 143 N. 11th St. A second choice, Chung May Food Market is at 1021 Race St.
Allison Lang, a student at Moore College, travels from her residence near the Philadelphia Art Museum to Chinatown specifically to purchase food at these two markets.
“There are a lot of good deals here and I can find more exotic stuff,” Lang said. “Also, the ramen is good, with many kinds to choose from.”
Want a bite to eat, you’re in the right neighborhood. For something small like a coffee and a pastry, check out one of the area’s 10 bakeries. I had a sticky mango snowball at Cafe Delight, at 917 Arch St.
Chinatown isn’t all Chinese eats. Vietnamese, Thai, Malaysian and Burmese eateries can also be found. Charles Plaza: Natural Healthy Chinese Cuisine is a great bet for non-greasy Chinese food with freshly cooked vegetables. For dim sum, small portions of Chinese dishes that are great for sampling, the best place to visit is Ocean Harbor at 1023 Race St.
If you’re headed out of town and are low on funds, two Chinatown bus lines are available that are cheaper than Greyhound. Cherry Bus Inc. (APEX) has 28 buses daily that are headed to New York City and Washington D.C. The 2000 Coach line doesn’t have as many, but has costs just the same – $20 round trip to NYC.
There’s no doubt Philly’s Chinatown is more than meets the eye. Around each corner are scrumptious edibles, Chinese silk wares and services galore. As a visitor exploring Chinatown for the day, the only reason to go home was for sleep.
Colleen Dunn can be reached at email@example.com.