More than just shops, eats

Once you step through the Friendship Gate at 10th and Arch streets, it’s a completely
different world. Roasted ducks hang in restaurant windows, bonsai trees are on sale and the street signs are in Chinese.

Philadelphia’s Chinatown is crowded with small businesses. It is a place where authentic Chinese cuisine, traditional clothing, sugarcane drinks, Hello Kitty stationary and live seafood can be found.

But with 135 years of history, Chinatown is more than just a booming marketplace and a tourist destination. With its many homes, schools, churches and temples, it is a neighborhood striving to preserve itself.It all began when a Chinese immigrant, Lee Fong, tried to make a living in the United States by opening a Laundromat at 913 Race St. in 1870.

Chinese dialects being spoken in the area. Tong Li, a 24-year-old store worker in Chinatown said that there is a need to learn English. “I get no more Chinese customers,” Li said. “I get a lot of tourists. They are interested in Chinatown. The Chinese culture is different from American culture.”

Every year, the neighborhood hosts the Lunar New Year celebration and the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. “Through festivals we can maintain culture,”
said Anna Lai, who has lived in Chinatown
for 10 years. “Around New Years, restaurants close early, which never happens for any American holiday,” Li said.

“They’ll be out at midnight [preparing for the celebration] because that’s something they all share no matter where they are from.”

With the help of Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, an organization dedicated to improving the neighborhood, residents of Chinatown are given a voice when dealing with government projects that affect the area.

In 1966, PCDC changed the plans of the Vine Street Expressway and saved Holy Redeemer
Church and School, the first Catholic church built in the western hemisphere for the Chinese. In 1994 and 2000, the community faced the threat of a prison and Citizen Bank Park being built within its area. But PCDC protested and preserved its borders. “If you take away the outsiders, you take away the heartbeat of Chinatown,” Li said. “Chinatown would not exist if people stopped coming in here.”

Fong’s Laundromat that opened in 1870 no longer stands. It has been replaced by a restaurant, H.K. Golden Phoenix. Posted on the restaurant wall is a plaque, reminding passersby of Chinatown’s origins and what it has endured over the last 135 years.

Anne Ha can be reached at

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