Rewind for a minute to the later half of the 19th century. At 913 Race St., Mei-Hsian Lou is closing the doors to his little Laundromat as dusk settles in between the cracks of the primitive city skyline. He is youthful and vibrant, glowing with a positive hope for the future at his new home in America. What Lou probably didn’t know was that his tiny little business would start Philadelphia’s Chinatown. Today, if you look hard enough, you can still see that vibrant glow rising above Chinatown at night from anywhere in the city.
If you’re new to Philadelphia you might be wondering where to start in modern-day Chinatown. In this case you don’t have to worry because the choices are virtually endless.
For a small snack or a large feast, a good place to begin is at Hu Tieu Trieu Hung. The restaurant is better known in Philly terms as The Nice Chinese Noodle House at 1038 Race St. Nice is really an understatement. If you always like your glass of homemade iced tea filled to the brim and a hot cup of herbal tea after dinner, you may want stop by in the noodle house. The hospitality of the staff is warming and makes you feel welcome and appreciated. Even though you may think you’re in China, John Cougar Mellencamp playing on the radio may remind you that Chinatown can of course appeal to any type of culture. With everything on the menu from chicken lo mein to charbroiled squid, The Nice Chinese Noodle House might be a good place to get your feet wet on a first trek through Chinatown. Be careful with the chopsticks though, they’re not as easy as they look.
The Noodle House isn’t the only good place to eat. Chinatown’s streets are lined with restaurants, cafés and cookie houses. In the window of the Wong Wong Restaurant at the corner of 10th and Race streets, full chickens and racks of beef hang in the window dripping with hot barbecue sauce. Live lobsters, fish and crabs scramble in the windows of the H.K. Golden Phoenix Restaurant, now residing at 913 Race St., begging hungry onlookers to eat somewhere else instead. The shops and restaurants of Chinatown that may appeal to tourists only make up the face of this small, tight knit community. Below the surface is a small population that strives passionately to keep their eastern culture alive while still embedded into American society.
Overlooking the Vine Street Expressway at the corner of 10th and Vine streets is a mural that beautifully depicts Chinatown’s historical importance, landmarks and the pride in the hard work it took to establish such a rich cultural hub thriving on friendliness and hospitality. Quotes painted on the mural such as “no prisons in Chinatown,” “better homes for Chinatown” and “homes not highways” speak about the adversity Chinatown’s citizens have met over the years while trying to preserve their own history and tradition.
Scary as Philly might have been, Chinatown has never closed its doors to those who are interested in Asian tradition and culture.
The Friendship Gate, another feature of Chinatown also depicted in the mural, arches over 10th Street and represents those open doors that Chinatown offers as a community. The top of the Friendship Gate has pagoda-like architecture and as you pass underneath it you begin to notice how the Asian culture has literally become infused into the urban texture of Philadelphia. Sources say actual Chinese artisans built the gate in 1984 with actual materials from the city of Tianjin. Originality is obviously not hard to come by in this little neighborhood.
Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church is another important institution for Chinatown and its community, especially for the young students who sit restlessly in each classroom. The church not only has a school, but access to computers as well as a suitable library for the students as well. Not only is Holy Redeemer a religious sanction but also depicts the importance of the education of Chinatown’s youth.
Custom may be the single most important thing that the Chinatown community embraces. The Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to preserving the Asian culture that thrives in and around the community. PCDC’s current project is a 38,000-square-foot recreation center for the residents in Chinatown, something sources say the community has never had. The facility is still in developmental stages.
“We’re generally trying to preserve and protect the culture of Asian-Americans,” said Dan Dan Liu, a Temple graduate student working as an intern for PCDC. “It would be hard to describe Chinatown in one word. If I had too, I would say it’s lively. It’s so hard though. In some cases it’s also like a home away from home.”
Philadelphia’s Chinatown is relatively small. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, its population reached a whopping 1,362 people. PCDC claims the community is still growing each year. Its expansion north of Vine Street is one of PCDC’s main goals in helping the Chinatown community strive within Philadelphia.
If you’ve never experienced Chinatown for yourself, this Philadelphia neighborhood is like no other. You might even say it’s like finding a fortune cookie right in the middle of a big steamy cheese steak sandwich.
If you’d like to help in preserving Philadelphia’s Chinatown culture, visit www.chinatown-pcdc.com and learn how to lend a hand or even become an active member in the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation.
T.C. Mazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.