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Story Publication logo May 15, 2024

Chinatowns Across the U.S. Are Disappearing. In Philadelphia, Locals Fear Theirs Is Next

A little girl stands with an umbrella next to a flooded street

W&M students developed reporting and writing skills with the support of Pulitzer Center staff.

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Directly next to a strip of Chinatown businesses, including QT Banh Mi Sandwich, a metal fence surrounds an empty lot that is currently owned by the 76ers. Image by Vivian Hoang. United States, 2024.

Mya Son has walked the same block for nearly a decade.

Every morning, the 23-year-old finds her way to the four orange walls of her aunt’s and uncle’s restaurant, QT Banh Mi Sandwich, at the edge of Philadelphia’s Chinatown and its once-booming Fashion District. Each day, she follows in her family’s footsteps, determined not to break their 20-year streak of keeping the tiny place alive.

The shop, despite being just barely big enough for three hungry customers to stand in, is a local favorite. Even during off-hours, Son is busy taking phone orders and expertly wrapping sandwiches behind the counter, her fiercely loud voice cutting through the roar of the kitchen to call out customers’ names. 

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Her customers are so loyal, they’ll come back here from New York, D.C., California—you name it—just to get a sandwich, she boasts.

The landscape around her, however, is changing. The Greyhound Bus Terminal that had been just steps away from her eatery now lies permanently closed behind a towering chain-link fence. And that, she worries, is not just an eyesore but a foreboding symbol of what she worries will be the erasure of the vibrant 150-year-old neighborhood she calls home.

If the city were to green-light development plans, that shuttered bus station would transform into just a sliver of a $1.3 billion, 18,500-seat NBA arena. The project, known as 76 Place, was proposed in July 2022 by the Philadelphia 76ers alongside billionaire developer David Adelman and is projected to arrive by 2031.

Flyers advocating against the construction of an NBA arena in Philadelphia’s Chinatown hang on the walls of Chinatown businesses. Image by Vivian Hoang. United States, 2024.

“Our pledge is to advance equitable, community-driven revitalization through this project and to ensure the arena is a win for fans, Philadelphia and the surrounding communities,” David Gould, 76ers Chief Diversity and Impact Officer, said in a press release unveiling arena plans. “We look forward to listening to and working with the local community, including local organizations, businesses and residents, especially in Chinatown and Washington Square West, to develop a Community Benefits Agreement that results in long-term positive impact.”

Son, however, doesn’t trust promises from developers. She warns that the arena will only increase local crime rates, hike up rent prices for already struggling small businesses, take patronage away from local Asian-owned businesses during years of prolonged construction and erode the authenticity of a storied ethnic enclave. She especially fears for the longevity of her own place in Chinatown amid these proposed changes. 

“We’re the first ones to get affected,” Son said. “This whole block is really, but because we’re literally one store away from the actual lot, it will affect us.” 

The 76ers could not be reached for comment before press time.

Customers pick fresh fruits and vegetables at a grocery store in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. Image by Vivian Hoang. United States, 2024.

The threats to Philadelphia’s Chinatown mark the latest in a nationwide shrinkage of Chinatowns due to gentrification and urban development. Manhattan’s Chinatown is at risk of vanishing beneath the shadow of New York’s latest construction project: the world’s tallest jail, situated directly within the storied neighborhood. Los Angeles’ Chinatown is facing years of construction, noise pollution, and land loss to a proposed aerial gondola system meant to connect the district with Dodger Stadium. 

Seattle’s Chinatown, currently battling against a proposed light-rail station that would bring similar issues to the area, joined Philadelphia’s Chinatown on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list in May 2023.

These are the first two Chinatowns to have earned placement in the history of this annual initiative, according to Di Gao, the Trust’s senior director of research and development. Gao, who spearheads Chinatown-related preservation initiatives at the Trust, described the increased vulnerability of Chinatowns during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the rise of anti-Asian sentiment in mistaken association with the coronavirus. 

Many of these Chinatowns had never fully recovered from devastating losses in restaurant ownership and resident safety before large-scale developments began arriving on their block in the pandemic’s wake, she says.

“In early 2020, maybe even late 2019, you started noticing people not boycotting but avoiding Chinatowns because they were afraid of that connection or the proximity to COVID. And so that was kind of the beginning,” Gao said. “... I started urging the National Trust to be looking at Chinatowns also in response to AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) hate. It was like, AAPI voices need to be represented in this racial justice reckoning.”

Flyers produced by local coalition No Arena in Chinatown Solidarity Group (NACS) cover the doors of Little Saigon Cafe on North 10th Street in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. Image by Vivian Hoang. United States, 2024.

Kathryn Wilson—associate professor of history at Georgia State University and author of Ethnic Renewal in Philadelphia’s Chinatown: Space, Place and Struggle—further attested to the precarious position that Chinatowns have had to negotiate for decades. She traced the current decline of Chinatowns across the country to late 20th century urban renewal, which labeled many mixed-use minority neighborhoods as “blighted” and in need of “renewal”—terms that Wilson calls euphemisms for progressive urban development that skyrocketed property prices and the presence of middle-class white people.

These “insidious effects” continue today, Wilson said, as Chinatowns have now undergone a paradigm shift from ethnic enclaves seen as undesirable by white society to “prime real estate” for major developers. The common misconception that Chinatowns are solely sites of consumption rather than functioning, livable communities also continues to plague these storied neighborhoods, according to Wilson.

“Cities want a Chinatown because it contributes to culture and tourism. It provides a sense of destination,” Wilson said. “But their idea of what Chinatown is, which is some place to go and consume, [is inconsistent with] Chinatown’s idea of what Chinatown is, which is this is a place where people live and grow and grow up, and it’s a site of memory and all of these other things that have nothing to do with going and consuming some version of Chinese culture.”

Kaia Chau and Taryn Flaherty, the co-founders of Students for the Preservation of Chinatown, know the value of Chinatown beyond a mere tourist attraction.

“I grew up going there every single day,” Chau reflected. “It was the first place I ever learned how to walk to on my own.”

A large, colorful mural covers the side of Philadelphia Chinatown’s Crane Building, a mixed-use community center that began providing housing and resources, such as immigration and language services, to locals in 2017. Image by Vivian Hoang. United States, 2024.

Chau and Flaherty represent Philadelphia’s newest generation of community preservation activists. They work to unite university students across the Philadelphia metropolitan area against 76 Place, continuing the legacy of female leadership paved by many before them, including their own mothers. They say their understanding of the world, passion for community organizing, and formation of their identities began right here in Chinatown.

“I think Chinatown is very important to me as an Asian American and a Chinese American because going to school in Chinatown as a kid, I never felt insecure or embarrassed about my heritage and my identity because Chinatown taught me to just embrace it,” Chau said. “It wasn’t until later in my life that I realized that that’s not necessarily the experience and privilege that a lot of Asian Americans in the U.S. get.”

The pair, best friends since childhood, fondly recall singing a song about respecting the Earth and their elders every morning at Chinatown’s Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School, founded by their mothers. They walk through Hing Wah Yuen, a low-income housing complex on Chinatown’s border that served as both a landing spot for older-generation Chinese immigrants and a site of childhood memory and nostalgia for following generations. 

They blush seeing their faces plastered across the windows of Little Saigon Cafe, the unspoken hub for local organizing where Chinatown activists discuss strategy and fuel themselves with a warm bowl of pho freshly made by store owner Derek Sam (it’s free, he insists, eat up). They proudly point to the recently built Crane Community Center as what they call an example of Chinatown’s endorsement of development projects that build within rather than over communities.

A large sign outside Washington, D.C.’s Capital One Arena displays the Capital One logo in both English and Chinese characters.  Image by Vivian Hoang. United States, 2024.

Debbie Wei, Chau’s mother and founder of Asian Americans United, warns that this living, evolving community that so many depend upon is precisely what will be razed should 76 Place be built.

Wei, who has spent the last 40 years leading the charge against major development projects slated to arrive in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, like a Phillies baseball stadium in 2000 and a casino in 2008 and 2013, argues that Chinatown cannot be neatly relocated and re-created somewhere else.

“Gentrification is violence,” Wei said. “It’s taking roots and tearing them out of the ground and then scattering them, and when you do that to plants, when you uproot them, they have root shock … and when you throw them down somewhere else, they may or may not survive.”

Mary Yee, a longtime activist who spent her formative years in Boston’s Chinatown before moving to Philadelphia’s Chinatown in her early 20s, says she witnessed this root shock firsthand when an interstate highway bifurcated Boston’s Chinatown in the 1960s. She recalls the silence the highway left in its wake, snuffing out the once-lively sports events, dances, and community programs as families and neighbors were split apart.

“It was everybody scattered, so those kinds of events hardly happened, and physically, Chinatown became really desolate,” Yee said.

Like Boston’s Chinatown, Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown was also marred by large-scale development and is commonly hailed as the bleak future Philadelphia’s Chinatown is headed toward.

After the Capital One arena was constructed within the neighborhood in 1997, D.C.’s Chinatown population shrank from 3,000 residents to just 300 today, according to Richard Wong, senior director at the 1882 Foundation and a D.C. Chinatown resident. 

Now, less than 10 out of originally 30 to 50 Chinese businesses remain, he says, sandwiched between American chain franchises, with their names written in blinking neon Chinese characters as a crude homage to the Chinese community that once inhabited those same spaces.

“There used to be three supermarkets, and they weren’t big supermarkets like Great Wall or H-Mart. They were three good local supermarkets. You could buy your vegetables, you could buy canned goods, you could buy your cooked goods, chicken, duck, pig,” Wong said. “But now they’re all gone.”

D.C. Chinatown native Harry Chow, 74, shares a personal photograph of local community activism in D.C.’s Chinatown during the early 1970s. Image by Vivian Hoang. United States, 2024.

A group of activists from Philadelphia’s Chinatown, including Wei, even toured the sparse remnants of D.C.’s Chinatown in late 2022 and met with the small coalition of D.C. organizers still fighting to keep the spark of their community from being entirely extinguished.

“Penny Lee was one of the former residents that took us on a tour there, and when I got on the van to come back, she said to me, ‘I have one piece of advice for you,’” Wei said. “She said, ‘Take a lot of pictures because if they build this thing, that is the only thing you’re going to have left.’”

This empty shell of a once-thriving Chinatown is what sows fear into Son back at QT Banh Mi Sandwich, where the decimation of D.C.’s Chinatown and its eerie similarity to the trajectory of her own Chinatown hang heavily above her.

“The same thing that happened to D.C. is going to happen to us,” Son said. “Honestly, it’s just repeating history.”

But for Son, who anxiously prepares to inherit the helm of her family’s small Vietnamese restaurant amid this period of uncertainty, she can’t afford this tale to tell itself again.

Because it isn’t just her livelihood at stake in this fight against the arena. It’s also her legacy.

“If I want to pass this place down, I can’t. If I just let it happen, like without a fight, it has no meaning for me. Because then there’s no business, there’s no legacy or anything,” Son said. “But this, to me, is the small legacy that we have, even though we’re a hole in the freaking wall. It means the world to us, but it’s nothing to them.”


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