History of Chinatown

Founded in 1681 by William Penn, Philadelphia was originally a port city, strategically located between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. In the nineteenth century, this area of the city really developed into an industrial neighborhood. Large factories and warehouses replaced individual homes. The remnants of these buildings are still visible in the Chinatown area.

At first, this area mostly had British owned residential homes. By 1850 more and more factories were built and the British moved westward. Irish and German immigrants moved in to replace them. Commercial loft buildings and row houses replaced private homes. The area then began to deteriorate and from 1870-1890 it became known as the 'city's 'tenderloin' district known for its burlesque theaters, hotels, and rooming houses'.

Church records indicate that the Chinese occupation in this area began during this time period as early as 1845. In 1870, Lee Fong opened the first laundry at 913 Race Street. A decade later his cousin opened the first restaurant on the floor above the laundry. Factory owners began recruiting Chinese from the West coast to come work in their factories, sometimes as strike breakers. With the influx of more immigrants into this area, laundries, restaurants, and eventually grocery stores began to be opened by Chinese. By 1890 this section of Center City was inhabited by approximately 700 Chinese and it became widely known as Philadelphia's Chinatown.

Most residents of Chinatown were originally from Canton, and almost all were men. Immigration law at this time prohibited Chinese women from entering the US to prevent more permanent, family-based communities from forming. Most Chinese came to the United States intending to be sojourners, people who came to work for a few years with plans to return to China eventually. In fact, the first Chinese woman to Philadelphia came not as a settler but as an exhibit. In 1835 19-year old Afong Moy came and amazed crowds by speaking in Chinese and eating with chopsticks!

Within the last century, the population of Chinatown has grown to approximately 4,000 residents and this number continues to increase. The latest wave of immigration has come from the Fujian province in China. This area also has a significant presence from the Southeast Asian Community. The area now known as Chinatown in Philadelphia is located in Center City near the Delaware River and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. Its borders are generally thought to be Arch street in the south, 8th street in the east, and 13th street in the west.


More information about Chinatown

Asian Arts Initiative’s InvASIAN video documenting resistance to the proposed baseball stadium

Asian Arts Initiative’s Chinatown Live(s) Oral History Project website with interviews of diverse neighborhood residents and workers

Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission’s Chinatown Neighborhood Plan

Historical Society of Philadelphia’s on-line exhibition and articles about Chinatown