About the Author
Tricia Pompilio is a lifestyle and portrait photographer based in Philadelphia. After 15 years in television, she decided to focus on her children and her photography. When she’s not following her husband, Vince Savarese, and their three daughtersFiona, Luna, and Poppywith a camera, she’s probably re-reading Harry Potter 1–7 with her two black cats while Rob Thomas sings softly in the background.
Read an Excerpt
Chinatown: A bustling yet still tightly knit downtown community of homes and businesses
Boundaries: Vine Street to the north, Arch Street to the south, N. 11th Street to the west and N. 8th Street to the east
Distance: Easy, about xxx miles.
Parking/Public Transit: Street parking in this area is very difficult. There are pay lots nearby. SEPTA bus lines that stop in Chinatown include the 23, 47, 48 and 61. The SEPTA Chinatown subway stop is also nearby.
Philadelphia’s Chinatown was established in the 1870s when Chinese immigrants who had settled on the west coast moved east to escape growing anti-Chinese sentiment and violence there. This migration is known as “The Driving Out.” The popular saying, “He doesn’t stand a Chinaman’s chance” entered the lexicon at the time, meaning definite failure or harm.
The first business in Philadelphia’s Chinatown was Lee Fong’s laundry at 913 Race Street, opened in 187. It was soon the center of a cluster of other businesses serving the mostly male Chinese community.
Today Philadelphia’s is the third largest Chinatown on the East Coast, having successfully fought multiple local government attempts to upend it and largely rejecting the gentrification that has taken over Chinatowns in New York and Boston. About 3,000 people live here, the vast majority of Asian descent, meaning Chinatown is also home to Koreans, Vietnamese, Burmese, Japanese and Malaysian. That said, this is a very close knit group. They say if you bring any 20 people together in Chinatown, five of them will be related — or at least as close as family.
1. Start at Friendship Gate, which rises four stories then curves over N. 10th Street where it meets Arch Street. This 40-foot-tall authentic Chinese gate was a gift from Philadelphia’s sister city in China, Tianjin. It was dedicated in 1984. Take some time to enjoy the multi-colored carvings, including dragons and a phoenix. The four Chinese characters spell out “Philadelphia Chinatown.”
In 2008, a team of artisans from Tianjin spent four months in the city restoring the gate. The group insisted on using traditional Chinese methods, which meant they required gallons of fresh pigs’ blood to serve as paint primer. They then prepared it by boiling it in a large wok in the middle of a field. They also needed raw cotton to use, not cotton balls, prompting one organizer to note acquiring the correct materials was an “interesting treasure hunt.”
And yes, they did use that pigs’ blood on the gate.
2. Leaving Friendship Gate, walk north on N. 10th Street, Look down and notice the reddish sidewalk panels with the Chinese symbol for prosperity outlined in black. These will pop up often as you walk in this neighborhood and can be seen on the low wall separating some parts of Chinatown from the Vine Street Expressway.
2. Look across the way to 125 N. 10th Street. This building housed the Chinatown YMCA, then the Chinese Cultural and Community Center between 1955 and 2006. Both were founded by Chinese-born T.T. Chang, later known as “the mayor of Chinatown” for his many projects dedicated to improving the lives of its residents. His work is also credited with helping the neighborhood and its residents gain respect in the city.
The original building here was built in 1831 but numerous additions over the years have given it an Eastern feel, including a jade-colored glazed tile awning on the first floor, red painted balconies and a gabled roof on top. Note the red-painted entry doors with bronze lion head doorknockers and the amazing detailed carvings of the bas relief. Above the moorhead are golden Chinese characters that read “Chinese Youth Club.” To the right of the entrance, you’ll also note the dates 1970 and the corresponding Chinese calendar year of 4668. That was when the building’s exterior was given characteristics of the Mandarin Palace style of architecture by Taiwanese architect C.C. Yang, one of the nation’s most influential 20th century architects.
3. When you reach Cherry Street, turn left. 3. You’ll see the offices of Chef Joseph Poon, 1010 Cherry Street. This is where the respected celebrity chef is known for his Asian fusion began his climb to the top with a restaurant. His focus now is on teaching, writing — his cookbook is titled “Life is short … Cooking is fun” — and offering the highly-praised “Wok ’N Walk Tour.”
Cross Cherry Street, heading north and you’ll be standing in front of the Fo Shou Temple, 1015 Cherry Street. It’s impossible to miss this Buddhist Temple, the city’s newest, with its red columns of coiling dragons and flying eaves. The first floor features three Golden Buddhas while the top floor has an ancestral shrine, a nod to the Chinese practice of ancestor worship alongside Confucianism. (If you drop in at any local businesses, you may notice other small ancestral altars.) The temple is open seven days a week and welcomes all comers.
4. Turn right and head back to N. 10th Street. If in need of a refreshing beverage, top in at the business on the corner, Tea Do, 132 N. 10th Street. The contemporary tea house popular with local youth offers a wide variety of bubble teas and fruit drinks as well as small snacks.
Cross N. 10th Street so you’re standing in front of the building housing the Philadelphia Fire Department’s Engine 20/Ladder 23, 133 N. 10th Street. It is known as the House of Dragons and the dragon is the official symbol of this fire house. Some may find this confusing: why would a fire-breathing animal represent a group dedicated to saving people and property from flames?
In Chinese mythology, the dragon, which represents strength and brings good luck, controls water, including the rain and the flow of water from a firehouse. They can life-giving water to the people who honor and respect them. They punish their enemies with hurricanes and floods.
The fire fighters based here are called upon to rescue people from can rescue innocent people from dangerous situations caused by water, like floods, and from fires, using the waters the dragon controls to save lives.
Another note: the dragon is meant to be a composite of other animals, with the eyes of a rabbit, the scales of a carp, the talons of an eagle, the body of a serpent, etc. It’s also a vain creature and, in many pictures, you’ll see the dragon with a pearl under its chin or nearby.
5. Leaving the firehouse behind, continue walking north on N. 10th Street. When you reach Race Street, turn left. Note the Chinese characters spelling out the road’s name beneath the Anglicized version. You’ll probably also see flyers in Chinese and English attached to the pole.
Across Race Street you’ll see David’s Mai Lai Wah, 1001 Race Street. This restaurant was one of the original late-night dining spots in Chinatown, open most days until 4 a.m. In a recent interview, the owner bashfully admitted he sometimes leaves work in the early morning hours and heads to South Philadelphia to grab a cheesesteak for the ride home.
6. Take in the street scape as you walk. The building at 1010 - 1014 Race Street has a place in the National Register of Historic Places because it formerly housed the Heywood Chair Factory, which began operation in 1892. The factory, known for its quality products, supplied many tables and chairs to Bryn Mawr College. It moved its operations in 1892. The building currently houses condominiums and is one of many examples of how warehouses and other buildings relating to the city’s early days as a labor hub have been repurposed.
7. There are numerous restaurants in this neighborhood, at least three per block. Here’s one that rises a bit above. Dim Sum Garden, 1020 Race Street, specializes in Xiao Long Bao, or soup dumplings. There are eight culinary regions of China whose delicacies have crossed the ocean to the U.S., and the Shanghai/Hu Cuisine is one of the most prevalent. The soup dumpling hails from Shanghai. The owner, Shizhou Da, says she is the descendent of the chef who first crafted a soup dumpling and the original recipe has been passed down through five generations of her family. Da, who attended a Chinese culinary school, worked in restaurants in China from 30 years before coming to to the U.S. She brought the famed original recipe with her. She’s been crafting them in the city since 2008, and at this location since 2013. Locals recommend sampling the Shanghai crab or the pork soup dumplings.
8. At N. 11th Street, with the Pennsylvania Convention Center in front of you, turn right. You’ll pass Yakatori Boy, 211 N. 11th Street, which boasts it is the city’s first izakaya and upscale karaoke lounge. An izakaya is a Japanese pub serving small plates and alcohol, tapas-style. To get some karaoke on, consider renting a private room for yourself and friends.
After you cross an alley called Spring Street, you’ll see two Vietnamese restaurants on either side of the street, another nod to the diversity of the the neighborhood.
9. Right after you pass the Sixth Police District at N 11th and Winter Streets, turn back to see the mural on the building’s side. This mural is dedicated to the memory of Daniel Faulkner, a police officer who was killed in the line of duty in 1981. Faulkner’s convicted killer, Mumia Abu-Jamal, was imprisoned in 1982. He was originally sentenced to death, but that was vacated in 2008.
10. Turn left onto Vine Street, walk until you reach the corner of Vine and N. 12 Streets. At this corner you’ll see a mural titled “Colors of Light: Gateway to Chinatown,” 247 N. 12th Street. Completed in 1999, the mural uses images of a dragon, scroll and face of a woman to portray Chinatown’s past, present and future. Note how the mural’s dragon extends past the top of the wall. The woman in the mural is the long-time executive director of the Asian Arts Initiative, which you can catch of glimpse of when you cross Vine Street.
The location of the mural is significant as this was part of the site of a proposed major league baseball stadium in 2000. Had the stadium been approved, a significant portion of the Chinatown would have been razed for the ballfields and parking. You’ll learn more about the neighborhood’s struggles after crossing Vine Street.
11. That said, turn right and cross the Vine Street Expressway. Once on the north side of 11th Street, look left, towards the west, to catch a glimpse of the home of the Asian Arts Initiative, a multidisciplinary arts center and a community gathering space. Organizations like this one and the Chinatown Development Corporation have proven crucial to Chinatown’s survival as local officials have
Battle of chinatown story here. fought a prison, a baseball stadium and a casino.
12. When you reach the corner of N. 10th Street, you’ll see the Holy Redeemer Chinese Christian Church across the street. The city wanted to raze this building in the 1970s for the Vine Street Expressway. Citizens saved the church but still saw the highway claim chunks of land.
The congregation was founded in 1939, when Cardinal Dennis Dougherty gathered a group of 15 Chinese immigrants together and taught them to make the sign of the cross. Two years later, with about 59 Chinese Catholic converts on board, the church was dedicated, the first in the western hemisphere built specifically for Chinese Catholics. Today, about 200 people attend Sunday services, where Masses are offered in English, Cantonese and Mandarin.
Turn right and cross the Vine Street Expressway. Once you cross the west bound lanes, you are standing in the 10th Street Plaza, a great place to take a shaded rest under the Asian-style pergola. Two seven-ton Chinese lions stand at opposite ends of the plaza. The animals, also known as foo dogs, were made in China’s Fujian province. The lion on the north side is a male, his paw resting on a globe. The lion on the south side is female, her paw protecting her cub. When the plaza was dedicated in 2011, a Buddhist monk performed a ritual involving dabbing red ink on the lions’ faces and backs meant to awaken the statues to their role as neighborhood protectors.
Another statue tucked into this plaza honors Lin Zebu, a Chinese scholar who lived between 1785-1850. He is best known for his opposition to opium smuggling. In 1838, he supervised the confiscation of 20,000 chests of opium marked for Britain, destroying the drug over a 23-day period. As the Boston Tea Party is considered a precursor to the Revolutionary War, this action is considered a catalyst for the first Opium war between Britain and China. Lin is considered a Chinese national hero for his fight against drugs and a British invasion.
13. Leaving the plaza, cross the Vine Street Expressway again, heading south. Note the low wall in front of you decorated with prosperity symbols. Look across N. 10th Street to take in the “History of Chinatown” mural at the corner with Winter Street. Commissioned to mark Chinatown’s 125th anniversary in 1995, this mural is one of the city’s smaller ones, but it effectively shares the culture and history of the neighborhood. Its placement is significant: This block was one of the most heavily affected by the creation of the Vine Street Expressway. The placement is meant to be defiant, a claiming of territory.
You’ll see images representing the arrival of the first laundrymen in the 1800s and the neighborhood’s fight against development in the late 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Note the laundry worker atop wringing fabric and who the drops of water flow to form a highway. You’ll see bulldozers stopped by protestors carrying signs proclaiming, “Homes not Highways,” an image of the Friendship Gate, and the number 913, referencing
the original laundry here at 913 Race Street.
14. As you continue south on N. 10th Street, look down at the bronze medallions representing the animals of the Chinese zodiac embedded in the walkway. When you reach Spring Street, then look left at another Chinese Christian Church across N. 10th Street. This section of Spring Street also bears the name Mitzi Mackenzie Place. Maribelle “Mitzi” Mackenzie, who died in 2009 at age 88, was an American Baptist home missionary. In 1941, she founded the center with the help of five Protestant denominations. The church grew from that ministry five years later. Mackenzie is credited with helping thousands of Chinese immigrants find their way in their new home country.
15. When you reach the corner of Race Street and N. 9th Streets, take a moment to examine the building on your left before turning left. This property at 941 Race Street is a great example of Late Victorian Eclectic architecture, featuring terra cotta bricks, large medallions and arched windows. Built in 1900 as a private home, the building later became a commercial building. In the 1940s, for example, it housed the Merry-G0-Round Cafe, similar to an automat except a conveyer belt with food enclosed in plastic compartments circled a long lunch counter. Customers used tokens to access the food. Today, the building houses the Wong Wong Restaurant.
Walk east on Race Street. You’ll see the very top of the Ben Franklin Bridge about a mile away. You’ll pass the official historic marker for Chinatown. When you reach N. 9th Street, turn right and cross Arch St, now heading south. Across the way, under a yellow awning is Lucky Chinese Fortune Cookie Company, 155 N. 9th Street. The factory is open seven days a week and sells bags of cookies with regular or X-rated messages. The company also makes cookies with custom fortunes inside but a week’s notice is required.
Continue walking to the corner of N 9th street and turn left onto Arch Street. On your left, you’ll see four twisting dragon statues in the air alongside an outdoor parking lot. Installed in 2009, these 1,500 pound bronze dragons were installed as part of a city’s program that requires new developments to invest one percent of construction costs towards public art.
Still heading east, look across Arch Street when you reach the corner with N. 8th Street. You’ll see Francis House of Peace, opened in 2015 and named for Pope Francis, who visited Philadelphia that year. The building has 94 affordable housing units for formerly homeless or low-income residents and provides social services in English, Mandarin and Cantonese. On the side of the building, you’ll see, “None of us are home until all of us are home,” written in English and Chinese. That’s the driving mission of the local non-profit organization Project HOME, which fights homelessness.
Cross N. 8th Street at the corner and then turn. You are now walking south. Your final stop is on the north side of Children’s Village, a childcare center at 125 N. 8th Street, to take in the amazing “How We Fish” mural.
Inspired by images associated with the Works Progress Administration during the Depression years, this mural aims to honor the history of work in Philadelphia. It’s title comes from the proverb, “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” The eye-catching work spans 3,156 feet, including 400 square feet of glass mosaics.
The placement of the mural is significant: this building was originally constructed for the children of workers of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Men’s Clothing Union. The garment industry is highlighted in the mural, as is denim, considered the fabric of the working class. Note the large quote: “Work unites us.”
This ends your Chinatown tour.
Table of ContentsWalking Philadelphia Table of Contents
1. Mural Arts, Tour 1
2. Mural Arts, Tour 2
3. America’s Most Historic Square Mile
4. Ben Franklin and Philadelphia
5. African American Philadelphia
6.Rittenhouse Square I
7. Germantown Avenue
8. Washington Square
9. Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Northside
10. Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Southside
11. City Hall and points north
12. City Hall and points south
13. City Hall and points east
14. City Hall and points west
15. West Philadelphia I — UCity/The Woodlands/Clark Park
16. West Philadelphia II
17. South Street/Headhouse Square
18. Passyunk Ave/South Philadelphia
19. Northern Liberties I
20. Northern Liberties II
21 The Schuylkill River bank into Fairmount Park, including Waterworks and Boathouse Row
22. Fairmount Park II
23. Sites along or near the Delaware River, including Washington Pier
24. Frankfurt Avenue/Fishtown
27. Fairmount, including Eastern State Penitentiary
28. Fitler Square
29. The Gayborhood
30. Wissahickon or Pennypack