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Lost and Found: Pittsburgh’s Chinatown

On Third Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh, you’ll find Chinatown Inn, a restaurant with a red-and-green pagoda-style entrance that has carried on Chinese culture in this city for three generations. It’s owned by the Yee family, and it is the last remaining business of Pittsburgh’s Original Chinatown.

For many Pittsburghers, Chinatown is still folkloric, and there’s a reason for that. The once bustling microcity within the city that supported so many Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s was devastated by the construction of the Boulevard of the Allies in the 1920s, forcing residents to leave the only place in Pittsburgh they felt at home. It was an act of redlining in the name of urban renewal, similar to what happened to Pittsburgh’s Black community in the Hill District in the 1950s.

And after multiple attempts by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA), it was only this year that Pittsburgh’s Original Chinatown was granted its state historical marker from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

“We finally got it on the fourth try,” OCA President Marian Mei-Ling Lien said in an interview with The Incline. “That’s three tries too many.”

Before Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month comes to a close, The Incline wanted to use this opportunity to honor what was, is, and will be for Pittsburgh’s historic Chinese community. Now, you can be a part of recognizing this “lost” neighborhood because the OCA is raising money to fund the long overdue historical marker.

Chinatown Inn on Third Avenue, Downtown. (📸: Wikimedia Commons)

Where was it?

In the late 1800s, within a few square blocks of Downtown — between Grant Street, Second and Third Avenues, and Ross Street — was a thriving piece of the city with shops, restaurants, and residences. And it wasn’t just Pittsburgh’s Chinese community that this neighborhood served. According to Lien, Chinese people from West Virginia, New York, and Ohio would often visit on Sundays.

“It was a place to eat dim sum, play mahjong, catch up on the news in the community, and speak the language that makes us whole,” Lien added.

Many of the businesses they established were laundries and restaurants because it was the most accessible way to make a living, Lien said. Residents also opened herbal remedy shops, gift shops, grocery markets, and often gathered at a small park between Grant and Ross Streets.

The community really began to grow after 1872 when a Beaver Falls Cutlery Factory hired about 300 Chinese laborers to break a strike. What does this mean? A labor dispute led white workers to strike and the factory contracted minorities for cheap labor. While this was an opportunity for work for the Chinese migrants, it was also an exploitation of Chinese workers because they had no path to naturalization and could not join a union. Similarly, this was also seen in the construction of the transcontinental railroad, where hundreds died from explosions, accidents, and disease.

“Once they decided they were going to be here and participate in the American dream, we entered a recession, and the push back was targeted at the most marginalized,” Lien said.

With the influx of industry, Western Pennsylvania was a union town, and while Lien said it was great that there was a systematic way to protect workers, those rights were only afforded to white laborers.

Of those Chinese laborers who worked at the cutlery factory, “not one of them was left after their four-year contract,” Lien said. “Many of them made their way to Pittsburgh.”

A group of Chinese Americans playing traditional Chinese musical instruments in Pittsburgh’s Chinatown neighborhood. Date: 1912. (📸: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center)

Who lived there?

Pittsburgh’s Chinatown had two fraternal societies, Hip Sing and On Leong, which operated as the unofficial leaders of the community. They sometimes had violent conflicts in cities across the country in an effort to gain territory, which was often covered in salacious stories in the press. As time went on, the two organizations mixed.

The neighborhood is said to have had 500 residents at its height in the 1920s, but Lien thinks that it is likely that the census was unable to capture the whole number of residents because many didn’t have papers.

It should come as no surprise that the majority of residents were men, as many found work in the United States to support their families back home. By 1882, with the United States passing the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigration was suspended for 10 years and Chinese immigrants were ineligible for naturalization. This kept Chinese laborers from being able to bring their families to America, and Chinese people still didn’t have the right to naturalization until the act’s repeal in 1943.

A group of Chinese Americans beside an altar in Pittsburgh’s Chinatown neighborhood. Date: 1912. (📸: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center)

There were, of course, some women who lived in the neighborhood, including sisters Anna Yee Ung and Ruth Yee, who you can read about in this 2017 story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The neighborhood also had a series of unofficial mayors. William Hing Yot, who was the head of the On Leong Merchant Association, was “mayor” for nearly 50 years. He served as someone who could communicate between both the residents of Chinatown and white Pittsburgh residents. Yot was only 15 when he arrived in Pittsburgh.

“He was always on hand when a Chinese man or woman was in trouble, not just in the Downtown area, but throughout Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio as far west as Warren,” his obituary read in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette archive from November 15, 1960. “When a Chinese [person] was arrested, Yot arrived with a bond and a lawyer. When a family was destitute, he saw that they were given food and shelter.”

Chinatown’s last mayor was Yuen Yee, who passed away in 2008. According to his obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he was six when his parents settled into a second-floor apartment on Second Avenue. He worked as a launderer, served at his family’s restaurant, Chinatown Inn, and joined the U.S. Army Air Forces as an interpreter. He often helped people in his community study for citizenship tests, prepare their taxes, and negotiate their leases.

By the time both “mayors” passed away, Chinatown was unrecognizable to what it once was for their communities. Boulevard of the Allies quite literally drove through the “heart” of Chinatown on Second Avenue, Lien said.

Finding “lost” Chinatown

Remnants of Old Chinatown in Downtown, Pittsburgh. (📸: Wikimedia Commons)

When Marian Mei-Ling Lien came to Pittsburgh a decade ago, she said that the city became a sort of personal project for her.

“I love Pittsburgh, sometimes I just don’t think it loves me back,” Lien said. “It is a city of so many possibilities. To think that in 1872, some of the first Chinese people found a home here, and Pittsburgh was open to that, it speaks volumes to the possibilities.”

But still, a town that says “we welcome you,” can still lack in ways to keep you here, Lien said. Even with thriving Asian communities in neighborhoods like Squirrel Hill and surrounding the Universities, Pittsburgh can do better.

“We don’t say that [we welcome you] to family or those who live in the house with us,” she said, talking about the many Asian American and Pacific Islanders who call our city home. “I want beyond friendly. Tearing up my community so you can build a project doesn’t show me that I belong.”

With the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, and Lien herself experiencing racial slurs first hand, getting this historical marker was just one small step in standing up for justice and honoring those who paved a way for all of Pittsburgh’s Asian and Pacific Islander communities, even if their roots are hidden among the rubble.

To honor Pittsburgh’s Original Chinatown and help carry on its legacy, you can donate to the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans’ GoFundMe page.

To learn more about other organizations supporting Pittsburgh’s AAPI communities, read this article by Pittsburgh City Paper writer Kimberly Rooney.