Murals Reclaiming Space in Philadelphia’s Chinatown

Murals are a powerful mode of communication in urban spaces, a vivid way of conveying important values and narratives in an immediate and visual way.  And because they are located in and part of the existing urban landscape, they have a lot to say about place as well.  grounded in the community, they create, reinforce and embody a sense of place.

History of Chinatown mural, Arturo Ho, 10th and Winter Streets, photograph by Kate Wilson

This is true in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, which, despite its small size, has many murals communicating the culture and history of the neighborhood. Here are a few that speak most to the community’s sense of history and place.  Each not only communicates images of Chinatown heritage, but do so on sites that embody important memories of struggle and survival for the community.

“History of Chinatown,” 10th and Winter
Perhaps the most important mural is the “History of Chinatown” mural, by Arturo Ho, and located at 10th and Winter Streets. This mural, commissioned for Chinatown’s 125th anniversary, portrays the history of the community from the arrival of the early laundrymen to the fight against urban renewal in the 1960s/70s. The site of this mural is historically significant, as the 900 and 1000 blocks of Winter were two of the most affected by  extensive demolition to make way for the Vine Street Expressway and other redevelopment projects. Facing Vine Street, the mural stakes a claim to territory, publicly announcing a northern entrance to historic Chinatown.

In the mural, drops of water from a laundryman’s work transform into a highway. There,  bulldozers are being stopped by protestors who carry signs proclaiming “homes not highways,”  a slogan from the Vine Street fight. Holy Redeemer, the Chinese Catholic Church endangered by the expressway appears, as does the Friendship Gate and the address of the original laundry at 913 Race Street.

Gim San Mural
Mosaic mural by artist Lily Yeh, Gim San Plaza, 9th and Race Streets

Gim San Plaza
Another mural that appears on a site dramatically affected by demolition in the 1970s is the mosaic mural on the north side of Gim San Plaza, a mixed-use commercial/residential structure occupying the east side of North 9th Street between Race and Cherry. Gim San Plaza was erected by Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) in 1985.

The mural, by Taiwanese born artist, Lily Yeh, is entitled “The Vision of Paradise,” literally translated as the Golden Mountains, the Fu Shang cosmic tree,, and Longevity in a Fairy Land,” depicts as large tree inhabited by beautiful red birds. In the foreground are mountains of gold.  Gold Mountain, name of the project, Gim San, references the gold mountain that early Chinese immigrants came to seek.  For Yeh, mountain indicates “height, glory, and majesty” and gold prosperity, good fortune and wealth. The gold mountains symbolized the “dream of the community.” Although the buyers for the property’s apartments had asked for traditional Chinese themes, Yeh eschewed what she felt were “visual clichés of dragon, fen huang (phoenix), pine trees, sweet-looking birds and flowers.” She chose instead the motif of Fu Shang shu, the Chinese cosmic tree which roots deeply into the earth and rises up to the sky, symbolizing the deep rootedness in history of the Chinese community that dared to dream of achievement.” The tree could just have easily represented the community’s insistence on planting roots in this particular soil. Yeh remarked, the mural is “very Oriental in intention and feeling, but contemporary in its technical innovations and in its playful juxtaposition of colors and objects.”[1] The mural was placed on the building’s façade on the SE corner of 9th and Race streets to “establish,” according to PCDC,  a strong presence for the eastern boundary of Chinatown.”[2] Establishing this boundary was important for PCDC developers, particularly then-executive director Cecilia Moy Yep, who had witnessed the devastation of this block in the 1970s to make way for a commuter rail tunnel. Yep lived on this block, and was the last to sell her house, dubbed the “Chinatown Alamo.” For her, reclaiming the land for Chinatown was a personal as well as community achievement.

“Colors of Light – Gateway to Chinatown,” 12th and Vine

This mural was completed in December 1999 by artist Joshua Sarantitis.  Located on the western edge of Chinatown, this mural uses the images of a dragon, scroll and face of a woman to portray the continuity of  Chinatown’s past, present and future.  According to Sarantitis, “The mural itself is about life in Chinatown and showing the strength of the people that live there, and the cultural heritage of thousands of years of Chinese life.” [3]

The woman pictured is Gayle Isa, the executive director of Asian Arts Initiative (AAI), which moved its offices to 1219 Vine in 2008 after being forced to relocate due to expansion of the Philadelphia Convention Center. According to Isa, this location helps the organization collaborate more actively with the Chinatown community.  The site of the mural is also significant, since 11th and Vine was the site proposed by then Mayor John Street in early 2000 for a new Phillies stadium.  Had those plans gone through, blocks of what is now Chinatown North would have been eliminated for the stadium and related parking. Drawing on a legacy of resistance and activism, the Chinatown community successfully organized to fight the stadium through letter campaigns, testimony at City Council hearings, and protests and demonstrations, including a general strike in June 2000 that shut down traffic on Vine Street.  Now the 1100 and 1200 blocks of Vine are solidly within Chinatown, home to AAI and the new Chinese Christian Church annex building, heralding the projected growth of Chinatown North into these blocks in the coming decades.

[1] Memo from Lily Yeh to the Fine Arts Committee of the Redevelopment of Authority of the City of Philadelphia, May 3, 1987, Gim San folder, PCDC archives;[2] PCDC News, April 1987; [3]The Temple News, 29 October 2004

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