by Julia Tong, AsAmNews Contributor
On Saturday, June 10th, over 3,000 people took to the streets of Philadelphia’s Chinatown. Wearing white shirts with “No Arena in Chinatown” emblazoned on them, the crowd marched to City Hall, waving colorful props and signs and chanting “Protect Chinatown” in both English and Chinese.
Their demand is simple: The cancellation of a planned basketball stadium for the Philadelphia 76ers team, which, organizations say, poses an existential threat to Chinatown itself.
The march and subsequent rally, titled “No Arena in the Heart of Our City,” was organized by the Save Chinatown Coalition and drew over 20 organizations from Chinatown and the larger community. The multiracial group of attendees included people from all walks of life: students, restaurant owners, residents, priests, politicians, elders, and allies.
Each participant had a personal reason to fight for Chinatown. But their collective goal was simple, says organizer Mohan Seshadri: To demonstrate the strong popular opposition to the proposed arena.
“We’re here to mobilize and show our elected officials especially… to show that the city is against this,” says Shashadri.
“We’re here to show that this is bad not just for Chinatown, but it’s a bad deal for all this for the entire city. And we’re here to say no arena.”
“This is a celebration to show our identity”
At 11 am, marchers gathered at a Chinatown plaza and soon filled North 10th Street, the street leading to Chinatown’s iconic red gate. A traditional Chinese dance troupe practiced on the street, the sounds of their loudspeaker melding with beating drums and cymbals. Flags written in Chinese fluttered in the air above colorful banners and signs, as coordinators distributed T-shirts and organizations lined up in marching order.
March participant Yoyo Godwin said that the atmosphere was exciting, describing it as a “crazy energy.”
“I’ve never been to this big of a protest before,” he said. “I’m just trying not to get overwhelmed with the amount of people.”
And organizers say that the festive atmosphere was a central component of the march, which functioned as a celebration of Chinatown’s culture as well as a protest. The many arts groups in attendance, for instance, included traditional Chinese dance, wearable art and fashion, Korean drumming, Mexican folk music. Large paper dragon and phoenix, carried by multiple people, lead the march; group sing-alongs were planned as part of the rally.
March organizer Wei Chen says that these cultural displays are critical to remind marchers and spectators alike of Chinatown’s importance— and highlight the “historic moment” they are participating in.
“We want people who participate in the march to feel this is not a funeral march,” said Chen. “This is a celebration to show our identity, to fight for our space and our future generations.”
And many Chinatown residents, young and old, jumped at the chance to support their home. For this multigenerational cohort, the fight against the arena is deeply personal.
High school students Queena Chen and Erica Zhong were eager to show up and support Chinatown. Chen and Zhong marched as part of the Students for the Preservation of Chinatown (SPOC), a large group of students that included many whose parents had already fought against previous gentrification efforts in the area.
Both Chen and Zhong grew up in Chinatown; Chen describes the area as a “huge” part of her life, childhood, and culture. The survival of Chinatown is of utmost importance to both students.
“Chinatown is home to me, and I really want future generations to see how Chinatown is as a community, and how we can all come together to support a community,” said Zhong.
For others, Chinatown has been a safe haven and home for decades already. Sam Sam,who is often referred to as “Uncle Sam” by locals, came to the US as one of “boat people,” a group of refugees from Vietnam in the 1980s. Sam grew up in Philadelphia’s Chinatown and now runs the Little Saigon Cafe, which is located in the area.
Many Chinatown residents, he observes, aren’t isn’t English proficient– which, he speculates, is a major factor in why stadium developers “mislead” them. But he also points out that residents are not only seasoned from many past fights against various developers but determined to protect their community.
“We got to protect our culture. Not let your company do what they like,” says Sam.
“I love my town, that’s my home. You can’t kick me out. We will do everything to fight against [it]. We will win.”
“We must stay here, and continue to develop.”
Saturday’s march was the highest-attended Save Chinatown event by far. In the morning, the crowd spilled from the packed plaza, down Chinatown streets and into nearby roadways. Spectators gathered on sidewalks, and some passersby even joined in.
March participant Helen Hui says the turnout reflects how “important” Chinatown is to many Philadelphians– no matter what part of the city they’re from. Yet, as she looks at the locally-owned shops, restaurants, and vendors that fills 10 North Street, and at the Chinatown gate in the distance, she could feel the magnitude of the threat against the community.
After all, she observes, this whole area would be destroyed if the arena was built.
“I was walking from the train station and I thought, ‘oh, my. This is easily lost.’” Hui said. She wistfully gazes at a nearby building mural of scenes from Chinese American history: This, she points out, will likely also be destroyed soon.
The consequences of displacement were visible during the march. Philadelphia’s Chinatown has already weathered development that has noticeably shrunk the community. As marchers crossed the Chinatown gate, they soon entered the Fashion District, where corporate chains such as H&M, Ulta Beauty, Primark had already displaced Chinatown businesses.
Marchers then wove underneath a section of the Pennsylvania Convention Center– which had been built on land that had once been part of Chinatown. In that tunnel-like area, the last remnants of Chinatown can still be seen: A dim sum place with traditional roof, and a Chinese travel agency. But the community has already been pushed out: Over 200 people were displaced as a result of the convention center’s construction.
These stark reminders illustrate the destructive effects of displacement, says participant Roseann Liu. A professor at Wesleyan College who had taught Asian American Studies at Swarthmore, she drew connections to the gentrification which had already eliminated the Washington, D.C. Chinatown, and others across the nation.
“There’s been a long history of Chinatown always being under incursion, and people doing big box developments trying to hem in the neighborhood,” says Liu.
“We want people to know that this is a community with its own history, and that we should be able to determine the rights of our community and to really stand for Asian American self determination.”
Yet the march’s atmosphere was also celebratory and determined. The sea of white shirts filled Philadelphia’s biggest streets, holding signs written in both Chinese and English. Protestors alternated between chants, shouting “We love Chinatown! People over profits!” and “Hands off Chinatown!” Drummers beat traditional Chinese drums to the crash of cymbals. A team of Indonesian motorcyclists brought up the rear and, at the front, the paper Chinese phoenix and dragon flew beside a row of colorful flags.
The march was concluded with a rally in front of City Hall, which featured over 10 speakers from local Asian American organizations and their allies. Yu Min Wang is a member of the Pennsylvania United Chinese Coalition, which represents 36 organizations in Chinatown. His speech challenged the idea that the 76ers arena will benefit the Chinatown community, and the city as a whole.
“What’s more important to the residents of Philadelphia is improving the safety in our city, it’s protecting the history and culture of our city so that we can have a peaceful life in harmony,” Wang said in Mandarin.
“The 76 developers have not done anything for us. Instead, for their own profit, they have made some promises to our residents. Do we have any reason to believe them?”
Other speakers situated the fight for Chinatown within the broader context of the challenges marginalized communities face across the city and country. Sarun Chan, Executive Director of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, described Chinatown as a “beacon of light” for immigrant communities across the nation. And speakers representing organizations from other communities of color, such as Forza Juntos, Philly Thrive, and POWER Interfaith drew connections with fights against displacement in their own communities — past and present.
Some have already experienced the consequences of development by the 76ers. Antoinette Miles, who represents New Jersey’s Working Families Party, says that the Sixers have already failed Camden, NJ— a primarily Black and Hispanic city across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.
In 2014, the Sixers had received a $82 million tax break in order to build a headquarters and training facility in Camden. Developers claimed that the facility would bring jobs and economic developments to the town. Yet ten years later, the team had only hired 11 residents out of 275 total employees.
“Camden is a proud, hardworking, historical, vibrant community with a majority of black and Hispanic families. And we have already seen the kind of neighbor that the Sixers would be,” says Miles.
“I am here to tell you that the Sixers have already failed the city of Camden. How can they be trusted to keep their promises to Chinatown?”
Ultimately, the rally not only expressed community member’s desire for Chinatown’s survival— but also for its continued growth and strength.
96-year-old Chang Kai Jong says his decision to attend, despite his age, was simple: He “had to come out.” Jong came to Chinatown at a time when the neighborhood was small— only 20 people, he recalls, and 9 stores. Over decades of his life, he’s seen Chinatown grow— and also faced threat after threat.
He is determined to see Chinatown continue to survive— and grow.
“We will stay here,” he says. “We must stay here, and continue to develop.”
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