By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
PHILADELPHIA – John Chin, 44, who is the executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. (PCDC), like many first generation Americans, balances two distinct cultures. Although he lives in South Philadelphia instead of Chinatown proper, he retains his membership at Holy Redeemer Chinese Catholic Church, where he and his family attend weekly Mass.
But the Mass they choose to attend is the English-language Mass rather than those offered in Mandarin or Cantonese, the two distinct major languages of China.
His own roots are from Southern China, where Cantonese is spoken. His mother Janne was born in Hong Kong and his father, William, not far from there in Guandong.
Growing up in Chinatown where he briefly attended Holy Redeemer School, John learned to straddle both Chinese and American culture.
“It’s not always easy and some people never figure out how to do it,” he said. “I took a blend of the best of both of them.”
But it would be fair to say his Chinese heritage is still dominant. Most of his social life and that of his wife Jenny, who is a Catholic convert, and of their children Sidney and Matthew, revolves around Chinatown. His children have friends who are not Chinese, but most of their closest friends are, he believes.
Chin himself joined a young adult group at Holy Redeemer almost two decades ago, and although the members are approaching middle age, it is still going strong, and he still helps with Holy Redeemer’s annual carnival and school fundraisers.
The Chinese population and Asian population in general of Philadelphia has grown significantly Chin said, estimating the number in Chinatown itself has grown 80 percent to approximately 4,400.
The real challenge is the compactness of the community. It extends, generally speaking, from Arch to Vine Streets between 8th and 12th streets, with little chance of expansion because it is virtually surrounded by the Center City business district. For this reason, some Chinese who would prefer to live in Chinatown must seek another place to live, mostly in South Philadelphia and Northeast Philadelphia, according to Chin.
Although older families have moved away from the community core, they are more than replaced by newly arrived younger Chinese, often with families.
“One member of the family comes and sponsors other members,” Chin said.
Blocked in three directions, Chinatown’s only hope for expansion is leapfrogging the Vine Street Expressway to the north. This is an area of urban blight with many abandoned buildings and vacant factories. Chin’s organization, the PCDC, is working with the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority to reclaim the area.
In addition to its development advocacy, the PCDC provides family support services, youth programs and economic direction among other services.
Most Chinese are not Catholic, but Holy Redeemer has been a linchpin of the community since 1941 when it was founded as a chapel of St. John the Evangelist Parish. It is so important to the Chinese community that in answer to their outcry the church building was relocated at state expense when the expressway construction threatened its existence.
“Many people look at it as an anchor for the community,” Chin said. “Beyond its Catholic aspect it provides programming and space for many community activities, even a free health clinic once a week for those without health insurance.”
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.