Exploring the history of Pittsburgh’s Chinatown

At one time, there was even an informal Chinatown mayor to act as a community liaison.

by Abbie Synan
June 23, 2022

Cultural areas in the city like Polish Hill or the Bloomfield neighborhood dubbed as “Little Italy,” are staple examples of the melting pot that is Pittsburgh. While many migrant neighborhoods have evolved, there is still a strong representation of European and especially Eastern European communities. However, many other ethnicities played an integral role in the tapestry of our town. For instance, did you know that Pittsburgh used to have a thriving Chinatown? 

As of April 16, 2022, a historical marker was finally erected in front of the Chinatown Inn commemorating the city’s small but significant Chinatown. The Organization of Chinese Americans local chapter was responsible for funding that helped solidify the plaque and landmark designation from the Pennsylvania Governor’s Commission on Preservation and Museums.

Over the last 12 years, there has been advocacy for memorializing the small section of downtown that represents where Chinatown was in its prime as well as acknowledging the role the community played to help shape our city’s history. Finally, this year the neighborhood is getting the recognition it deserves. 

Where is Pittsburgh’s Chinatown?  

On 2nd and 3rd between Grant and Ross streets, was where the original neighborhood was located. In the early 1900s it was a flourishing district of town with shops, restaurants and Chinese American-owned businesses. The neighborhood was so well-established that there was an informal mayor of Chinatown helping to represent the community and be a liaison for those who immigrated to Pittsburgh. In 2008, Yuen Yee, the last mayor, sadly passed away at 84 years old, leaving behind his legacy and years of involvement with the Chinese-American community in Pittsburgh.  

The significance of The Chinatown Inn

The unfortunate disappearance of Pittsburgh Chinatown began with the construction of the Boulevard of the Allies in the 1920s. The project slowly started to eliminate parts of the neighborhood, driving through the heart of the community. Slowly, as the neighborhood became maller, businesses vanished and residents moved to other parts of the city. While the other establishments began to slowly close as infrastructure impinged on the neighborhood, there was one business that continues to be a beacon for the region, The Chinatown Inn restaurant.      

Plating authentic foods to Pittsburghers for over three generations, The Chinatown Inn is the last remaining business that stands. The restaurant serves up delicious Cantonese, Szechuan and Hunan dishes. The family business is a solitary reminder of the history of the area where Asian Americans helped the Commonwealth flourish. 

Although there is only a single restaurant, the representation matters and is significant. There has been a rise in reported cases of AAPI hate crimes and organizations and allys have been working to quell the xenophobia and racism. Celebrating the history of Pittsburgh Chinatown is a way to celebrate Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the city. 

Beyond the placement of the historical marker, the OCA mission is to continue to host events that highlight the history and culture of Asian Americans in the tri-state area and beyond. While it may not be possible to reclaim the complete original area known as the Chinatown neighborhood of Pittsburgh, there is still a physical representation of the heartbeat of the community that still pulses through neighborhoods throughout all of the city today.

Abbie Synan is a freelance writer who focuses on sustainability initiatives within the tourism industry. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Synan has been traveling full time since 2013, hopping the globe and visiting over 90 countries while exploring ways to be a more mindful global citizen. She is the sustainable travel expert for Wanderful, an international travel community as well as the content co-lead for Impact Travel Alliance, a global organization educating and inspiring travelers. You can find her sharing stories on her blog, Speck on the Globe or her capturing wanderlust images on Instagram.

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