Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.
These photographs taken in Pittsburgh’s Chinatown in 1912, possibly during Lunar New Year events, show Chinese men playing instruments, top, and preparing an altar, bottom. Melvin Seidenberg Photographs, c. 1828–1988, MSP 566, Rauh Jewish Archives, Detre Library and Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center

These photographs taken in Pittsburgh’s Chinatown in 1912, possibly during Lunar New Year events, show Chinese men playing instruments, top, and preparing an altar, bottom.
Melvin Seidenberg Photographs, c. 1828–1988, MSP 566, Rauh Jewish Archives, Detre Library and Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center

Most Pennsylvanians recognize Philadelphia’s popular Chinatown, yet far fewer know of the significant presence of Chinese immigrants in western Pennsylvania.

On April 16, 2022, the Pittsburgh branch of the Organization of Chinese Americans dedicated a Pennsylvania Historical Marker for Pittsburgh Chinatown in front of the Chinatown Inn at 520 Third Avenue in the city. Six months prior, a marker for the Chinese Workers in Beaver Falls was installed in front of the factory building at Seventh Avenue and Third Street in the City of Beaver Falls. Of these two communities, only a few buildings remain that reflect this heritage.

Chinese immigrants came to western Pennsylvania from the West Coast around 1872, first to Beaver Falls, where approximately 200 to 300 workers were recruited to work at the Beaver Falls Cutlery Co. under four-year contracts. Nearly all left Beaver Falls after their contracts ended and moved to other areas, such as nearby Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh, Chinese immigrants formed a community along Second and Third avenues between Ross and Grant streets. These communities were two of the earliest arrivals of Chinese immigrants to the Eastern United States.

Pittsburgh Chinatown supported itself with grocery stores, laundries, restaurants, a civic and a benevolent organization, family organizations, and even a small park. In Beaver Falls, the Chinese workers had a grocery store that sold items from China. Like other Chinatowns across the country, these communities provided vital social and economic support for Chinese immigrants who faced intense discrimination, exploitation as cheap labor by American companies, hostility as “job stealers” by white laborers, and loss of work due to trade unions.

Dedication of the Pittsburgh Chinatown marker at the Chinatown Inn, April 16, 2022. Photo, PHMC

Dedication of the Pittsburgh Chinatown marker at the Chinatown Inn, April 16, 2022.
Photo, PHMC

This discrimination was codified into laws such as the Page Act of 1875, which prohibited the entry of Chinese women, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first U.S. legislation to bar an ethnic group from entering the country.

After World War I, the City of Pittsburgh wanted to honor veterans by creating the Boulevard of Allies. This infrastructure project, however, followed the pattern of many others throughout U.S. history that destroyed neighborhoods of many ethnic minorities. This one ran through the center of Chinatown, demolishing buildings and dividing the neighborhood. The Chinese community managed to hold on to the location for a few more decades. Now the only building that remains there is the Chinatown Inn.

Although the other physical buildings of Pittsburgh Chinatown have long been razed, Chinese presence is still strong in Pittsburgh. To learn more about Chinese heritage in western Pennsylvania, visit the OCA Pittsburgh website.

 

Alli Davis is the coordinator of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program.