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Inn to the past: Downtown Cantonese restaurant points back to city's vanished Chinatown

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

By Woodene Merriman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It was one of the smallest Chinatowns in the United States, but it was a busy one. In the early 1900s, Second and Third avenues, Downtown, between Ross and Grant streets, had Chinese gift and grocery shops, restaurants, even a little park where the Chinese families who lived above their stores gathered on warm evenings.

John Beale, Post-Gazette
Chinatown Inn on Third Avenue is the one remaining vestige of Pittsburgh' Chinatown.
Click photo for larger image.

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It was the home of two rival Chinese fraternal societies -- the On Leong Labor and Merchants Association and the Hip Sing Association. It had a so-called "mayor" and "tong" wars.

Chinese from surrounding towns would come by bus, train or trolley on Sunday afternoons to socialize, play mah jong and drink tea.

Today, all that remains of Pittsburgh's Chinatown are the two buildings on Third Avenue that house the venerable, pagoda-trimmed Chinatown Inn.

During a weekday lunch hour, the restaurant is filled with dark-suited lawyers lingering over their shrimp lo mein and moo goo gai pan before heading back to their offices in the tall buildings that have replaced the Chinese shops.

They probably never heard of Joe Che Oh or Yee Haim.

Jonathan Yee, third-generation proprietor of the 60-year-old restaurant, estimates that 800 Chinese families live in or near Pittsburgh now but none of them in the old Chinatown.

The story of Pittsburgh's tiny, and short-lived, Chinatown starts with the first big wave of Chinese immigrants who came to California after the 1849 Gold Rush. Others followed to work on the transcontinental railroads, and some worked their way east.

"The first Chinese community in Pittsburgh developed around Wylie Avenue above Court Place," according to a 1942 newsletter of the American Service Institute of Allegheny County.

John Beale, Post-Gazette
Jie Min Tan makes egg roll filling in the Chinatown Inn kitchen. The restaurant, which opened 60 years ago, is run by Jonathan Yee, a third-generation proprietor. He estimates that 800 Chinese families live in the area but none of them in the old Chinatown.
Click photo for larger image.

"Then they moved to Grant Street. In 1887, they moved to Water Street and then spread out to Second and Third avenues. They have since been here, except for a short movement to Penn Avenue. Practically all of them came from the area around Canton.

"Many moved to other cities when the [newly constructed] Boulevard of the Allies pushed them out of their homes."

The boulevard seems to have been the beginning of the end for Pittsburgh's Chinatown, as it cut through the heart of community.

One of the earliest records of how well Pittsburgh's Chinese community was thriving is in a program for a Chinese school event in 1919, now part of the Pennsylvania Room collection at Carnegie Library in Oakland. Advertising their Chinese merchandise, herbs, teas and imported goods were:

Wing Hong Chinese Co., 519 Second Ave.; Hop Ching Wing, at 527 Second Ave; Quong Yuen Lee Co., 505 Second Ave; Quong Chong Shing, 511 Second Ave.; Sun Wing Sing Co, 507 Second Ave.; Quong Wah Hai Co., 314 Second Ave.; and Lee Jan Fueng, 521 Second Ave.

Not to be outdone, the Joseph Horne Co., farther Downtown, advertised that fine imported Chinese merchandise could be bought there, too.

In the 1920s, Chinatown was divided by two fraternal societies --Hip Sing (Help-Success) and On Leong (Peace-Fraternity) -- that wanted to control Chinatown. Yuen Yee, the last unofficial mayor of Chinatown, now retired and inactive, explained them in an interview with Barry Paris of the Post-Gazette in 1985:

"During the tong wars, they were rivals -- each trying to get new members -- and there was that idea of 'I'm muscling in on your territory, and you're muscling in on mine.' But for the most part, it wasn't really that dangerous."

Still, the two groups' violent competition left five dead in gang fighting between 1924 and 1927. Skirmishes continued until 1931.

The anonymous author of the 1942 American Service Institute newsletter described the headquarters of the On Leong society:

"On Second Avenue there stands the temple, pagoda style, lifting itself three stories, its tiled roof and leaded windows giving it an air of Oriental distinction. Inside is the splendor of embroidery and hangings, teakwood and mother of pearl, red lacquer and gilt carvings, a carved stone altar for worship, and a long table for meetings of the On Leong Merchants Association."

The Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Press covered the tong wars in detail. But they also ran stories about the colorful New Year celebrations, the traditional funerals and gradually, more and more stories about the fading of Chinatown.

As early as 1930, the Post-Gazette was complaining that the "old Chinatown is rapidly vanishing and with it the Oriental glamour. ... A walk through the changing district is disillusioning with signs of swift Americanization."

By 1934, according to The Pittsburgh Press, there were only 10 stores where there used to be 25. "They sell herbs, canned goods and other imports from China in unprepossessing, dimly lighted places, murky and dust-covered." The headline on the story: "Sun of Pittsburgh's Chinatown has set."

Only one restaurant remained in Chinatown that year, according to the newspaper. It was at the corner of Third Avenue and Ross Street, owned by Kim Kee who spoke with customers as they left, using the only English word he knew: "Goodbye."

In 1942, the Post-Gazette said the Yee Haim store at 519 Second Ave., apparently the successor to Wing Hong Chinese Co., once at that location, was one of the few remaining Chinese stores. It was at Yee Haim's where people gathered for so many years to socialize on weekends.

In 1959, as two more buildings came down to make way for a parking lot, the newspapers reported that only three families were left in Chinatown.

One of the first places where the Chinese settled in Western Pennsylvania, though, was Beaver Falls. In 1872, 300 Chinese arrived to work for a cutlery company there, wrote Edward J.M. Rhoads in the Journal of American Ethnic History. By 1876, though, only 100 remained.

At least one of the Pittsburgh Chinese moved here from Beaver Falls, Rhoads wrote:

"This is the romantic Joe Che Oh ("Pretty Joe"), who, having been prevented from reuniting with his beloved, moved to Downtown Pittsburgh where he found employment as a sales clerk in D.M. Jenkins' Old Tea House. Described as an intelligent and educated Oriental gentleman, who speaks English fluently, Joe also looked after Jenkins' small collection of 'curiosities of Chinese art, manufacture and production,' which he took on tour to surrounding communities like Monongahela City, Greensburg and Burgettstown and which he later, in 1875, displayed at the first Pittsburgh Exposition."

Why couldn't the romantic Joe Che Oh be reunited with his beloved? Was she still in China and he couldn't get back? It's one of the still-untold stories of Pittsburgh's one-time Chinatown.

Senior editor Woodene Merriman can be reached at

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