When listing the neighborhoods that make up the grand cultural tapestry of Philadelphia, people tend to overlook Chinatown. As a community, Philadelphia’s Chinatown, one of the oldest in the country, is positively rich in its history and tradition. During the observance of this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival, Albert Lee, 33, community and content manager for the Independence Visitor Center, gave me an excellent tour of Philadelphia’s Chinatown, and was sure to pepper in little-known-facts about his hometown along the way.
1. The Mid-Autumn Festival takes place during a full moon on the 15th day of the eighth moon, in conjunction with the Chinese lunar calendar. This usually occurs midway through the autumnal equinox to celebrate the fall harvest. The festival is also observed and celebrated in Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
2. Comparable to Thanksgiving, the Mid-Autumn Festival primarily focuses on the importance of family, giving thanks to the moon goddess through offerings and prayer for continued life and longevity. As a traditional culture, the gathering of loved ones is important throughout Chinese heritage and is celebrated particularly during the festival.
3. Families share moon cakes during the festival and are regarded as an indispensable delicacy. Most moon cakes are comprised of a thin, tender pastry skin enveloping a sweet, dense filling and may contain one or more whole salted egg yolks in their center as the symbol of the full moon. Very rarely, moon cakes are also served steamed or fried. They are also delicious and can be found in bakeries and supermarkets in Chinatown.
4. During the festival, a string of Chinese lions—or Fu Dogs—paraded through the crowd. The lions are meant to scare off any evil spirits. Traditionally, firecrackers are thrown at the ground to awaken these spirits so the ferocious lions may frighten them away as the festival continues. Albert speaks from experience, noting that the performers run the risk of getting hit with these tiny explosives as they dance for the crowd.
5. Speaking of Fu Dogs, Albert was thorough enough to inform me as to how to tell the difference between male and female lion statues: The male lions have a paw rested on an ornate ball, while the female lions are depicted with their paw protectively resting upon a cub.
6. “Chinese people believe that we’re descendants of dragons,” Albert declares proudly, explaining why the longer, more difficult-to-operate dragons dance through the crowd. Meant to act as protection, the dragon bobs and weaves its way through the masses as a watchful symbol of security. Dragons require at least seven people to bring the ornate character to life and are more of a spectacle.
7. On Race Street, between 10th and 11th streets, lies a “hidden” Buddhist temple. “Well,” Albert admits, “it’s hidden if you don’t read Chinese.” Sure enough, an unassuming building front with signs written in Chinese act as a threshold for a beautiful, serene Buddhist temple, complete with ornate figures and a decidedly peaceful ambiance. In addition to the main temple, there is an supplementary temple for the community’s Tibetan followers.
8. 10th Street was full of kid-friendly games, from fishing in wading pools to face-painting to a very appropriate moon bounce. Vendors were also selling paper lanterns, traditionally known to symbolize fertility. There was even a moon cake eating contest held for those who really, really enjoyed the delicacy.
9. There’s a whole neighborhood tucked into the nooks and crannies of this section of Center City. The proper perimeters range from as far north as Callowhill Street to Arch Street, from 8th to 13th Street. The Chinatown wall, spanning Vine Street, was constructed to keep the sound of the Vine Street Expressway out of the community. “A lot of people think this is the boundary of Chinatown,” Albert clarified. “It’s really just to cut down on noise.” He later led the way to the courtyard of his old grade school, Holy Redeemer, which is the first Roman Catholic Chinese parish in the U.S. Afterwards, we traipsed through what seemed to be a loading bay for businesses, only to discover a collection of apartments and courtyards woven into the community like cultural pearls.
10. As we sat in the playground of Holy Redeemer, Albert swelled with pride as he described growing up in this vibrant neighborhood. As born-and-raised Philadelphians like myself become slowly outnumbered by new folks planting new roots in this city, I asked Albert to explain his favorite thing about his neighborhood. After much deliberation, he replied, “My absolute favorite thing about this area is that throughout my childhood into adulthood, Chinatown has continued to maintain and preserve its culture.”
This year’s Mid-Autumn Festival officially takes place today, in conjunction with the full moon. Gather loved ones to celebrate the festival, pick up a moon cake and venture into Philadelphia’s Chinatown. I recommend my favorite restaurant in the area: Shiao Lan Kung at 930 Race St. And please BYOB.