I didn’t feel a strong personal connection to Pittsburgh when I arrived in 2019. I knew the city was prone to harsh winters (strike one), that it wasn’t as overtly progressive as my native California (strike two), and that its limited Asian dining options did not include dim sum (game over).
I wondered: Were there even Asian people living here?
I figured I’d complete Carnegie Mellon University’s master of fine arts program, the reason for my move, and wouldn’t linger after.
Back then, I did not know that there was, in fact, good Sichuanese food and boba (but still no dim sum) in Squirrel Hill, where Asian and Jewish communities intermingled. I did not anticipate that I’d encounter fragments of my own family’s history by walking through the Homewood Cemetery, where early Chinese migrants were buried in temporary graves that became permanent when their bones never found their way back to their families in China.
Identification cards from Chinatown’s last honorary mayor Yuen Yee’s archives and street scene photos from Historic Pittsburgh. (Photo stills courtesy of Lena Chen from her film, The Last Mayor of Chinatown)
I did not foresee that my curiosity about the names on the gravemarkers would lead me to Shirley Yee, the youngest daughter of the last mayor of Pittsburgh’s Chinatown, who inherited the archives her father collected, chronicling the region’s Chinese community. Nor did I realize that many other Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders [AAPI] in Pittsburgh were driven to make this long-hidden history visible.
That began to change in 2020, when I lived in Point Breeze. I became fascinated by the Chinese section in Homewood Cemetery, which I would pass when I walked to Squirrel Hill. With a Google search, I pulled up Chien-Shiung Wu’s 1982 dissertation on the Chinese in Pittsburgh and discovered that most migrant workers buried in the cemetery had immigrated from Toishan and Kaiping, the regions in China where my ancestors had roots.
This was the “Aha!” moment that made me feel a strong tie to the city and realize that my family’s story was part of a bigger legacy, which I’ve been steadily uncovering ever since.
Celebrating a (nearly) lost Chinatown
I was born in San Francisco, where the city’s Chinatown is one of the oldest and largest Chinese enclaves in the Asian diaspora. Pittsburgh had a Chinatown, too, on Grant, Ross and Water streets (the last of which no longer exists), and Second, Third and Fourth avenues, Downtown. Population estimates ranged from hundreds to more than 1,000.
Most of the immigrants in Pittsburgh had arrived from California, seeking economic opportunity after the 1849 Gold Rush and the development of transcontinental railroads. But the city’s enclave disappeared over half a century ago, and many don’t know it existed.
As an artist making work that invites social engagement, I wanted to find ways to bring this history to light. So in 2021, backed by grants from the Office for Public Art, I began reaching out to friends, artists and organizers including Anny Chen and Caroline Yoo. Saddened but energized by anti-Asian violence, we organized an event for mourning and healing featuring AAPI artists, healers, and entertainers DJ Formosa and Samira Mendoza, and then founded the collective JADED to support cultural programming made by and for AAPI Pittsburghers.
Throughout this period, I returned repeatedly to the Chinese cemetery, sometimes bringing offerings and burning incense with friends. I noticed the abundance of grave markers that bore the surname Yee, and I soon discovered that Chinatown’s last honorary mayor was Yuen Yee. His obituary mentioned he was survived by a daughter named Shirley, in Mt. Lebanon.
The only Shirley Yee I could find was teaching at Carnegie Mellon University. On a whim, I sent her an email, and within 24 hours, I had a response. Yuen Yee was indeed her father. And not only that, but she had inherited his substantial archive.
Yuen Yee and family in Chinatown 1930-1943. (Photo stills courtesy of Lena Chen from her film, The Last Mayor of Chinatown)
As mayor, Yuen Yee acted as a translator and intermediary between Chinese residents and Pittsburgh city officials. He cared for aging laundrymen who had come to Pittsburgh decades before and were now growing old without family support. He even ran, unsuccessfully, for City Council. After a stroke paralyzed the right side of his body, he taught himself to write with his left hand and recorded his memories of Chinatown on legal pads, left to Shirley among a vast collection of artifacts.
I invited Shirley to lead a walking tour of Chinatown for JADED and to share her father’s experiences with the public. The event coincided with big news: After many years of advocacy from the Chinese community, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission recognized the original site of Chinatown with a Pennsylvania Historical Marker on April 16, 2022. The marker was erected by the Chinatown Inn, the enclave’s last remaining building.
JADED partnered with the Pittsburgh chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans on the tour, which kicked off a daylong celebration to commemorate the marker’s installation. Despite the rainy weather, a crowd of 100 people showed up and filled the narrow streets where a vibrant Chinese community once lived. It was a testament to how many people – AAPI and otherwise – cared about this history.
A ‘mayor,’ a homecoming, a menu
In July 2022, I moved from Pittsburgh to California to start a doctoral program. But I continued to organize with JADED, which expanded to include community organizer Bonnie Fan, artist Sara Tang and poet Elina Zhang.
I briefly returned to create “The Last Mayor of Chinatown,” a short documentary about Yuen Yee. I spent days at Shirley’s house in Mt. Lebanon, where she brought out box after box of photographs, newspaper clippings and mementos while narrating each item’s significance. Anchored by these artifacts, the film interweaves excerpts from his memoir with Shirley’s contemporary commentary to show her father’s instrumental role in supporting newly arrived immigrants and establishing mutual aid initiatives. Through the Yee family’s story, we learn about the rise, decline and rediscovery of Pittsburgh’s Chinatown.
Newspaper clippings and photos about Yuen Lee from The Pittsburgh Press and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (Photo stills courtesy of Lena Chen from her film, The Last Mayor of Chinatown)
Almost a year after I left Pittsburgh, I am returning this August for an arts residency. And on Aug. 12, I will screen “The Last Mayor of Chinatown” for the first time at WILDNESS, a summer festival at Pump House in Munhall that JADED has organized with Rivers of Steel.
When I first arrived in Pittsburgh, I did not expect to find an AAPI community in a steel town. I did not know that I would discover so much of myself and my own family’s story in a place far from our motherland. And I could not have imagined how much I would grow to love this city, even though there wasn’t any dim sum.
I see this upcoming visit less as a work trip and more as a homecoming. Shortly after I moved away, a dim sum restaurant finally opened in Lawrenceville. And if I’m to be honest, what I look forward to most is the experience of eating dim sum with my son and chosen family, in the city that has shown me so much love and has become a second home in all the ways that really matter.
Lena Chen is an artist, writer and scholar examining Asian American sexuality, labor and performance art. She is co-founder of JADED, a Pittsburgh-based AAPI artist collective. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Upcoming events celebrating Pittsburgh’s AAPI community :
- Friday, Aug. 4-26: “Because Freedom” art exhibition (in collaboration with Caroline Yoo) at Silver Eye Center for Photography, 4808 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, 15224.
- Sunday, Aug. 6: An AAPI brunch inviting community members to share food and participate in a book swap for “Because Freedom.” Located at the Pedantic Arts Residency, 5228 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, 15224. RSVP to email@example.com.
- Wednesday, Aug. 9: “Finding Kin: AAPI Cultural Organizing in Pittsburgh” panel with JADED and screening of Culture Weavers. Located at 1Hood’s Blaxk Box Theater, 460 Melwood Ave, Pittsburgh, 15213.
- Saturday, Aug. 12: WILDNESS, JADED’s daylong festival with Rivers of Steel, featuring a debut screening of “The Last Mayor of Chinatown,” performances, workshops, regional AAPI vendors and a live DJ set. Located at 880 E Waterfront Dr., Munhall, 15120.
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