Cecilia Moy Yep

Graham S. Finney
Ernesta D. Ballard

Born in North Philadelphia, Cecilia Moy Yep was ten years old when her family moved to Chinatown. The daughter of a Cantonese father and a German mother, she observed, “We were the only Catholic family in Chinatown.” The Chinatown of Yep’s childhood was teeming with bars, prostitutes, and industrial zones. The community gained an anchor with the building of the Holy Redeemer Church and School at 915 Vine Street in 1941. The school sent buses to pick up students and accommodated non-English speaking children. Since the school catered to the Chinese, non-Catholic Chinese parents sent their children there.

Y ep entered public life in 1966 when the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation proposed the expansion of the Vine Street Expressway. She led a committee formed to oppose the project, which would have fragmented the neighborhood, displaced residents (including Yep), and demolished Holy Redeemer, which had become “a focal point in a lot of our lives,” noted Yep, a widow with three children.

She stood her ground at her home at 832 Race Street. As the project moved forward, the inhabitants of her block eventually abandoned their homes, but she and her children remained in their house as mounds of earth piled around it. Yep stayed even after the construction broke her furnace flue and nearly asphyxiated her family. She called it, “The Alamo of Chinatown.” Young people climbed on piles of rubble, stopping bulldozers. Yep and her supporters lobbied politicians and demonstrated against the project. Although ultimately Yep was displaced from her home, the battle was won (in large part) when the city and Penn DOT redesigned the Vine Street project to spare Holy Redeemer, installed noise-reducing walls along the expressway, and abandoned plans for a 9th Street ramp.

The committee was incorporated in 1969 as the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC), a nonprofit, grassroots organization that promotes Chinatown as a “viable ethnic residential and commercial community.” Yep was named its executive director in 1974.

The threat to Chinatown did not end at Vine Street. Yep and the PCDC lobbied and protested against other projects encroaching upon Chinatown, including the development of Market Street East, Gallery I and II, a new commuter terminal, and the Convention Center. They were able to significantly lessen the negative impact of six public projects, and successfully blocked the construction of a new bus terminal and the conversion of a warehouse into a federal prison. Still, residents were displaced, the community was boxed in, and rising real estate prices made the community unaffordable for many Chinese.

Yep and the PCDC helped save Chinatown by sponsoring the building of five housing developments there, comprising 216 residential and 22 commercial units, known as Mei Wah Yuen (Beautiful Chinese Homes), Wing Wah Yuen (Dynasty Court), Gim San Plaza (Gold Mountain), On Lok House (Peace and Harmony), and Hing Wah Yuen (Prosperous Chinese Garden). The last-mentioned consists of 51 affordable housing units for first time buyers on the north side of Vine Street.

Yep received the 1999 Philadelphia Award for her work representing, preserving, and protecting the Chinatown community. In 2000 Yep resigned as executive director. As PCDC director, she had not only rescued Chinatown from outside threats during her lifetime, but also saved the neighborhood for future generations by initiating the passage of a bill in 1999 that established Chinatown as a Special Zoning District. This law rezoned 44 acres of underutilized land north of Vine Street and across from Chinatown, allowing for the community’s expansion. Yep also left an indelible mark on the neighborhood by negotiating to bring the magnificent China Friendship Gate (completed in 1983) that serves as the gateway into Chinatown at 10th and Arch streets.

Steven Smith

Sources: “Cecilia Moy Yep Named Winner of the 1999 Philadelphia Award,” PR Newswire, http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Cecilia+Moy+Yep+Named+Winner+of+the+1999+Philadelphia+Award.-a061696705; Larry Fish, “Sizing Up the New Neighbor Chinatown,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 24, 1992; Howard Goodman, “Showing off Chinatown’s Secrets,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 8, 1987; “Still Taking a Stand for Chinatown, Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 6, 2000; Rob Laymon, “Yep, It’s Her Again-Now Fighting Stadium,” Philadelphia Business Journal, May 22, 2000, http://www.bizjournals.com/philadelphia/stories/2000/05/22/focus2.html?s=print. The following are collected from the Philadelphia Award Records: Series 2 (Recipients and Nominees), Box 8, folder 2: clippings, support materials. Photo: Image courtesy of Asian American Women’s Coalition (Cecilia Moy Yep). Comment: For fifteen years, Yep was a board member of the Balch Institute of Ethnic Studies and arranged a photography exhibit called “Chinese Women in America: 1834-1980,” which chronicled and documented the achievements and strengths of Chinese women. In 1987, Yep co-founded the Asian American Women’s Coalition, a group dedicated to celebrating the contributions of Chinese women “without formal education, language, or a trade” to America.