Investigating History

CPS student explores the origins of Chinatown in Philadelphia

By Colleen Donnelly

Four Chinese-style red lanterns hanging from a wire

The birth of Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood can be traced to a specific address: 913 Race St. There, in 1871, a Chinese migrant named Lee Fong opened a Laundromat—the first of dozens of Chinese-owned establishments that sprang up within the eight-block radius that would become an epicenter of Asian culture.

Today, a historical marker stands at that address, encapsulating a very brief history of the iconic neighborhood in just 37 words:

Founded in the 1870s by Chinese immigrants, it is the only Chinatown in Pennsylvania. This unique neighborhood includes businesses and residences owned by and serving Chinese Americans. Here, Asian cultural traditions are preserved and ethnic identity perpetuated.

“That sign is basically where my story started,” says Frank Schlupp ’25 CPS, a History major in Villanova’s College of Professional Studies. “It gives you a little bit of information, but it actually opens up so many questions about how this enclave was formed, and it doesn’t even mention Lee Fong.”

Schlupp set out to explore the neighborhood’s origins for an assignment in his Investigating US History course, taught by the Rev. Joseph G. Ryan, OSA, PhD. What began as a standard research paper for a 2000-level class broadened into a scholarly endeavor that encompassed months of research, hours of thoughtful discourse with Villanova professors and classmates, and numerous visits to the Philadelphia City Archives and Historial Society of Pennsylvania.

“Originally, I wasn’t planning to go this in-depth, but I felt Lee Fong’s story ought to be told,” Schlupp says.

To understand all of the richness of American history, I believe you also need to consider the perspective of the people who were there at the time.

Frank Schlupp ’25 CPS

And he did just that in a scholarly paper that he published in the fall 2023 issue of Veritas, a peer-reviewed undergraduate research journal at Villanova. Schlupp set the story of Lee Fong against the background of Philadelphia’s broader history and connections with China, with trade routes predating the American Revolution.

“Frank’s paper is very important because it sheds light on a little-known aspect of Philadelphia history: the history of the Chinese immigrant community,” Father Ryan says. “He exhibited a remarkable tenacity in his research, delving deep into the source materials and interpreting them with great skill.”

This research is another step toward Schlupp’s lifelong dream of becoming an educator. A native Philadelphian, he hopes to teach high school social studies in the Philadelphia public school system. After a successful IT career spanning more than 25 years, he enrolled at Villanova in 2021 to complete his bachelor’s degree in History, and next, he plans to obtain a master’s degree in Education.

His goal is to talk about history with his future students in a way that allows them to connect with the material more deeply than by simply reading a textbook. “We’re used to consuming stories about these big movers in history, but many of the spaces we inhabit were built by normal people like you and me,” Schlupp says.

“To understand all of the richness of American history, I believe you also need to consider the perspective of the people who were there at the time,” he says. “In this case, it’s a man named Lee Fong who opened a business despite all the anti-Asian racism and exclusionary legislation that existed in his time—a man who built the first business in Chinatown, which still stands today.”


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