Every year, millions of people around the world celebrate the Lunar New Year. This year is the Year of the Monkey. Philadelphia’s Chinatown annually hosts thousands of people from around the region to celebrate the holiday.
But beyond its festivals and restaurants, Chinatown is a neighborhood where thousands of people live and work.
Albert Lee and Father Thomas Betz are two neighbors who have dedicated their lives to building community in Chinatown.
Albert Lee is a community organizer and photographer who was born in Chinatown. Besides a brief stint in South Philly, he’s lived in the neighborhood for his entire life. Some people call Albert “Mr. Philadelphia” because of his enthusiastic commitment to the city and the pride he has for Chinatown. He also has a popular Instagram account – UrPhillyPal – that has nearly 38 thousand followers.
Father Thomas Betz is a Friar at St. John’s the Evangelist located near 13th and Market. He’s been youth group leader at Holy Redeemer in Chinatown for the past 25 years.
Although they come from very different backgrounds, Albert considers Father Tom an important mentor. He says Father Tom helped him both discover the world outside of Chinatown and also to appreciate where he’s from.
“He would take us to tennis courts and to go fishing,” says Albert, “Or he took us to the Reading Outlets so we could go shopping and buy Tommy Hilfiger and Polo and it was a fascinating thing. And as we all got older we invited him to our weddings, our graduation ceremonies.”
Albert reveres Father Tom, but also finds it interesting that he’s become a community leader even though he’s not Chinese.
“There’s very few people I know in Chinatown that everybody gives their head nod,” says Albert, “and those are Chinese – they’re not a Caucasian guy from Pittsburgh.
Father Tom says while it’s been a privilege to be allowed to be a part of the community, that it’s important for Chinatown to stay open to the rest of Philadelphia.
“We need other ethnic communities, other ethnic members to come in and shop and eat and enjoy Chinatown,” he says, “We want to keep a Chinese character to the community but it doesn’t mean that we don’t need and want people who aren’t Chinese to be a part of the community in some way or other.”
Father Tom points out there was a time when Albert wanted to leave Chinatown. But at some point he made up his mind to come back and dedicate himself to the neighborhood.
“People who know you now are proud of you,” he says, “You’re one of the names both in Chinatown and holy redeemer that people mention with a little bit of pride. It wasn’t always easy growing up in Chinatown but you still love Chinatown.”
“I think the reason why I love Chinatown is because to be honest my parents live there,” Albert says, “and they still live there and they raised me there. So it’s sort of like a very important part of me. If I live in another neighborhood, I still grew up in Chinatown.”
And Albert wants Father Tom to know he’s an important part of the neighborhood to him.
“Yes if I ever get married, we’ll definitely have a Catholic wedding,” says Albert, “You’ll officiate it.”