Amid a COVID recovery, major fire disrupts Chinatown businesses

The fire has caused an almost complete shutdown of the Chinatown business area. (Tom MacDonald / WHYY)

The fire has caused an almost complete shutdown of the Chinatown business area. (Tom MacDonald / WHYY)

A fire in Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood has shut down many businesses at a time when things were starting to get better after COVID.

The blaze broke out in the early morning hours on 10th street near Arch in the heart of the community, and just about 100 yards away from a firehouse which meant that water started hitting the building almost immediately.

Marie Yuen, a former police sergeant who still comes to the area, said many of the people either don’t speak English or worry about immigration issues so they don’t want to talk to any officials, but she urged police to warn the business owners that their stores would not be allowed to open.

“Just go in and tell them no customers are coming, you should let them know that this is shut down all day.”

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Yuen pointed out a shop owner who immediately left and said, “So these people, all workers, they got so many workers and now they can’t go in. So, they’re losing a lot of money. And these you know [are] mom-and-pop stores, I mean, it’s really hard for them. I’m worried about the building owners.”

There was a definite language barrier at the scene as a firefighter explained to a business owner that they were concerned about a possible collapse like the one that happened last weekend in Fairhill and killed a firefighter. Gallon after gallon of water was poured on the Chinatown building to douse hotspots. The business owner called over a young woman to translate for him and lowered his head and walked away when he found out he would lose at least a day’s worth of revenue.

Josephine Chang works in the area of the fire and spoke of the thick smoke that came out of the combination retail store and apartment building, and how shutting down the neighborhood really hurts the small businesses.

“They can’t open their stores right now after the smoke I saw at 8:30, it was very very bad.”

Chang added that losing a day’s business at a time when people are just starting to return to the new normal is not good at a time when business, as she described it, is “very good.”

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The cause of the fire is still under investigation. It’s unclear how long many of the streets in the area will remain blocked from pedestrians and vehicle traffic.

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