Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Last Mayor of Chinatown' film highlights new Pittsburgh AAPI festival

A frame from "The Last Mayor of Chinatown" showing several photos and newspaper clippings depicting Pittsburgh's old Chinatown.
Lena Chen
The Last Mayor of Chinatown
Lena Chen's documentary "The Last Mayor of Chinatown" makes its local premiere at the Wildness festival.

When Lena Chen first came to Pittsburgh for graduate school several years ago, she felt disconnected from the city. Then this daughter of Chinese immigrants, who grew up in Los Angeles, learned about Yuen Yee — the unofficial mayor of Pittsburgh’s Chinatown, himself an immigrant, who died in 2008.

Yee’s fascinating story led Chen to his daughter, Shirley W. Yee, who taught at Carnegie Mellon University — the very school where Chen was studying art.

Yee held her father’s archives, which became the basis for Chen’s short documentary “The Last Mayor of Chinatown.” And that film, in turn, is now a highlight of Wildness, a new festival celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander cultures. It’s organized by JADED, an AAPI artist collective Chen co-founded in 2022.

Wildness, presented in partnership with Rivers of Steel, also includes live performances, food, and workshops on cookie decorating and Asian calligraphy. It takes place 3-8 p.m. Sat., Aug. 12, inside and on the grounds of the historic Pump House, in Munhall. Admission is free, though donations are requested on a sliding scale.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Love stories about arts and culture? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you Pittsburgh's top news, every weekday morning.

JADED was founded largely in response to the rise in hate crimes against AAPI people following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wildness caps a year of events Jaded calls KIN, which uses art and activism to uplift women and queer AAPI people. Other events have included a lunar new-year party and an art exhibit.

“How do we connect to our ancestry, to Pittsburgh’s original Chinatown, and continue that legacy of recognizing that Asian Americans have been here in Pittsburgh for a long time, and we are still here, and we are here to stay?” said Jaded member Elina Zhang.

Zhang said JADED chose the name "Wildness" to help combat stereotypes of AAPI people.

"I think 'Wildness' really captures kind of the necessity of really an unruliness ... a kind of necessity of just finding new cracks to peek through and new ways to grow and find a lot of beauty in that survival as well,” she said.

The long history of Asians in Pittsburgh includes Yuen Yee, who was 6 when he came to Pittsburgh with his mother, in 1930, to join his father, who had emigrated in 1919. Yee spent years working in the family restaurant business, but he also worked for the city Housing Authority and ran, unsuccessfully, for city council. He served as a benefactor for older Chinese immigrants who could no longer work.

Chen said Yee’s archives included his memoirs, hand-written on a legal pad after Yee had a stroke and taught himself to write left-handed. In the film, Yee’s words are voiced by Pittsburgh-based magician Jon Tai.

Pittsburgh’s Chinatown, which dates to 1870, originally encompassed a few square blocks centered near Grant Street and Third Avenue; its displacement began with the construction of the Boulevard of the Allies, in the 1920s. Chinatown is remembered with a historical marker installed in 2022 in front of the Chinatown Inn. On the day the marker was dedicated, Shirley Yee led a walking tour of the district.

“This history has been hidden just under our noses this entire time,” said Chen. “When I came to Pittsburgh as a Chinese American, I had no idea there was a Chinatown. I had to discover this for myself.” She later learned her ancestors came from the same part of China as Shirley Yee’s.

The 15-minute film will screen at 3 p.m. in the Pump House, followed by a discussion with Chen and Shirley Yee. (Chen, since completing her studies at CMU, has moved to Berkeley, Calif., but she is currently in Pittsburgh for an artist residency.)

Live performances at Wildness include a lion dance by Steel Dragon Martial Arts and performance art by Anisha Baid, Davine Byon, Bonnie Fan, Mango, and Sara Tang. DJ Samira Mendoza will provide music. Vendors include ManduHandu, Yhet Pinoy Cuisine, Greenhouse Co-Op and more. Jasmine Cho will lead the cookie-decorating workshop, and Eva Hui the calligraphy workshop.

More information is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: