What They Learned: Jian Wei ’24

Wei’s thesis examines the destruction and rebirth of Los Angeles’ Chinatown and the vision and agency of second-generation Chinese American civic leaders and architects who realized it.

As gentrification continues to spread in the nation’s cities, perhaps no neighborhoods have been more deeply affected than the vibrant Chinatowns found in nearly every major city from coast to coast. Close to Haverford, Philadelphia’s Chinatown is currently facing off with the NBA and city government over a proposed 18,500-seat arena for the Philadelphia 76ers along the neighborhood’s southern edge. 

For his thesis, Jian Wei ’24 explored this unique problem but chose to focus on Los Angeles, which, he says, maintains a wealth of materials detailing the history of its Chinatown. In the 1930s, much of the neighborhood was demolished to make way for Union Station, the city’s major rail hub. “Between Segregated Enclave and Ethnic Suburbia: New Chinatown and Chinese American Agency in Los Angeles” tells a story of rebirth and the vision and agency of second-generation Chinese American civic leaders and architects who realized it.

“The motivation to write this thesis was primarily the realization that Chinatown across the U.S. and the world are facing danger in the face of urban renewal,” Wei, a double major in history and the growth and structure of cities at Bryn Mawr, says. “In a time when the influence of China as a nation-state and as a cultural entity grows day after day, this project aims to present a nuanced look into an early interaction between China and the Euro-American world to challenge the increasingly prevalent narrative of Chinese exceptionalism.”

Wei, who hails from Hangzhou, China, was guided by his advisor, Assistant Professor of History and East Asian Languages and Cultures Ruodi Duan, who, he says, helped locate archival materials and other primary sources. Wei received additional support from Professor of Growth and Structure of Cities Gary W. McDonogh, who Wei says helped refine his topic and reinforced the importance of conducting a generational analysis. 

“Through showcasing the transformation of Chinese American agency, this thesis aims to make the more general argument that Chinese were neither the unassimilable orients that were inherently incompatible with Western culture nor the fortunate minority who were immune to Western institutions of racism and capitalism,” Wei says of his work. 

Now, as Wei pursues graduate studies in historic preservation, he says his work at Haverford has given him a taste of the kind of historical work he can expect when he enters the field.