Who was the First Asian Resident in Ambler?

Looking at census data is one of the best sources to use when identifying people who use to live in a certain decade, or identifying places that use to exist. When I analyzed the census data in Ambler, I notice something unique that stood out: there was only 1 Asian who lived in Ambler during the early 20th century.

The Research Process

Right away, we know he/she was either Indian, Chinese, or Japanese. I thought to try looking through Google books, but there were no results relating to my search.

I then took a look through the Ambler Gazette archives by searching one by one by ethnicity. I started looking through the archives to determine if there was a Chinese person from Ambler mentioned somewhere. I mostly found a few Chinese men who lived in places like Jenkintown and owned a laundry mat.

Fun Fact #1: Chinatown in Philadelphia began with a man named Lee Fong who owned a laundry mat on Race Street. From there, more Chinese people began growing their businesses around there.

CONCLUSION: I assumed this 1 person in Ambler was Chinese because based on my research. Many of them from Philadelphia moved out of the city, and settled in the suburbs where they can start a business or raise a family. Like Lee Fong, I noticed in the Ambler Gazette archives that there were Chinese men working as laundrymen in places like Jenkintown and Glenside. But not one Chinese man working in a laundromat in Ambler.

My next research was determining if this person was Japanese. When scanning through the Ambler Ambler Gazette archives, there was not a single Japanese person mentioned. Everything that mentioned "Japanese" was only relating to objects, events, and animals like lanterns, arts, festivals, and beetles.

I went back to search through Google and searched for any Japanese person relating to him/her living in Ambler. I was surprised to find an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer that discussed about the 75 year anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941.

There, it mentioned a man named Ben Matsui who was a gardener from Ambler who lived in America for 41 years. It didn't say when he came to Ambler, or to America. It also didn't say how old he was when he was sent to the internment camp.

CONCLUSION: I would assume Ben Matsui was that one Asian person who lived in Ambler during the early 20th century. Based on my sole source from the Philadelphia Inquirer, it tells me he was a young man during the early 20th century as a gardener, and he was possibly in his middle age when he was sent to the internment camp during World War 2. Then he lived for a few more years after that until he past some time during the second half of the 20th century.

"Since the last part of the 19th century, Japanese have been coming to Philadelphia, especially to study and observe ... After 1900, Philadelphia continued to attract students of Japanese ancestry."

- Mary I. Watanabe, "Early Philadelphia Issei."

There's no information about Ben Matsui, but based on knowing about the early Japanese immigrants in Philadelphia, they came there to study and gain better opportunities. I would assume Ben Matsui was trying to make a living by being a gardner. It's not clear how he got to Ambler.


Finding that one person in a census data from the early 20th century is difficult when you're relying only on the Internet. I find that frustrating, but worth the challenge.

Reflecting back to my past internship with the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office in Fort Washington, I used Ancestry.com to determine who the 14 Vietnamese people were in Philadelphia prior to the 1950s. Unfortunately, I didn't know who those people were exactly, but I knew from doing online research, and from my parents, that they could either be exchange students studying in Philly, or they were wealthy families during the French occupation in Vietnam. This research was an opportunity given to me to do further research about my cultural heritage as a Vietnamese American.

To read more about this research project with the PASHPO, click here!

When doing historic research, it's important to think about using accurate terms. Back then, people described minority groups in certain ways. For example, the term "African American" was not a common phrase used in the 18th through the 20th century. They mostly used terms like "negro" or "colored." For Asians, in the early 20th century, they were described as "Chinaman" to describe a Chinese person or someone from East Asia in some cases. Click here for the results from the Ambler Gazette archives.


"Asian." Global Philadelphia Association. Accessed March 15, 2021. https://globalphiladelphia.org/communities/asia.

Fitzpatrick, Frank. "A quiet Sunday afternoon shattered by a news bulletin: Pearl Harbor reorders Philadelphia." The Philadelphia Inquirer. Last modified December 6, 2016. https://www.inquirer.com/philly/news/20161207_A_quiet_Sunday_afternoon_shattered_by_a_news_bulletin__Pearl_Harbor_reorders_Philadelphia_st.html.

"History of Chinatown." Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation. Accessed March 15, 2021. https://chinatown-pcdc.org/our-community/.

"The Japanese-American Experience." Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Accessed March 15, 2021. https://hsp.org/history-online/exhibits/the-japanese-american-experience.

Thirteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1910: Volume III Population, Reports by States, with Statistics for Counties, Cities, and Other Civil Divisions: Nebraska-Wyoming, Alaska, Hawaii, and Porto Pico. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1913): 594. https://www.census.gov/library/publications/1913/dec/vol-3-population.html.

Watanabe, Mary I. "Early Philadelphia Issei." The Japanese American Experience: an exhibition in the Museum of the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies. Accessed March 15, 2021. http://www2.hsp.org/exhibits/Balch%20exhibits/japanese/earlyphila.html.

#pahistory #ambler #asian #Asia #immigration #chinese #japanese #indian #asianpacificamerican #WWII #internmentcamps #chinatown #laundry #education #censusdata #firsts

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