Being Chinese in Charlestown
In movies, like “The Departed” and “The Town,” Charlestown is grim, gray, and pockmarked with bullet holes, a haven for bad men who are hardened, immoral, and almost always Irish.
Charlestown is indeed grim and gray in some parts, and those parts are also significantly gritty—a resident’s crime risk is twice the national average. But Charlestown is not, and has not been for decades, entirely Irish. As Bostonian neighborhoods gentrify, and the locations of low-income housing shifts, more and more immigrants are pouring into Charlestown. They are fleeing widespread gentrification and taking advantage of some of the lowest rents and best-quality low-income housing available in Boston. They are from Vietnam, from the Philippines, from Morocco—and from China. In this three-part series, we investigate the history, background, and evolving culture of one corner of Boston and its new Chinese community.
Part 1: Charlestown Then—Arrivals and Rearrangements
Charlestown started its life in the 17th century as an independent entity just outside of Boston city limits, a fur trapping and boat-building community that encompassed a phalanx of modern towns from Stoneham to Melrose. By the time Boston annexed the city in 1873, Charlestown had already welcomed its first wave of Irish immigrants, fresh from the fields of disintegrating potatoes.
The Chin family was one of the first non-white families to arrive in Charlestown in the early 1910s. Two of the Chin children, Helen Chin-Schlichte and David Chin, still live a few blocks from where they were born, on a once-seedy Main Street. Their grandfather had emigrated from Toisan in 1918 to start a laundry and brought his son, Edwin, over to help once the business got off the ground. Once Edwin was of age, Mary, his new wife, was brought over to him from Toisan. She was capable, hardworking, and hardly out of adolescence—only 22 years old.
Edwin died young, leaving Mary with nine children between the ages of two months and fifteen years to care for. For the next two decades, she stood over steaming vats of laundry six-and-a-half days a week in order to put every one of her children through college without the assistance of welfare. As a stern taskmaster towards schoolwork, Mary always told her children: “If you don’t study, your hands are going to be tied behind your back. Then, what kind of life can you have?”
Helen remembers an idyllic childhood of play dates and trips to Chinatown. “We went to elementary and middle school in Charlestown, and had lots of friends,” she says. Most of those friends were white: “In those days there were only three [Chinese] families—the Lees, Wongs, and Chins. We knew each other from going to Kwong Kow [Chinese School] on the weekends. I’m still friendly with some of the people I knew then.”
Despite the overwhelming Irish population in Charlestown, David does not remember any tension. “Everyone knew our family from the laundry. Our father was a pillar in the community; he was friendly and outgoing. Whenever we went on field trips, he always knew the parents who went along with us,” he recalls, “I think we never experienced racism because there were so few of us. We weren’t a threatening population.”
Charlestown’s tiny Chinese population started to grow in the 1970’s as the city began its efforts to improve its rougher neighborhoods. Kye Liang’s family was pushed into Charlestown by the city’s vast urban renewal project. Liang’s father immigrated to the United States in 1981, bringing his wife in 1983. Like many of Charlestown’s Chinese individuals, they first settled in the shady streets in the South End, choosing that area for its proximity to Chinatown. During the renewal project’s height, however, “an attorney knocked on the door and said, ‘Hey, we bought the building. Everyone has to move out’,” Liang remembers. After a year in Quincy, the family moved to the Bunker Hill Housing project in Charlestown, which was, at that time, largely Irish.
As for the Chins, their family’s property was also seized by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, but Mary resisted the idea of leaving. “We all wondered, ‘Where are we going to go?’” Helen says. “We looked at a lot of other places to move to. But Mom said she wasn’t going… For her, life in Charlestown was comfortable and convenient. She could take the bus to Franklin St. and Filene’s Basement, then Jordan’s, then Chinatown for groceries, and a return trip –all in one morning! It was really the only place she knew.”
In the end, the family was able to stay in Charlestown. They moved to another house a few blocks down on Main Street, and Mary never had to find a room—although other families did make arrangements for housewives to stay in Charlestown after they had left. Mary moved to South Cove Manor nursing home on the outskirts of Chinatown in later years, and two years ago, she celebrated her one hundredth birthday. The urban renewal project, considered by the city to be a great success, brought down an ugly elevated highway and rebuilt several crumbling housing blocks. It was the beginning of a wave of improvement and gentrification that would carry Charlestown into the 21st century.
The 1970’s and 1980’s were not just a period of structural turmoil for Chinese people moving into Charlestown; there were also dramatic changes to the education system. In concert with the landmark case Morgan vs. Hennigan, which ruled that Boston schools must be forcibly desegregated, the city of Boston moved a bilingual Chinese-English program based in Roxbury to Charlestown. The decision was as popular as other desegregation measures elsewhere in the city—that is to say, not at all.
Suzanne Lee, a recently retired principal of Josiah Quincy School in Chinatown, taught elementary levels for six years at Harvard Kent in Charlestown during the worst of the desegregation tensions. Lee, who grew up near Franklin Park, speaks three Chinese dialects and became a de facto liaison for parents in Chinatown when the word came down in the summer of 1975 that their children would be attending Charlestown schools.
“It was very traumatic,” she says. “A lot of children had never left the [Chinatown] area before. The families had maybe heard of Charlestown but didn’t know where it was. But they understood it was not a place that was welcoming for people who were different.”
Over that summer, Lee helped worried parents attend school committee meetings, acting as interpreter. “They just wanted to know the answer to really basic safety questions. Like, ‘If something happens, can people at this new school communicate with us? Who do we call?’ But they didn’t get any answers,” she says. At one meeting three committee members got up and left in the middle of a question and answer session. “You could only infer that they didn’t want to hear what we had to say; and when there’s no dialogue, things escalate.”
In August, when the city arranged for parents to visit Charlestown, a loud, angry, rock-throwing crowd was
demonstrating outside, giving them a firsthand taste of the hostility they had heard so much about. And when Chinese parents tried to join the Parent’s Council, they found that a certain number of seats had been allocated for blacks and a certain number for whites—with no room for anyone else.
Things came to a head that September. “A group of parents called me the night before the first day of school and said, ‘We’re not sending our kids tomorrow. We’ll go door to door and stand at the bus stop, telling people not to go,” Lee recalls, “When I got to school there was a message from the Justice Department waiting. They wanted to arrange a meeting with the Chinese parents—there had been a 98% absence of Chinese students throughout the district.”
The meeting did not start off well. Tensions were running high; a justice department official confided in Lee that, “We really need Chinese kids back in school to act as a buffer between blacks and whites.” (At this point Lee turned interrupted her story, her face taut. “How do you think that made us feel?” she said. “Like we were nothing.”) Ultimately, however, there was progress. Out of nine demands for improvement, Chinatown parents received eight, including increased safety measures, more bus monitors, and bilingual staff.
Joyce Chan, who taught at Charlestown High for thirty years, remembers the desegregation struggles vividly. “I would wake up early every morning and accompany [the Chinese students] on the bus from Chinatown,” she says. “There was police accompaniment and helicopters for the first few months. And there was fighting every day. It got so bad that they had to close the school for two weeks. I even hid in the bathroom. It was like a war.”
Alissa Greenberg is a Sampan correspondent.