Boston’s Chinatown shows no sign of demise, scholar says

Tunney Lee spoke at the Boston Central Library. Image by Ling-Mei Wong.

Tunney Lee spoke at the Boston Central Library. Image by Ling-Mei Wong.


By Ling-Mei Wong


The fate of Chinatown is far from grim, based on affordable housing demand, community activism and immigration trends, said Tunney Lee, retired professor of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. He discussed “Boston’s Chinatown: Beyond Stereotypes, Food and Boundaries” during a lecture at the Boston Central Library on Feb. 13.

Lee spoke about his family history in relationship to Chinatown’s development. His great-grandfather left Toishan, Guangdong, to work on the transcontinental railroad and moved to Tacoma, Wash., after its completion in 1867. When backlash against the Chinese resulted in violence and evictions, his great-grandfather returned to China and started a family.

“The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first and only immigration law in U.S. history aimed at an ethnic group, intended to wipe out the Chinese by attrition,” Lee said.

Despite the discrimination, Lee’s great-grandfather returned to Boston in 1892 to work in a laundry in Bridgewater, which was a major shoe-manufacturing town. In 1903, his son — Lee’s grandfather — joined him in a laundry on Broad Street. At its peak in 1915, 500 laundries were listed and operated by the Chinese.

The Chinese men formed a bachelor society on Harrison, Essex and Beach streets, then a blighted area and close to South Station. “Sundays were their only day off and the laundry workers came to Chinatown for rest and relaxation. They would meet relatives, get entertainment — legitimate or not — including gambling and opium, and buy food,” Lee said.

Bostonians were fascinated and appalled by Chinatown. Fear of gambling and other vices corrupting youth led to efforts to destroy it, such as widening Harrison Street in the 1840s. “But Chinese persistence for survival was strong, so they built better housing and upgraded,” Lee said.

In the Roaring Twenties, restaurants began dominating Chinatown’s economy. “Many came through to savor the exotic food,” Lee said. “Ruby Foo’s Den was the place to go.”

Tunney Lee spoke at the Boston Central Library. Image by Ling-Mei Wong.

Tunney Lee spoke at the Boston Central Library. Image by Ling-Mei Wong.

The end of World War II marked a turning point. “The development of Boston and highways had the Central Artery come around the railroad to wipe out the Garment District and Chinatown, leaving it open for higher uses,” Lee said. “It was the start of Chinese political activism, when the community collaborated with the garment industry to protest, fight and ameliorate the effects of the highway, which took out a third of the buildings.”

Another change in Chinatown was the development of the Mass Pike, which tore down the Hudson Street neighborhood in the ’60s and ’70s. Chinatown expanded to the newly built Castle Square community in the South End with 500 units of affordable housing; Tai Tung Village added 300 units in the ’70s.

The Immigration Act of 1965 changed immigration, with an emphasis on reunifying families and no longer limiting quotas by country. “There was an influx of immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan and southeast Asia, with many refugees at the end of the Vietnam War,” Lee said. “It ended the bachelor society and the influx of women kept the garment industry alive for many years.”

With more families, new community organizations were formed for education, health and political activism. “But a big obstacle in Chinatown was the Combat Zone,” Lee said. Originally conceived as an adult entertainment zone concentrated in one place so other neighborhoods would not be contaminated, the strip clubs and bars moved down Washington Street and spilled over into Chinatown. The Combat Zone declined as technology advanced, particularly the invention of videotape.

More Chinese moved into the suburbs. “Chinatown serves Malden, Quincy and suburbs like Acton, Lexington,” Lee said.

Chinatown today has come a long way, bordered by luxury residences and higher education institutions such as Emerson College and Suffolk University. “There is a continued influx of Chinese into Massachusetts,” Lee said. “The core Chinatown will remain a regional center, despite pressure from colleges and condos.”

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About Ling-Mei Wong 黃靈美

Editor of the Sampan, the only bilingual Chinese-English newspaper in New England 舢舨報紙總編輯。舢舨是全紐英倫唯一的中英雙語雙週報。
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