Chinatown then and now
By Tunney Lee, MIT professor emeritus of architecture
This postcard depicts Chinatown in 1904. The photo shows a busy street with streetcar wires overhead and tracks below and many horse drawn carriages. The artist has crudely inserted stereotyped images of Chinese in pigtails and mandarin gowns.
The reality was that Harrison Avenue between Beach and Essex Streets was the nucleus of a Chinatown serving the “bachelor society” of laundrymen in the towns and cities where they worked and lived in isolation. The laundrymen, who had no families with them due to the Exclusion Act, sought the fellowship of their countrymen on Sundays and the services needed.
There were stores selling groceries and supplies; restaurants serving familiar food; barbers to cut and trim the queues; village associations where letters from home could be picked up and kinsmen to talk to.
For entertainment and escape, tongs ran gambling joints and opium dens.
The Josiah Quincy School, opened in 1847 on 90 Tyler Street, was a model public school, conceived by renowned educator Horace Mann. Its plaque read, “Each teacher had their own classroom and students were separated by grade, very progressive ideas at the time. During its almost 130 years, it served successive waves of immigrants — English, Irish, Jews, Syrians and Chinese.”
After World War II, the school became dominantly Chinese. In 1976, the school closed and the building became home to the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of New England.
The beautiful cupola and pediments were swept away by the 1938 New England hurricane, leaving only the awkward brick box.
Funeral services for Wong See Chung took place during August 1907 at 36 to 38 Harrison Avenue. Wong was a Chinese Mason who was killed in a dispute with the Hip Sing Tong, now the Hip Sing Association. These elaborate rituals conducted by the Masons were attended by thousands of Chinese and Americans.
In the background is the Hong Far Low Restaurant with its balcony thronged with sightseers. That balcony is still visible today.
The sign for the Wing On Tak grocery store owned by Y. Chin is visible in the center of the photo. Today, Wing On Tak at 36 Harrison Street has become the Eldo Cake House.