Community culture and resilience in Chinese immigrant populations in and around Boston's Chinatown
By Zoe Wennerholm
Boston’s Chinatown, nestled between the Boston Common to the north and South Station to the east, has been a refuge for Asian immigrants to the United States for many generations. Remnants of long-gone structures are etched onto today’s buildings and streets, bearing witness to the tides of people moving in and out of its densely packed blocks over decades. From the origins of Chinese settlement in the 1870s through community resistance against displacement in the 1970s, Chinatown tells a story of constant ebb and flow, cultural concentration and dispersal, and community organization that gives the neighborhood its vibrancy today. This cultural resilience can be seen through the neighborhood’s urban changes as well as the stories of activists who lived in and around it throughout the 20th century.
After the development of industry and transportation in the area around South Station in the early 1800s, the cost of housing declined, and the neighborhood hosted consecutive waves of Jewish, Syrian, and Italian populations. The first influx of Chinese workers to Boston began in 1873 when a group was hired to break a strike at the Sampson Shoe Factory in North Adams. From then on, Chinatown saw a slow but steady increase in Chinese immigration, mostly from the Guangdong region in southern China. The pace of this migration was tempered by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which limited Chinese immigrant numbers to a small inflow of bachelor men.
Despite this limitation, the Chinese community grew and became an established cultural, commercial, and residential community in the following decades. By the 1890s, restaurants and laundries began to emerge and employed the majority of Chinese workers. Residents found a sense of solidarity in “family organizations” and a Chinese language newspaper. With the increased popularity of Chinese food among non-Chinese Americans in the 1920s, Chinatown experienced a restaurant boom.
Following the 1943 repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigration to the United States increased significantly and Chinatown’s population became more diverse. The families of bachelors made their way to the neighborhood, along with groups from Mandarin-speaking northern China. By the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, new immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Cambodia flooded the area. Chinatown’s culture reflected this new diversity in new businesses, events, and languages, all closely concentrated within its few blocks.
However, this increasingly multinational neighborhood faced myriad challenges. In addition to the ever-present anti-Asian racism residents faced throughout the City, the urban fabric of Chinatown was threatened with a series of municipal urban renewal projects throughout the 1950s through 70s. According to a 2013 report by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s construction of the Massachusetts Turnpike and I-93 highways displaced approximately 1200 residential units in the area. City government also condoned the construction of the Tufts Medical Center in 1950, taking over one third of Chinatown’s land area. As housing prices increased and more non-Chinese people moved into the neighborhood in a wave of gentrification, Chinatown’s traditional, majority low-income population faced limited options.
In the mid-1970s, former lawyer and South End community organizer Harry Dow was interviewed for the Boston 200 oral history project, a program commissioned by the Mayor’s Office to commemorate both the US Bicentennial and Boston’s local history. A strong advocate for Boston’s Chinese population and a long-time South End resident, his words illuminate the results of this displacement in the mid-20th century.
Dow notes that the South End, which borders Chinatown to the south, became a popular destination for “5, 6, 7 thousand” Asian residents pushed out by urban renewal. The South End was one of many neighborhoods that saw an increase in Asian population; many residents moved further outside of the City to Malden and Quincy.
Richard Chin, another Chinese South End resident interviewed for the Boston 200 oral history project, describes a pattern of migration that echoes Dow’s:
Chin’s observation that “no Chinese families” lived in the South End before the Massachusetts Turnpike extension demonstrates that the migration of the Chinese population into the South End was significant, just as Dow describes. Despite this dispersal, Chin observes that the hub of Chinese and Asian culture remained in Chinatown:
Chin notes that Chinese residents in the South End were “satisfied” with the relocation as long as they were able to regularly return to friends and other cultural connections in Chinatown. In his interview, Harry Dow identifies another important pillar in Chinatown’s community structure:
Chinatown’s long-standing community “associations or groups” kept Boston’s Asian population closely tied to the neighborhood, especially as there were “no separate organizations or associations or groups” for them in their new neighborhoods. Dow expresses concern for the implications of this pattern on the community’s economic viability:
Despite his concern that there was “no avenue” for Chinese workers besides the oversaturated restaurant business, Dow seems to find value in Chinatown’s continued community culture, describing “all sorts of affairs down in Chinatown...they celebrate and have parties.
This strong community culture has continued since Dow’s and Chin’s interviews in the 1970s, and Chinatown is still known for festival celebrations, a variety of restaurants with cuisine from across the Asian continent, and a bustling street scene. Spurred by the urban renewal and gentrification that continued through the 1980s and 90s, a number of grassroot organizations emerged to advocate for Chinatown’s traditional community. The Asian Community Development Corporation has developed a number of residential projects for low-income residents and successfully campaigned to reclaim land parcels from further urban renewal. The Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, originally founded in 1969 as the Quincy School Community Council, has developed childcare and community centers in Chinatown as well as in other Asian neighborhoods across Greater Boston. The Chinese Progressive Association has advocated for “jobs, education, freedom from discrimination, and a clean and safe living environment” for Chinatown residents since 1977. Boston’s Asian community continues to be vibrant and tight-knit even in the face of dispersal, economic downturns, and racial discrimination.
Harry Dow himself was the first Chinese American admitted to practice law in Massachusetts, and his contributions to the South End and Chinatown communities is evidenced by his involvement in a variety of organizations including the South End Neighborhood Action Program, Greater Boston Legal Services, South Cove Community Health Center in Chinatown, South End Community Health Center, and the Boston Council for Elders. Dow is remembered by The Harry H. Dow Memorial Legal Assistance Fund, which was created to “to provide resources to ensure access to the legal system for Asian Americans who are deprived of justice due to barriers such as language, race, culture, poverty, or immigration status.” His work and his words live on in the resilience of Chinese populations in and around Boston’s Chinatown today.Works Cited:
- Restoring Chinese Heritage in Boston's History
- Chinatown: Boston Landmarks Commission
- Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)
- Chinatown Then and Now, 2013 AALDEF Report
- Our History — Asian Community Development Corporation
- History & Awards — BCNC
- Chinese Progressive Association Boston
- The Dow Fund: Home
- Oral history interview with Harry Dow - Boston 200
- Chinese in Boston 1870-1965; To, Wingkai
- A Chinatown Banquet Documentary
- Harry Hom Dow: A Chinese-American Trailblazer · Moakley Archive & Institute
- Forever Struggle: Activism, Identity, & Survival in Boston's Chinatown, 1880-2018
Zoe Wennerholm graduated from Vassar College with degrees in Chinese and urban studies. She is a budding archivist with academic interests in Chinese diaspora, urban history, and community activism.