Boston’s Chinatown – More than just a great place to eat

The gates at ChinatownMy father owned a “hand laundry store” in New York City and I often wondered how he arrived at that occupation.  I discovered the answer very serendipitously when I recently took an eye opening and informative walking tour of Boston’s Chinatown led by a knowledgeable and affable teenager, Jackie, a junior at Boston Latin, Vivian Wu (Director of Programs), and Sandy (Youth Program Coordinator) at the Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC).

I, along with eight Saffron Circle (an Asian charitable giving circle) members and friends were regaled with fun facts and stories about the origins and evolution of Boston’s Chinatown.  I learned 8 fun facts about Chinatown.  I hope you might be curious to read on, and to learn more about a neighborhood that to many, may just be considered a good place to eat.  But Chinatown is so much more than just restaurants – it is a vibrant neighborhood with a rich history.

1)  Two lions guard the Chinese gates which frame the entrance to Chinatown. In which direction do the twin lions face, and can you distinguish the male from the female lion?
At the gates of Chinatown, two stone lions, symbols of prosperity and wealth, grace the entrance, a gift from the Taiwanese government.  Did you know that only recently, the lions faced inward, toward Chinatown, and were only recently moved so they faced outward, welcoming visitors.  I’ll leave it to you to visit the gates next time to determine which lion is the female. (Hint:  Look under the paws)

2)      How did the first Chinese come to Boston?
a) Coming north from New York’s Chinatown
b) From China via Ellis Island
c) Coming west to work in a mill factory in North Adams
If you guessed “c”, you would be correct.  Some of the first Chinese immigrants came to Massachusetts in the 1870s to replace striking workers at a shoe factory in North Adams.  Upon the end of the strike, some Chinese returned west, but others decided to stake their livelihood and fortune by going east to Boston.

3)      Where is Ping On Alley and what is its significance?  If you sneeze, you will miss one of the most fascinating and interesting landmarks in Chinatown.  Ping On Alley is a very small alleyway on Beach Street, no more than 3 or 4 feet wide.  Translated from the Chinese, it means the alley of serenity and peace. Walk through the alleyway, which zigs and zags, and it opens up into the backs of residences and businesses.  Ping On Alley marks the spot where the first Chinese immigrants pitched their tents beginning in 1875.

4)      Significance of Oxford Place – stroll down Oxford place, and you come upon a courtyard with a beautiful mural depicting a traditional Chinese landscape.  The mural was painted by artist and activist Wen Ti-Tsen, who faithfully recreated the landscape from an MFA painting.  Looking across the street, our youth guide, Jackie, told us that apartments and residences replaced garment factories.  Looking to the left, we saw the sign for a family association.  In China, there could be whole villages with the same last name, so it seemed logical to replicate in America the kinds of communities organizations and societies that existed in China. Family associations played a very important role in the early days of Chinatowns in the United States.  They effectively served as social service, advocacy and meeting place for Chinese immigrants. The Reader’s Digest word is “eleemosynary”.  As a young adult, I remember going to Fong Family Association banquets in New York’s Chinatown and meeting other Fong’s.   The story of the immigrant experience is universal.

The Chinese faced discrimination and were denied so many job opportunities, so they worked in undesirable and often dangerous jobs.  One of the few occupations available to Chinese men was laundry work – it was difficult, with very long hours.  I remember my father spending 12 to 14 hour days in the laundry store.  With the help of his family association, and the Chinese Hand Laundry Association, he was able to open his laundry store in the New York City’s Washington Heights.  He remained in that neighborhood for 65 years, until his death.

5)      How did Boston’s Combat Zone get its name?
a) It was a rough and tumble and “combative” place
b) It was where GIs picked up their combat gear
If you chose “b”, you would be correct. During World War II,  GIs picked up their army supplies on Washington Street in Chinatown, and the nickname “Combat Zone” was born.  After the war, the street became known more for its illicit gang, drugs and “adult entertainment” hence reinforcing the Combat Zone nickname.  With the relocation of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, the street was literally cleaned up.  Replacing the adult entertainment shops is a highrise, restaurants and “legitimate” businesses.  Jackie showed us the remaining three “gentlemen’s clubs” off Washington Street.

6)      Why is Beach Street named as such?
Did you know that much of Boston, especially the Back Bay and parts of Chinatown, are landfill?  Beach Street was literally the dividing line between land and water as recently as the mid-1800s.

7)      What is the significance of Parcel 24?
Right next to the on-ramp to I-93, there is a stretch of undeveloped land, Parcel 24.   Imagine a lively, multi-ethnic neighborhood in that bare space.  It actually existed until the 1960s, when the state took that land to build the I-93 on-ramp.  With the Big Dig, much land and green space throughout Boston had been reclaimed, including Parcel 24.  The Asian Community Development Corporation is in the process of developing affordable housing on this parcel.

8)      What is the story behind the Chinese Merchants’ Building on Hudson Street?
Look at the Chinese Merchants’ Building on Hudson Street, and your aesthetic eye senses something amiss.  Originally a vibrant meeting place when it was newly built in the 1950s, it was literally cut in half, to make way for the on-ramp to I-93.  Whether you believe in the Chinese aesthetic concept of “feng shui”, or you rely on your intuition and “gut”, ever since the building was rendered “unwhole”, it has undergone many different attempts to keep it relevant and part of the fabric of Chinatown.

Another amazing aspect of Chinatown is the colorful murals that grace the walls of buildings.  You see one such mural right at the gates – painted in the 1990s by youth workers, it depicts many archetypal Chinese myths, including the famous tale of the Monkey King.

After the tour, our guides took us to the He La Moon (88 Beach Street).  Over pots of chrysanthemum tea and various dim sum and noodle dishes, we had the chance to chat and get to know each other.

On a balmy spring or summer evening, stroll through the gates of Chinatown and you will see a large plaza, reclaimed after the Big Dig.  Summer family movies and community festivals enliven this space, creating community and contributing to the fabric of that ephemeral concept of “civic engagement” – it has become a safe meeting spot.

So, the next time you happen to have some free time, and you are feeling somewhat adventurous, I hope you might be curious to take a tour of Chinatown – try to find Ping On Alley and take a close look at the chopped off Chinese Merchants Building.   Then reward yourself with dim sum or dinner, and finish with bubble tea!

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