Amid a Rapidly Changing Present, Can Chinatown Preserve Its Past?

By Maliya V. Ellis and Sophia S. Liang
By Sofia G. Montinola

Cynthia Yee lived on the second floor of the row house at 116 Hudson St., but she grew up along the entire block.

Yee calls her childhood in 1950s Boston Chinatown “a paradise” — children played hopscotch, rode bikes, and skipped rope up and down the streets; their parents worked at restaurants and sewed at home.

Scrappy and resourceful, Yee and her friends explored the nooks, crannies, and characters of their neighborhood. They constructed toys with grains of rice and scraps of cloth. They split and traded the occasional treats that came along — comic books, baseball cards, potato chips. Nobody locked their doors or rang the doorbell; instead, they learned to knock on friends’ first-floor windows so as not to wake their fathers sleeping after a night shift. All the mothers looked after all the kids, and all the kids explored all the sidewalks, all the railings, and all the stoops. The street was theirs to share.

“We loved it because you were not a minority,” Yee recalls. “The whole street ate the same kind of food, like salted fish, and what mainstream Americans might consider smelly, like shrimp sauce,” she says. “There’s something cozy about that. . . There’s something nice about not being the only one.”

Cynthia Yee is a blogger who writes about her family’s history, her childhood in Chinatown, and the personal effects of displacement.
Cynthia Yee is a blogger who writes about her family’s history, her childhood in Chinatown, and the personal effects of displacement. By MyeongSeo Kim

In 1962, Yee’s idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end when her home was seized by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and demolished to make room for highway construction. Her family was displaced to an area on the outskirts of Chinatown called the “Combat Zone,” a hub for the adult entertainment industry. “It’s a type of violence when you displace people — it’s their home,” Yee says.

Yee — now a blogger who writes about her family’s history, her childhood in Chinatown, and the personal effects of displacement — contrasts the violent, faceless seizure of her Hudson St. home with the warm community and shared space she enjoyed as a child.

“Everybody's house [was] your house too,” Yee says.

Her story speaks to a decades-long tension between those who value Chinatown for its economic potential and those who value it for its cultural significance — those who see it as a house and those who see it as a home.

The streets of Chinatown still bear the scars of highway construction, institutional expansion, and urban renewal efforts. Today, a lack of affordable housing and the emergence of Airbnbs and short-term rentals drive up prices for the residents who have built the community from the ground up. Chinatown’s right to take up space continues to be challenged.

Chinatown’s physical structures are deeply intertwined with its cultural significance: As gentrification razes row houses and storefronts, it also threatens the character of the community and its tight-knit, working-class core. Amid the conflict over what — and who — makes Chinatown valuable, activists work to preserve its history and guide its future, allowing the community’s influence to grow beyond its borders.

A Community at the Margins

Looking at Chinatown today, with its high-rise towers and trendy bubble tea shops, it’s hard to imagine a time when its space was not in high demand.

But Boston Chinatown was founded by Chinese immigrants moving into space deemed undesirable by the rest of Boston, who built it from scratch.

In the 1860s, the building of the Transcontinental Railroad attracted a wave of Chinese laborers to the American West. When they left the completed tracks to settle in nearby towns, racial hostilities flared, often culminating in violent riots.

Those laborers traveled eastward to coastal cities like New York and Boston. In Boston, Harrison Ave., between Essex and Beach St., became the heart of a fledgling Chinatown community.

But the racism the laborers had attempted to escape on the West Coast soon became codified in federal law. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred new Chinese immigrants from entering the country.

Even with the flow of Chinese immigration halted, the Boston Chinese community — composed largely of working-age men — continued to grow, albeit slowly, in the face of racism and xenophobia. The population expanded from 250 people in 1900 to over 800 people by 1930. In 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. Men brought over wives and children, and with their arrival, the neighborhood began to change. Laundries gave way to family restaurants. Gambling and opium dens were replaced by schools, churches, and a Chinatown branch of the YMCA.

Family life in Chinatown brought the stability and vibrancy that would transform this little neighborhood in downtown Boston into one of the bedrocks of Chinese culture in New England. It was these relaxed immigration policies that allowed Cynthia Yee’s mother to join her father in Boston.

Michael Liu — a former professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who was born on Chinatown’s Tyler St. in 1948 — calls this growth of families a turning point for the neighborhood. Before that period, Chinatown “was not considered a desirable neighborhood. All the homes were simply-built row houses that they had put up to house primarily immigrants,” Liu explains. The community-building that families put into the neighborhood allowed this perception to change.

At the same time, Boston’s expanding downtown area was rubbing up against the borders of Chinatown, turning the previously unwanted space into an area of interest to the city of Boston. Just as families began to transform Chinatown into a cultural home, the city began to view the neighborhood as a site for the highways that would connect Boston’s downtown to its suburbs.

From Homes to Highways

The Chinese Merchants’ Association Building still stands today, a stout six-story structure with tan siding, bearing a red sign that greets cars with the words “WELCOME TO CHINATOWN” as they drive past. The first Chinatown building financed by the immigrant community, the landmark was cut in half by the construction of the Central Artery expressway in 1959 that demolished a third of its structure.

In the late 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act expanded highway systems across the nation, allowing white Americans to live in the increasingly desirable suburbs but still commute to the city for work.

The Central Artery, now I-93, was intended to alleviate traffic congestion in downtown Boston. The newly-built Chinese Merchants’ Association Building, as well as many family homes, were treated as obstacles in the way of this vision. Highway construction brought noise, pollution, and eviction notices for Chinatown residents.

“You grew up and you’re watching people’s homes being destroyed,” Liu says. “One week they’d be there and the next day they’d be gone.”

In 1962, another highway project — the extension of the Massachusetts Turnpike — brought I-90 into the city and cut through Chinatown, replacing the row houses with a concrete wall and ramp to the expressway. According to Liu, half of residential Chinatown was destroyed — including Yee’s home on Hudson Street.

But highway expansion wasn’t the only impetus for displacement at work. At that time, the New England Medical Center, which would eventually become the Tufts Medical Center, was eyeing Chinatown as a site for its potential expansion.

In a 1955 report, Kevin Lynch, an MIT urban planning professor tasked with surveying the neighborhood, described Chinatown as “an area of physical dilapidation and progressive abandonment, of mixed shifting use, of declining values, declining population, low incomes, low rents, and poor health.” The Medical Center, Lynch believed, could contribute to Chinatown’s urban renewal by stimulating economic development and improving community facilities — institutional expansion would be mutually beneficial.

Though Lynch recognized “the strength of the Chinese family and community” in his report, he ignored residents’ opposition to his plan. Instead, he recommended that Chinatown’s entire residential community be relocated a few blocks away, in what he called a “Foreign Village” with apartments, churches, playgrounds, and “peppering of restaurants or stores of special flavor.” By 1969, over 700 Chinatown residents had been displaced and their historical homes demolished — all under the vague guise of “renewal.”

But as Chinatown residents witnessed the devastating effects of highway construction and the Medical Center’s expansion, many decided to fight back. A new generation of progressive, college-educated young activists was coming of age, inspired by the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War protests.

Protestors demonstrate against gentrification in Chinatown.
Protestors demonstrate against gentrification in Chinatown. By Courtesy of the Chinese Progressive Association

“I got politicized from college and started thinking about the experiences of my family,” Liu says. After finishing his master’s degree in 1971, he returned to Chinatown to meet other radical activists. While some of these young activists were, like Liu, Chinatown residents themselves, another group of college-educated young people also began to get involved — Boston-area college students, often ethnically Asian American. With a heightened awareness of how inequality affects people of color in particular, they formed the Free Chinatown Committee that same year to resist the Medical Center’s exploitation of their neighborhood.

Liu’s efforts reflected a new wave of activism in Chinatown: a community-oriented activism that included social services such as financial literacy programs and youth leadership opportunities, in contrast to the more unilateral efforts of the older generation.

“I remember the day when my friend lambasted them. That was such a shocking moment,” says Yee. “He said to all the elders of Chinatown, ‘I don’t see you running daycare centers. I don’t see you having English [language] program classes. We have gambling houses everywhere.’”

Although the Free Chinatown Committee soon disbanded, Liu was later involved in founding the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) in 1977 and the Asian American Resource Workshop (AARW) in 1979, which survive to this day and have influenced other organizations with their service-oriented approach to social justice. Liu recalls that some of the early staffers of AARW were Boston-area college students, including some from Harvard like Peter Kiang ’80.

During his time at Harvard, Kiang was involved with student organizing for Asian American Studies and Ethnic Studies. His interest in Asian American advocacy led him to become involved with AARW upon graduation, where he worked for five years.

According to Kiang, the AARW was co-founded by Fred Ho ’79, a fellow Harvard student who has since passed away. Kiang remembers the group as one of the first Chinatown organizations to call itself Asian American, instead of Chinese or Chinese American, engaging a radical new political vocabulary. Its Chinatown location offered a home base for Asian American advocacy in Boston more broadly.

“[Chinatown] was the physical concentration of Asian Americans in Metro Boston at that time,” says Kiang. “If you wanted to be involved with Asian American anything, Chinatown was really the geographic place where you had to do it.”

The progressive associations were met with resistance from older community leaders, who warned them not to make waves. Liu recalls that the old guard called them “communists,” physically threatened the women involved, and put pressure on local parents to keep their children in line.

Nonetheless, the radical ethos seems to have been effective. “[Boston Chinatown] now is probably considered the most [politically] active neighborhood in the city,” says Liu. “Whereas for a long time. . . they were considered the model minority who went along with whatever.”

Chinatown’s heightened political consciousness is evident in the CPA, whose headquarters are located directly across the street from the Tufts Medical Center — a silent yet powerful assertion of its right to occupy the space. According to Executive Director Karen Y. Chen, the organization focuses on empowering ordinary citizens to get involved in the decisions that affect their daily lives, rallying around causes including labor rights, environmental justice, and education in addition to housing.

“All we have is people power,” Chen says.

‘The Place to Be’

China Pearl, the oldest restaurant in Chinatown, is a banquet-style dining room, upholstered in red and bustling with servers and dim-sum carts. At the top of a grand staircase, lined with mirrors, stands Patty Moy, the restaurant manager, showing guests to their tables. The establishment has been a staple in the neighborhood since 1960.

Recently, Moy has noticed a distinct demographic shift in the breakdown of the restaurant’s clientele.

Sixty years ago, according to Moy, China Pearl’s menu catered to the palates of Chinese residents originally from southern China. Now, though, their clientele is more “a mix of everybody.” Within this mix, she estimates, college-aged students or younger, most of them white, make up “80 to 90 percent” of her customers.

Indeed, although the overall Chinatown population increased by 43 percent between 2000 and 2010, the Asian population decreased over 10 percent in the same period, while the white population doubled.

Adjusting to this new demographic means China Pearl has made changes to both its menu and its architecture. Its dishes now include gluten-free and other allergy-friendly options, and a renovation is in the works. The new restaurant, Moy hopes, will “bring in the traditional decor of the Chinese culture but at the same time [modernize] the look of the restaurant.”

Moy’s concerns are an example of the difficulty of maintaining a balance between tradition and modernity in Chinatown, as gentrification not only changes the neighborhood’s demographics, but also threatens to erode its cultural history.

Jeena Hah, programs manager of the Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC), calls today’s Chinatown “the place to be.” Given its proximity to downtown Boston, as well as the presence of institutions like the Tufts Medical Center, the neighborhood has become a hotspot for new businesses, tourists, and working professionals.

But desirable land often connotes rising prices, and Chinatown is no exception. According to Hah, Chinatown is currently Boston’s most expensive residential neighborhood. Chinatown is now “seen as so liveable, [but] the people who stayed here and really invested in the neighborhood to make it liveable are now getting pushed out and priced out,” Hah says.

ACDC seeks to ease this financial burden on working-class residents through affordable housing projects. The past twenty years have seen a rapid expansion of market-rate housing in the area, including Millenium Tower and Liberty Place. These luxury apartments are far too expensive for many of Chinatown’s working-class families, who make an average household income of $26,280 a year, just above the federal poverty line for a household of four. Even more recently, short-term rentals and the rise of Airbnbs have also reduced available affordable housing in the area.

This shortage has caused a wave of migration of Chinese Americans to other neighborhoods in Boston, notably Malden and Quincy. The latter is now home to a higher percentage of Chinese residents than Chinatown itself, Hah claims.

Though by no means “monolithic,” Hah says the move away from Chinatown can bring challenges, both personal and logistical, for many families. “You’re moving into a new place and you don’t feel belonging. That’s a huge part of it because you lose a lot of your social network,” she says. “But the second piece of that is, logistically, if your social services, your housing counseling, whoever reads the newspaper to you, helps you read the phone bill — all of that is in a whole other city, that’s a huge barrier.”

Since its founding in 1987, ACDC has made efforts to expand affordable housing in Chinatown in addition to providing social services to residents. It has successfully built 375 affordable housing units for low-income families, including, in 2017, a Hudson St. building with 51 affordable condominiums.

ACDC is currently working on “Parcel 12,” a high-rise which, as proposed, would contain 171 affordable units, as well as a permanent site for the long-awaited Chinatown branch of the Boston Public Library.

Sheila Dillon is Chief of Housing and Director of Neighborhood Development for the city of Boston. She works closely with Chinatown-based organizations like ACDC, which she sees as “allies and partners,” and she echoes the importance of affordable housing development.

According to Dillon, 44 percent of all housing in Chinatown is income-restricted — much higher than the city-wide average of 19.5 percent. “We’ve been working hard as a city to maintain that high percentage and increase it whenever possible.”

For Dillon, the issue is not large-scale development of market-rate and luxury housing in Chinatown, but rather the astronomical demand for affordable housing and the relative difficulty of building it.

According to Hah, one recent development received 4,000 household applications for 95 units. “Affordable housing is harder to get into than the Harvard admissions process,” she quips.

Nonetheless, both Dillon and Hah are optimistic about Chinatown’s future.

Dillon claims that 60 percent of all proposed housing for Chinatown are affordable units. The city also recently passed the Community Preservation Act, which grants money to neighborhood organizations for affordable housing, city beautification, and historic preservation. ACDC was recently awarded half a million dollars as part of this policy. “That’s a really good example of the city responding to the needs that we’re stating as a community,” Hah says.

Others, however, are less optimistic.

Michelle Wu ’07 is the City Councilor-At-Large for Boston, as well as the first Asian American woman to serve on the Council. She agrees that “gentrification and housing affordability is front and center for the neighborhood,” but doesn’t share Dillon and Hah’s optimism.

When asked if the administration was doing enough to support affordable housing, she sighs. “I’m still worried every day about Chinatown.”

Peter Kiang, whose advocacy work began in the 1980s, sees Chinatown’s struggles today as a continuation of the decades-long process of defending Chinatown's “integrity as a working-class, primarily immigrant, racially minoritized community. It was under threat back then, and it still is.”

Wu agrees that Boston Chinatown’s core residential population is what sets it apart from other Chinatowns. “That’s important to preserve because it completely changes the dynamic of who has a stake in the decisions that happen,” she says. “It adds stability, and it adds depth and resiliency when there’s a connection to residents who are there for the long haul.”

In fact, it is this preservation of physical space that allows the neighborhood’s history and culture to endure.

Chen discussed the importance of preserving the historic row houses, like the one Yee grew up in. “We have to preserve that character, not the architectural facade. We are talking about the role that [the row houses] play, that it provided housing for working people,” Chen says. “And that’s the character we want to preserve. Because if you don’t preserve that character, you don’t have a community.”

Chinatown’s character and culture are inseparable from the history of its physical location, first as a safe haven from discrimination, now as a desirable neighborhood.

Residents demonstrate against displacement as a result of gentrification.
Residents demonstrate against displacement as a result of gentrification. By Courtesy of the Chinese Progressive Association

Protecting it affirms and respects historic efforts to create and maintain a space of their own and shows that activism efforts over the years have not been in vain. And as Chinatown moves into the future, preserving its physical space is an investment in the continuation of the distinctive history and culture that have defined the neighborhood.

“To preserve Boston Chinatown is to say actually, in the city of Boston, we value and we say that working class immigrants belong in the city,” Hah says.

A Home For All

Alan R. Dai ’22 arrived at Harvard with plans to study math and computer science.

But during his freshman year, Dai — a former Fifteen Minutes writer — began volunteering with Chinatown Afterschool, a PBHA after-school enrichment program for children of low-income families in Boston Chinatown. After volunteering in Chinatown, he says, “I would come back to campus and start a problem set [and] immediately feel that. . . it was harder to understand why I should be doing this.”

He hasn’t taken a problem set course since.

Dai’s experience speaks to the lasting mark that Chinatown has for years left on the people who serve the neighborhood, even those who don’t live there.

Like in the early decades of Chinatown activism, many young activists in Chinatown are not from the area. Karen Y. Chen herself, Executive Director of the CPA, was introduced to the neighborhood over 20 years ago, through a youth program she participated in as a high school senior.

“I never lived in Chinatown,” Chen says. “But I see Chinatown as my community more than any place I have lived in.”

Today, Chen mentors college-age students like Daniel Lu ’20.

While he interned at the CPA, Daniel Lu '20 led pushes for policy change, organized community education efforts, and worked to compile a database of the new residential units built in Chinatown over the past two decades.
While he interned at the CPA, Daniel Lu '20 led pushes for policy change, organized community education efforts, and worked to compile a database of the new residential units built in Chinatown over the past two decades. By MyeongSeo Kim

Lu is a Massachusetts resident, but growing up, he only knew vaguely about Boston Chinatown. It wasn’t until this past summer, when he interned at the CPA, that he came to better understand the community and the issues it faces. Over the summer, he led pushes for policy change, organized community education efforts, and worked to compile a database of the new residential units built in Chinatown over the past two decades.

During our interview, he pulls up infographics illustrating the gap between resident income and new housing prices and emphasizes the importance of voter registration and attendance at public hearings.

“How do you make change if you don’t have money or power?” he asks. “You use the democratic process.”

When asked about what drew him to Chinatown specifically, Lu responds, “There is something about the racial identity of being a Chinese American, just seeing more of myself, my family, in the folks that we’re serving. . . It just felt like, in some ways, this is pretty close to home.”

Many other Harvard students contribute to public service in Chinatown through the Phillips Brooks House Association, which features eight different student-run programs that serve the neighborhood.

Dai is the co-director of PBHA’s Chinatown Adventure, a seven-week summer educational program for kids in the Chinatown area. Counselors lead campers in math and literacy lessons, excursions, and activities that develop self-confidence, interpersonal skills, and cultural awareness.

Most of the campers live in public subsidized housing, Dai says, and they have felt the effects of gentrification. “There’s a real lack of green space in the neighborhood — and open space in general,” Dai says. “Parents want their kids during the summer to be able to go outside and play, but in Chinatown, there are still relatively limited spaces for that.”

Dai sees his community service as inseparable from political activism; for his PBHA training, he had to attend a DACA rally and learn more about the specific challenges that the Chinatown community faces. Like Lu, Dai found that doing service work in Chinatown led him to reflect on his own background and position in the larger Asian American community. Prior to this experience, “I didn't have that deep kind of thinking about my own identity,” Dai says. “I think my service has really helped me be more conscious of where I come from, and both the privileges and the negative sides of that.”

He has noticed that other counselors in the Adventure program have similar motivations. “There are a decent amount of Chinese Americans [or] Asian Americans who apply… [who] want to be able to serve an Asian American community,” he says. “They feel that serving in that community will help their own identity and help them grow their consciousness.”

Harvard students engaged with the Chinatown community have also reflected on their service in more formal settings such as Nicole Newendorp’s class Social Studies 68CT: “The Chinese Immigrant Experience in America,” which she taught for four years. To be eligible for the course, all students had to have been involved with a Chinese or Chinese American community service organization already. Most were Asian American themselves. According to Newendorp, the class put Boston Chinatown in the context of larger immigration trends in the U.S. over the same time, in order to better inform students’ involvement in this community.

“Most of the students, I would say, were initially attracted to the class specifically to have an opportunity to think and reflect on their role as service providers,” Newendorp says. “But overwhelmingly, students came away from the class reflecting on their own positions and family experience as Chinese Americans, and the heaviness that that history represents.”

Yong Han Poh ’20 — who volunteered with PBHA’s Chinatown ESL program, which provides English language classes to adult immigrants — took Newendorp’s class during her sophomore year. She says the class made her consider the “social and political capital” she has as a Harvard student. “[It] made me think a lot about how I could translate that capital and give it back to the community,” she says.

For her final paper in Newendorp’s class, Poh interviewed her ESL students about their experiences learning English. Many, she says, took classes for the social bonding more so than the language acquisition itself.

“They’re very, very lonely and I think they came together in part to find other folks to hang out with and find a community,” Poh says. She describes how new immigrants would go to the square in Chinatown where people play chess and go up to strangers to ask for help. “Public spaces are so important in creating community.”

For city councilor Michelle Wu, involvement in PBHA Chinatown Citizenship, a free naturalization assistance program, made her “[fall] in love” with the Chinatown community during her time at Harvard. She calls her students “adopted grandparents of sorts,” and she went on to become director of the program.

The experiences of her students inspired Wu to enter electoral politics. “There were just so many ways that I started to see how much city government can do and how much community can be supported from all sides,” she says.

Both students at Harvard and leaders within Chinatown emphasize the need for universities to work in collaboration with the community, instead of coming in to fix it from the outside — especially in light of the ways Chinatown has been harmed by institutional expansion in the past.

College students working in Chinatown must consider “how can [their] institutions be planning hand in hand with the community, or not be competing against community voices,” Hah says. For PBHA, this means empowering Chinatown residents by helping them learn English, gain the right to vote, and provide resources to youth.

According to Dai, one of the goals of Chinatown Adventure is to build the leadership skills that young Chinatown residents can use to have further positive impacts on their community. Many campers who outgrow the program return to mentor younger students as junior counselors.

“I think part of our mission is to educate them about these issues,” Dai says. “And part of it is to understand that we can’t just come in and be the saviors and tell them about issues in their own community.”

Although Chinatown was carved from a city riddled with discrimination, it has welcomed visitors throughout the generations. For people like Kiang, Chen, and Wu, their engagement with Chinatown opened up broader interests — in advocacy, scholarship, and public service. For people like Dai, Lu, and Poh, Chinatown became a community that changed the way they thought about themselves and their identities.

For all of them, the physical space that Chinatown takes up in Boston allowed its cultural impact to extend far beyond its borders.

The roots of this physical space lie in its history — the narrative that Yee records on her blog, and the one she speaks passionately about today.

“We are born into the two dimensions of space and time,” Yee says. “But we also have another third dimension that we actually live with every day, and that is memory.” By preserving her memories of Chinatown — the same ones built into the red brick of the remaining row houses — and sharing them with the world, she hopes to make that third dimension just a little bit bigger.

This third dimension often seems at odds with Chinatown’s rapid modernization. However, Yee and other activists have worked to reconcile the two, making Chinatown a space where past and present not only coexist, but complement each other — where current efforts preserve the history, and history makes the current neighborhood worth preserving.

“There is a wide network of social institutions that are part of Chinatown and they have survived,” Kiang says. “That’s remarkable, almost miraculous — but it’s because of labor, sweat, smart political organizing, strategizing.”

At a time when other historic Chinatowns, notably in Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, have been disappearing, activists hope Boston’s can break the trend.

Hah wishes, hopefully: “I would want Boston Chinatown to be the Chinatown people look at and say, ‘Oh, we could be like that.’”

— Magazine writer Maliya V. Ellis can be reached at

—Magazine writer Sophia S. Liang can be reached at