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Then and now: A legacy in Boston

Chinatown's story told in new book

The Chinese Merchants Association set up its headquarters at 2 Tyler St., at the corner of Beach Street, from 1919 to 1951 before moving to 20 Hudson St. Bunting was hung outside the building (left) in celebration of the 39th annual national convention held in Boston around 1943. At right, the same building in a photo taken last month. The Chinese Merchants Association set up its headquarters at 2 Tyler St., at the corner of Beach Street, from 1919 to 1951 before moving to 20 Hudson St. Bunting was hung outside the building (left) in celebration of the 39th annual national convention held in Boston around 1943. At right, the same building in a photo taken last month. (Left: Chinese Historical Society collection; Right: George Rizer / Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Jason Beerman
Globe Correspondent / March 6, 2008

It's Chinatown, Jake, and now you can read the whole story.

The Boston neighborhood is changing yet again: High-rise condos sprout amid its dense blocks of low-slung buildings, new restaurant facades gleam, and a newly constructed park leads to the Chinatown gate, the neighborhood's symbolic entrance.

Compare today's street scenes with the ones in a brand-new book chronicling the tiny neighborhood's first century, and you can see how far Chinatown has come.

The book is "Chinese in Boston: 1870-1965" by Wing-kai To and the Chinese Historical Society of New England.

In 2004, Peter Kiang and Stephanie Fan, then copresidents of the historical society, urged To, an associate professor of history and the coordinator of Asian studies at Bridgewater State College, to take on the project.

Using archival photographs, prints, advertisements, newspaper articles, and lithographs, many from the society's collection, To assembled a rich portrait of the community's establishment and evolution, and he hasn't ignored its setbacks and dark times.

"It was good cooperation," To said, "because, as a historian, I have the skills and knowledge and experience and interest in the study of Chinese-American history. As a community organization, the Chinese Historical Society of New England has a lot of contacts with local community members and they have come up with archival material."

One of the society's goals is to "preserve and promote the stories of people and institutions who are part of the Chinatown fabric," said Caroline Chang, the society's cofounder and its part-time managing director. Gathering the 200 images for the book was a cooperative effort, Chang said, as it required extensive searches of various library and newspaper archives, as well as the generosity of community members to share their personal collections that portray the neighborhood's history.

Boston's Chinatown was settled by Chinese immigrants in the late 1870s. They populated the South Cove landfill area, where Irish, Syrian, Italian, and Jewish immigrants had settled earlier. The completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 made it easier for Chinese immigrants to travel to Boston from the West, where, as laborers, they had been lured by the California Gold Rush.

A scan of a Chinese language newspaper dating from 1892 indicates the existence of a stable Chinese community in Boston; early 1900s scenes show the city's first Chinese eatery, Hong Far Low Restaurant, as a center of social life; photos show an elevated railroad over Beach Street, built in 1899; a story about a Chinatown immigration raid in a 1903 edition of the Boston Herald documents the anti-Chinese sentiment that followed passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act by Congress in 1882.

In the first three decades of the 20th century, Chinatown grew, as laundries, restaurants, and groceries expanded the neighborhood's scope and boundaries. Family associations, founded as fraternal antidotes to the bachelor society resulting from the lack of women and children in the initial wave of immigration, grew in social and civic importance, and thrive today as benevolent organizations.

The push and pull of assimilation is exemplified in World War II era photos, with Chinese and American nationalism in images of Chinese-American servicemen and in parade scenes of support for Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalist Party. "They were always in a kind of balancing act," To said, "whether it was good to support China or become American."

By the 1950s and 60s, Chinatown was firmly entrenched, as second- and third-generation Chinese settled where their parents and grandparents had lived. The public Quincy School, which flourishes in Chinatown today, embodied this. "After the 1950s," To said, "the Syrians moved away, the Italians moved away, so the Chinese population [of the Quincy School] increased from about 20 percent to the majority."

But the '50s and '60s also brought turmoil as construction of the Central Artery and the Massachusetts Turnpike extension carved into the neighborhood. The book documents these incursions; though, there's no mention of another challenge - the notorious Combat Zone, which festered at Chinatown's edge for decades. The Zone "was at its height from 1974 to 1985," said To, who said he chose to emphasize the neighborhood's formative years.

The highway construction, To said, spurred political and social mobilization, and helped create a new Chinatown. It has come full circle, as the Big Dig has freed up a swath of land, called "Parcel 24," once claimed by the Turnpike extension, and neighborhood activists are fighting to reclaim it.

"I think Chinatown has a pretty good future," said Chang. "And I would like to see it, because it is also the place that provides a safe haven for new immigrants until they are established."

To said: "We tend to forget about the long history of the Chinese community in Boston. Everyone talks about the Irish, the Italians. . . . The Chinese are one of the older groups, and in the book, we try to present that."

The $19.99 book is at bookshops and arcadiapublishing.com.

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