Brief History of Chinatown

boston chinatown aacaWhen Boston was first settled in 1630, the area known as Chinatown today was no more than marshland with very few settlements. Between the years of 1806 and 1840 the marshes were slowly filled in and the wharves expanded to create a new piece of land.  This section of tractable land is currently defined as Harrison, Tyler, and Hudson Streets south of Beach Street and North of East Berkeley Street. What is now known as Chinatown first was settled in the 1840s by Irish immigrants. Successive waves of immigration brought Jewish, Syrian, and Italian families into the district.

The first Chinese to settle in the district were most likely members of a group of laborers brought in from San Francisco in 1870 to break a labor strike at the Sampson Shoe Factory in North Adams, MA or college students that had been sent here by the Chinese government. Local lore has it that they first pitched tents along Oliver Place, or what they called Ping On Alley (the “street of peace and security”).

By 1875, the first Chinese laundries appeared on Harrison Ave, as well as Boston’s first Chinese restaurant – Hong Far Low – at 36 ½ Harrison (the current site of Eldo Bakery). The 1880s brought more Chinese labor into the area because of increased construction needs. By the 1890s, the area from Kneeland to Essex between Hudson and Harrison was known as the Chinese “colony” of Boston.

Chinatown’s population was overwhelmingly male and very slow growing due to strict immigration laws – the Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first time the U.S. formally excluded a certain ethnic group from immigrating. The Act suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years and required all Chinese in the United States to carry certificates of identity (this act was extended an additional ten years by the Geary Act). In 1930, bans limiting immigration by foreign-born wives of citizens are repealed – allowing more Chinese women to enter the country. The Act of 1882 was repealed in 1941 – although a quota was still in place – and President Roosevelt issued a proclamation prohibiting discrimination in munitions factories due to the advent of World War II. In 1946, the enactment several different pieces of legislation allowed the immigration and naturalization of Asian war brides, fiancées, and children.

This led to the growth of the Chinese population in Boston in the 1950s as well as the growth of the district south of Kneeland and past Broadway (currently Marginal Rd). Chinatown’s residential area was crippled when the Central Artery was constructed from 1954-1959; half of the newly built Chinese Merchant’s association was demolished and over 300 families (~1200 people) were displaced from their homes on Albany, Tyler, Hudson, Harvard, and Oak Streets. The construction of the Mass Pike Extension in the 60s and 70s also eliminated a good deal of land area from Chinatown. With these two mega-projects, the land area of Chinatown and South Cove was halved even while the population grew by more than a quarter.

In the 1960s and the 1970s, Chinatown underwent many large changes. The district saw the foundation of several advocacy organizations and agencies, including the Chinese Progressive Association, the Chinese Economic Development Council, the Quincy School Complex – comprised of the Josiah Quincy School, the South Cove Community Health Center, and the Quincy School Community Council, and the Chinese American Civic Association, which is the AACA’s predecessor. Several housing structures were also built to serve the community – Castle Square Apartments, Tai Tung Village, Mass Pike Towers, Chauncy House, Mason Place and Quincy Towers – all provided housing for the Chinese population.

Currently, Chinatown has seen an increase in ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and political diversity in the past 30 years. There are increased numbers of immigrants from South East Asia and Mandarin speakers.