Asian American Activism’s Roots in Boston Chinatown (Part 1)

In the late 1950s, Michael Liu played with his neighborhood friends in the rubble of their demolished homes on Albany Street in Boston Chinatown.

By the time Tufts Medical Center began expanding into Chinatown in the late sixties, major developments had already displaced hundreds of Chinatown residents. Liu was 10 years old when the state completed construction of the Central Artery, a highway that—according to Boston’s political elite—could bring economic prosperity to the city’s waning economy. The state planned to displace 170 neighborhood families to make way for the highway, but organized protests and pressure by Chinatown’s traditional associations curbed its effects. The highway obliterated half of the Chinese Merchants Association building and the homes of fourteen families—including those of Liu’s friends on Albany Street. This was the first highway to go through Chinatown.

When she was a child, now Philadelphia-based community activist and researcher Mary Yee lived in Rutland, Vermont, a small town where her family partly owned a Chinese restaurant. Her mother spoke no English. In 1957, when Yee was in the third grade, her family moved to Boston Chinatown, where Yee’s extended family lived, to give her mother a support network. 

They lived at 5 Johnny Court, a row house tenement without a working bathtub. The basement had rats, and trash on the streets wasn’t removed regularly. When she was in the fifth grade, Yee’s family moved to 85 Tyler Street, another row house tenement next to Tufts Medical dormitories. The building often did not have heat and suffered from leaking water on rainy days. 

Nevertheless, the working class neighborhood was a tightly knit and lively site for community. Yee’s classmates’ parents worked primarily in the garment factories on Kneeland and Chauncy Street and the restaurants on Beach, Tyler, and Hudson Street. On Hudson Street, residents sat out on their stoops and watched each others’ kids. When she was young, Yee and her friends would play dodgeball or jump rope outside. 

According to Michael Liu, Hudson Street was home to a “stoop culture.” Liu was raised in Chinatown, where he lived at 100 Tyler Street, a building known for its “luxury” amenities—namely, hot water. Liu’s mother was a garment worker and his father was a restaurant worker. Like other children in the neighborhood, he grew up poor. 

Working class families got by with the limited services provided by churches and local Chinese associations. Businesses endured despite the hostility of patrons from outside the neighborhood. It was common for young white men to dine at Chinatown restaurants and run out on their checks before they paid. According to Liu, one restaurant resorted to building their doors so that it was more difficult for people to run out. 

“The community had to rely on itself,” said Liu.

1955: A Planner Enters the Neighborhood

In 1955, while Central Artery construction was underway, an MIT urban planning professor named Kevin Lynch walked through Boston’s South Cove neighborhood, paying close attention to its Chinese enclave: Chinatown. He was hired as a field surveyor and consultant for the New England Medical Center, a consortium of hospitals affiliated with Tufts University and later rebranded as Tufts Medical Center, to design a plan that united the City’s official aims for “Urban Renewal” with its own ambitions for expansion into the economically stagnant South Cove neighborhood. 

In Chinatowns across the country, Chinese and Chinese Americans were racialized as “perpetually foreign”—and possibly dangerous. Decades of racist exclusion laws and anti-Asian violence to eradicate the “Yellow Peril” had pushed Chinese laborers from the West Coast to establish the first Chinatowns in the urban “slums” of New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston. Chinese and Chinese Americans were outsiders to America’s political mainstream.

When Lynch entered South Cove, it was the height of the Cold War. The Sino-Soviet alliance struck fear in the public imagination of fifties McCarthy-era America, and increased FBI surveillance in Chinatowns produced a chilling effect on communities with uncertain immigration status. In this Cold War era, federal spending expanded the US interstate highway system in order to enhance the growth of capital. The federal government promoted science and medical research in competition with global communist powers. Boston’s universities and research centers were empowered to take land from working class communities of color. 

With his notes in hand, Lynch would have heard construction beginning on the Central Artery. He might have seen a Chinese line cook at Gamsun Restaurant taking a break between shifts, or caught the eye of a Syrian garment shop worker through a store window on Harrison Avenue. He might have even seen a young Liu playing with his friends on Hudson Street. 

But his attention would have also turned to the signs of urban blight that were central to the language of urban planning at the time. To the architect of Tufts Medical Center’s expansion project, the neighborhood was an “area of physical dilapidation and progressive abandonment.” He walked past buildings he ranked in “poor,” “fair,” and “excellent” condition, marking homes in need of rehabilitation—or fit for removal.

Lynch knew that Chinatown was vulnerable. Although he acknowledged that the Chinese community’s “principal desire at the moment [was] to be left alone” due to the Central Artery demolitions, Lynch believed institutional expansion could mutually benefit the Medical Center and Chinatown residents:

“Most important [to Tufts Medical Center’s community partnered expansion effort] will be the Chinese Community, and also the most difficult, since they are mistrustful, and disturbed by the expressway demolitions. It must be made clear that this plan represents an opportunity for new housing, new community buildings and new commercial locations for their people, and that some such positive action on their part is the only alternative to being pushed out entirely.”

With institutional expansion the “only alternative to being pushed out entirely,” Tufts Medical Center planted its roots in Chinatown’s working class community. Like Yale, MIT, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania, and perhaps most infamously, the University of Chicago, Tufts Medical Center took advantage of the 1961 Housing Act, which expanded federal Urban Renewal grants to municipal governments if they collaborated with universities and hospitals. Under this federal law—made possible by lobbyists of the University of Chicago—Tufts Medical Center became a fully enfranchised collaborator with Boston’s municipal agencies. 

19621965: The Second Highway

Just as Lynch completed his study, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority built the second highway through Chinatown: the Turnpike. Chinatown’s traditional Chinese associations were silenced as the Turnpike extension demolished 60 housing structures, displaced hundreds of Chinatown residents, and closed down dozens of small businesses. Social ties were broken as families were forced from their homes. According to Yee, the demolition caused rats to come up out of the toilets in her friends’ homes on Hudson Street, opposite to the highway construction. The families that remained soon moved out of the barren site. Hudson Street’s vibrant community was obliterated.

“All that was destroyed,” Yee said. “There was a really kind of abandoned feeling to that part of Chinatown.”

Stephanie Fan, an educator in Boston’s public schools and Tufts graduate, lived on Oxford Street during the Turnpike demolitions. Her father was the only printer to serve Chinatown for several years, printing tickets for laundries and menus for restaurants. Her mother worked part-time as an interpreter. Although Fan was young at the time, she remembered how upset the community became during the Turnpike demolitions. Many of her schoolmates and her family’s friends were displaced; even the Chinatown public library at Tyler Street was destroyed. 

According to Fan, who in the past several years has advocated to bring a library back to Chinatown, a “bookmobile” came by once a week in the library’s place. “You could go in there and borrow a book, or return books, but it didn’t have the same sense of a community library,” said Fan.

19611965: Institutional Expansion Begins

In 1965, the Turnpike was completed and the Boston Redevelopment Authority, now known as the Boston Planning and Development Agency, finalized their South Cove Urban Renewal Plan. Its “objective” was to “eliminate severe conditions of blight, deterioration, obsolescence, traffic congestion, and incompatible land uses in order thereby to facilitate sound development and orderly growth, and to achieve neighborhood stability.” To this end, the City outlined its plan to “provide designs which meet the functional purposes of the Medical Center.” 

The plan estimated the displacement of 130 families, or 400 individuals. They moved quickly; in the decade after 1965, Tufts Medical Center seized almost half of Chinatown’s residential and commercial land for new facilities. Tufts Medical Center weaponized Lynch’s plan to enlist the support of the traditional Chinese associations—the Chinatown elite political establishment—to legitimize their own predetermined institutional agenda. Urban Renewal and institutional expansion was supposed to uplift the community, but when it came to housing and basic services, the needs of regular working people would not be considered. 

Institutional expansion compounded the devastating effects of earlier mass displacements. With two highways built straight through its heart, Chinatown’s community was ruptured and its political power seemingly diminished. 

But polarizing struggles between the Medical Center and Chinatown residents persisted into the seventies, eighties, and nineties. Working class people would not let the institution expand without having a say in the integrity of their own community. As Urban Renewal set the stage for the intensified institutional expansion of the next decades in Boston Chinatown, radical movements began across the country. A generation came of age in an era when heightened student activism across the country responded to the crises of war, racism, and capitalism.

Asian American political identity formation on the West Coast made shockwaves that young people felt thousands of miles away, on the East Coast in Boston Chinatown. Many young Asian Americans like Yee, Liu, and Fan went on to college, an opportunity their parents did not have. Fan graduated from Tufts, and shortly after organized community oversight during the building of a new school in Boston Chinatown. In 1970, Yee went to graduate school in Philadelphia, where she organized in response to highway expansion into Philly’s Chinatown. Liu returned to Chinatown from college in New York and in 1971 helped form the Free Chinatown Committee to organize community response to Tufts Medical Center’s expansion. 

“The dominant philosophy that I grew up with was—from both community institutions and my family—was not to try to make waves,” Liu said. “And I never liked that too much.”

A generation of community advocates and activists grew up through these histories of upheaval and dispossession in Chinatown, and their experiences would inform the struggles of today. Lorrayne Shen’s (A12) work as a community organizer in Chinatown from 2012 to 2015 was built on these histories. When Shen worked to unionize homecare workers in Boston, she found that many of the workers and their clients were former garment workers in Chinatown who had participated in a successful campaign in the eighties to receive training after mass garment factory layoffs.

“[These histories] really just become part of a story for the community, and it’s part of the context to try to get justice for people who are suffering in the present day,” said Shen. 

“Houses were torn down. They were torn down. That’s done. The people who didn’t have a library, you can’t re-give them a library. So you just try to use [history] to pressure the people in power to try to make it right.”

This article is the first in a two article series on activism in Boston Chinatown. Read more in the Observer’s issue six, “Growth,” on December 9.

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