Growing the Asian American Movement in Boston Chinatown (Part 2)

This is the second part of a two-article series on activism in Boston Chinatown. To read part one, “Asian American Activism’s Roots in Boston Chinatown,” click here

One year after graduating from Tufts in 1967, now-retired Boston public school educator Stephanie Fan received a call from a classmate who worked at Tufts-New England Medical Center. 

Her classmate told her that new facilities for the Josiah Quincy Elementary School were being planned for Boston Chinatown as an extension of the city’s Urban Renewal policies. But for this new “community school,” the city would not be soliciting any input from Chinatown residents. 

The school had originally been designed to incentivize the families of Tufts-New England Medical Center students and staff to live in Chinatown. A quarter of the Quincy School project’s land was designated for Tufts students and faculty residencies—between 120 and 150 housing units. One phone call was enough to bring Fan, who had lived her whole life on Chinatown’s Oxford Street, into collective struggles that echo and endure in the Chinatown community today.

“You get involved with the community, and you find out that you can—you can affect change,” said Fan. 

More phone calls were made, connecting Chinatown’s most politically disenfranchised residents to collectively voice their concerns during the planning process. This grassroots network of Chinatown residents young and old was called the Quincy School Community Council. The Council’s formation marked an emerging political consciousness among its young organizers, who were recent college graduates.

As a grassroots organization, its methods of direct political participation were a departure from a past in which decisions facing Chinatown were made by Chinatown’s traditional patriarchal Chinese associations. Fan’s cohort was excited to support ordinary people in their efforts to be agents of change in their own community.

“[Student activists were saying,] ‘We need to have a say in what’s going on in the country. We need to have a say in what’s going on in our communities,’” explained Fan. “There was a lot of emphasis on community control—that these things should not be done by people in City Hall or the State House without input from residents who would be affected.”

Like Fan, long-time Chinatown activist Michael Liu was among the cadre of young Asian Americans who had grown up in Chinatown and brought this radical consciousness back to his community. In 1971, as a part of a group of college students and neighborhood youth known as the “Free Chinatown Committee,” Liu stormed Tufts-New England Medical Center’s offices with a list of demands, including that Tufts establish a free health clinic, employ a full-time bilingual psychiatrist and full-time interpreters, end the destruction of community housing and facilities, and include greater housing for the Chinese community within the Quincy School development. The Committee’s youthful insurgency was not well-received by Chinatown’s political establishment, who apologized to Tufts on the Committee’s behalf. Liu, however, was not apologetic.

“We challenged traditional leadership. The big attitude is go along, get along, don’t make trouble,” Liu said. “It really raised the issue in the community, and also showed that there was kind of an alternative approach to dealing with things.”

Backed by 1,000 Chinatown resident signatures, the Committee saw itself as part of the broader national Asian American Movement. Asian Americans aligned themselves with organizations such as the Black Panthers and the Young Lords by mobilizing working class residents of underserved ethnic enclaves to fight capitalism, war abroad, and racism in the streets. Although the Committee disbanded soon after due to their political inexperience, Liu’s leadership in the coming years would continue to support Chinatown’s most vulnerable working class residents in future collective struggles.

While Liu’s organizing brought the Free Chinatown Committee in direct confrontation with Tufts Medical, Fan continued to work on the Quincy Community School Council. By 1973, the Council halted Tufts’s plans for medical student and staff housing at the new Quincy School and successfully pushed for the construction of Quincy Tower, a 16-story building comprised of 143 units of affordable housing geared toward elderly Chinese. In 1976, the new Josiah Quincy Elementary School was finally completed.

Cynthia Yee was a young teacher who witnessed the changing landscape of Chinatown’s public schools in the seventies and eighties. Yee had found her affinity for working with children as a young woman babysitting for neighborhood youth on Hudson Street, which was destroyed by the Turnpike extension in the early sixties. 

Yee was told by Boston public school administrators that positions in Chinatown were usually reserved for teachers that were about to retire; teaching Chinese students was considered an easy job due to stereotypes that portrayed them as obedient and studious. “They used it as a nursing home,” quipped Yee. But in reality, Chinese students in Chinatown’s public schools were terribly underserved. 

Textbooks were outdated, and many Chinese students did not even speak English, the language of instruction. Chinese immigrant parents did not yet have the political organization to advocate for their childrens’ needs to White school officials and teachers. In her first year of teaching, Yee took over for a fourth grade classroom that had previously been staffed by a teacher who called Chinese children by assigned numbers instead of their real names. All of the games for children Yee inherited with the classroom were unopened—unused by the previous teacher’s students.

Yee and other young Chinese teachers in Chinatown organized themselves, lobbying the Boston School Committee to make structural changes that addressed years of hidden abuse that Chinatown’s youth faced. But older white teachers in Chinatown’s public schools were upset by their advocacy.

“They said, ‘We were always running a great school here until you arrived, and now all of this stuff is in the newspaper about us being bad,’” remembered Yee. “I said, ‘Well, I just graduated with a Master’s degree, and I know this is not the way to teach.’”

“Some people would call [our organizing] a paper tiger, but we were kind of activists, radicals, revolutionaries at the time. We were there just to improve the schools and give back to our community.” A paper tiger refers to something that seems threatening, but in reality, is not.

Growing the Movement Today

The work of the people and institutions that serve Chinatown today is built on the shoulders of Fan, Liu, and Yee, and countless other workers, residents, and educators before and after them. Their seemingly disparate struggles mark the continuities that make the Asian American Movement in Boston Chinatown. 

In the past decade-and-a-half since retiring as an educator, Yee has taken on the role of storyteller. Using her skills as a writer to document Chinatown’s history for future generations, her personal narratives, essays, and fiction tell stories not found in traditional textbooks that feature Chinese-American history. “I decided I would fill that gap because I didn’t like people writing the narrative of my life,” said Yee. “I know it best.” 

Yee writes about immigrants, restaurant workers, aunties, and other residents she grew up around in Chinatown to serve the community. Her work has been featured by local organizations that advocate for Asian American communities in Massachusetts, and are publicly accessible online. “Even as I write, my goal is really to educate, as much as to be an artist.” 

Artwork and activism celebrating Chinatown’s history continues to flourish through the Pao Arts Center, which opened in 2017. The community space was opened by the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, previously known as the Quincy Community School Council that Fan helped organize over fifty years ago.

Today, the Asian American Resource Workshop and the Chinese Progressive Association continue to center the needs of Asian American communities in the Greater Boston Area. These organizations that were cofounded by Liu shortly after the dissolution of the Free Chinatown Committee continue the movement building of the past.

A younger generation of advocates and activists in Chinatown remembers this past. 

As the coordinator for CPA’s Chinese Youth Initiative from 2017 to 2019, Erin Chow’s work with Chinese youth in Boston was empowered by the historical resilience of the Chinatown community. “It helped me understand that the work that is being done now is not necessarily new work. It’s just being built on work that’s been done before.”

For Wayne Yeh (A’16), an organizer for CPA who has worked on recent campaigns to preserve affordable housing in Chinatown, the struggles of the past are central to his activism. “[What grounds my work] is knowing that I’m not the first person, and I won’t be the last person, and I’m not doing it alone,” said Yeh. “It’s about being a part of something bigger.”

According to Chow, teaching Chinatown’s history is important for new immigrants who are unfamiliar with Boston’s political context. “That constant re-education is really important,” she said. When Chow worked with youth it was also necessary to teach in a way that centered the knowledge of current residents. Their realities are a part of a broader narrative of the Chinatown community’s resilience that spans generations.

“It wasn’t necessarily the people that were highly educated––the people with the means to affect change [who uplifted the community]—it was ordinary people.”

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