By Lina Zhang, VI Form
Cultural Assimilation and Preservation in Boston’s Chinatown
Since its founding, Boston’s Chinatown has stood at a linguistic and cultural crossroads between English and Cantonese, American and Chinese. When the first Chinese immigrants arrived in Massachusetts in the 1870s, driven out of California by discimination and violence, they settled in a neighborhood that had already housed multiple immigrant groups before them. In the mid-twentieth century, anglicized names such as Hong Far Low Restaurant, Ruby Foo’s Den, Quong Wah Long and Company soared on wooden or neon signs above the groups of people filling the streets and speaking southern Chinese dialects, occasionally interrupted by the foreign English words of a gawking, white tour group. To the outsiders, Chinatown with its opium dens and gangs was sensational, exotic, lawless, and profoundly unAmerican. Today, however, a paifang stands at the entrance of Boston’s Chinatown with the words 天下为公, or “The world is equally shared by all.” Mandarin has replaced Taishanese, stores advertise hotpot and milk tea in Chinese, and it is common to see people of all races inhabiting this space. After more than a hundred years of coexistence, Chinatowns are still not fully American, but they are not fully Chinese either.
For as long as the Chinese lived in the United States, Chinatowns have risen and disappeared in different parts of the country. These neighborhoods often decline when they encounter a wide range of challenges, including financial hardship, ageing and out-migration, and cultural assimilation. After the disappearance of Chinatowns in Providence and Maine, Boston’s Chinatown became the last Chinatown in New England, serving the Chinese communities of all six states. Compared with the vibrant Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York, Boston’s Chinatown is relatively small and unknown. Neither the first point of contact for Chinese immigrants in the United States nor a current center of tourism and activism, its first residents lived in pre-constructed apartment complexes that had already housed prior immigrant groups. The population of Boston’s Chinatown reached just over ten thousand residents in 2020. Despite these limitations, Boston’s Chinatown has constantly adapted over the years, developing its own culture without the renown that other Chinatowns enjoy. However, it is interesting to consider whether Boston’s Chinatown still possesses a unique ethnic identity or if it is simply a declining residential pocket of Chinese Americans in a rapidly gentrifying, urbanizing environment.
Lina Zhang is a VI form remote student from Beijing, China, who now lives in Southborough, Massachusetts. They enjoy studying History, English, and most things that involve writing. In their free time, they dance to music and spend time with their friends.