“According to descriptions of that life, frugal laundrymen saved money by sleeping and cooking meals of white rice in their tiny shops, only occasionally allowing themselves vegetables and meat.”
For most of Chinatown’s 140-year-history, local media have limited their coverage of the neighborhood, producing occasional profiles of Chinatown’s people to titillate readers or reporting on municipal drives to punish residents. Despite Chinatown’s popularity as a tourist destination, few visitors are aware that a neighborhood exists here. Even fewer know that its poverty rate is more than 30 percent higher and its density more than five times Boston’s average. Yet despite being seen as a passive and powerless community, Chinatown has survived and reshaped its identity by challenging outside claims on its land and buildings.
Chinese workers began settling in Boston in large numbers in the late nineteenth century. According to the 1880 census, a few hundred resided in the city at that time. Many of them were fleeing the anti-Chinese violence then sweeping through western United States and the nativist-inspired hostility that eventually brought about the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
Significantly, the Chinese were the only group to be excluded by name from immigration into the United States. This made them, in a sense, “permanent foreigners.” During the last decades of the century, the Chinese population in the eastern United States multiplied. Like many other immigrant groups, the southern Chinese who settled in Boston were persistent, hardworking, and frugal. Many had worked on the transcontinental railroad, and the first Chinese in Massachusetts worked in a range of occupations, serving as factory and farmworkers, servants, and peddlers.
Until the 1940s, Massachusetts state law prohibited Chinese from working in more than twenty occupations, most of them professional jobs. Other laws restricted municipal and state government employment to citizens, a status for which they were rarely eligible. Union membership in Boston—necessary for jobs in most skilled trades—was barred to them based on their race.
Following patterns in other Chinatowns, the population began to specialize in certain occupations to avoid competition with an increasingly hostile white labor force. Through both exclusion and choice, laundry work became the occupation of more than 95 percent of the population. By 1892, Boston’s Chinese laundries numbered nearly 250. While Chinatown was the center of the community, laundries spread throughout every county in Massachusetts that year, following the expansion of new streetcar and railroad lines.
Laundry had the stigma of being considered a female occupation; it was also isolating and physically demanding. The business was both low status and low paying. According to descriptions of that life, frugal laundrymen saved money by sleeping and cooking meals of white rice in their tiny shops, only occasionally allowing themselves vegetables and meat. Neil Chin, a laundry worker in the 1920s, recalled,
When you go to work in the laundry, you would stay in that laundry all week long. You ate there, you worked there, you slept there. . . . You would have to get up around 6 o’clock in the morning, possibly start work at about 6:30 and you wouldn’t stop until 12 o’clock midnight. And the only break that you would get was for lunch and for supper. That’s about eighteen hours a day for at least five and a half days a week. . . . If you were lucky or if you were a fast worker and you were able to get through your week’s work by Saturday afternoon, you would then have the luxury of coming up to Boston or back to Chinatown, and you would get the rest of Saturday and Sunday off.
Laundries were not a path to social mobility in Boston. Nonetheless, Chinatown continued to grow. As the neighborhood evolved into the cultural, social, and political center of the region’s Chinese population, it became a popular destination for Chinese workers throughout New England, who often went there on their limited days off. They found little support or comfort in mainstream society, but Chinatown provided refuge, services, and community. The area had grocery stores and eating establishments, where people could socialize, congregate, and purchase familiar foods. It offered Chinese newspapers, translators, baths, a place to send and receive mail, as well as people who could read those letters and write return ones to families back in China. Entertainments such as gambling and opium smoking were available.
As the scholar Angelo Ancheta writes, “the reason that the Chinatowns existed and came into being was that simply Chinese could not gain access to business, to services, to any kind of commerce that other folks could . . . so that if you wanted to get a meal, if you wanted to stay in a hotel, if you wanted a place to live, you were basically not allowed to live with whites so that the Chinatowns became the segregated areas that they were at the time.”
Within the larger urban setting, Chinese were tolerated—after a fashion—but most were nevertheless permanent foreigners. Even those who attained citizenship were, in Mae Ngai’s words, “alien citizens.” The settlement house writer noted that the Chinese “can never be in any real sense American.” Disdain colored this marginalization.
After ignoring the Chinese for so many years, Boston eventually took notice of their enclave. When authorities decided to widen upper Harrison Avenue in 1893 to improve the flow of railway cars and commercial traffic, the city took possession of the eastern half of the street, where the Chinese businesses were, and spared the non-Chinese businesses on the western side. One newspaper saw this as a way to let Boston “be rid” of Chinatown. The Chinese, however, persisted, rebuilding on the
same sites in foreshortened buildings.
This “improvement” was the first of several such initiatives to take control of Chinatown. Racially motivated inspections and raids were common. In 1895, for instance, there were at least a half-dozen police raids, supposedly to control issues involving gambling, liquor, “sparrow fighting,” and opium. State and city governments passed specific laws and regulations burdening Chinese businesses. In 1903, using a tong conflict as a precipitating event, police launched a massive sweep of Chinatown, with the intent of limiting the growth of the Chinese population and deporting and dispersing many of its residents. In its wake, a significant number of Chinese left or were forced out of the city.
During this police sweep, the community was able to leverage its relationships with the broader population to organize a rally in which hundreds of people came out in support of the neighborhood. Participants included well-known abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and Reverend John Galbraith, and “a goodly sprinkling of women, some of whom were Sunday school teachers,” publicly denounced the raid.
On the whole, however, the city remained preoccupied with other immigrant groups. This, along with Chinatown’s strategy for avoiding conflict and its cultivation of relations with certain respected white Bostonians, gave the enclave the space to grow and develop.
Excerpted from Michael Liu’s Forever Struggle: Activism, Identity, and Survival in Boston’s Chinatown, 1880–2018 (©2020, University of Massachusetts Press).