Following our Noses Around Boston’s Historic Chinatown

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Boston’s Historic Chinatown Neighbourhood is located southeast of Boston Common, nestled into the curve of Surface Road/US 90, framed by Washington Street to the west and Essex Street to the north. 

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The Chinatown station is located at the corner of Essex and Washington. Walk one block south down Washington, turn left and walk two blocks east along Beach Street.

Just ahead you will see the festive Chinatown Gate, the welcoming point to Chinatown. 

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Taiwan’s government gave this gate to the city of Boston and Chinatown in 1982.

It is engraved with two Chinese sayings, one that quotes Sun Yat-sen “everything under the sky is for the people” and another, Li Yi Lian Chi’s four societal bonds of propriety, justice, integrity, and honour. 

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We relished a stroll through the Rose Kennedy Greenway, the Auntie Kay & Uncle Frank Chin Park, and the Mary Soo Hoo Park surrounding the Chinatown Gate.

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Soo Hoo was the co-founder of New England’s only Chinese-English newspaper called Sampan, and was a passionate activist and advocate for cleaning up the grime and the moral impurity of Chinatown.

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We paid respects to the Tiananmen Memorial, admired the historical timeline installations, art and sculptures, some provided by the Museum of Fine Arts, some painted by locals. 

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Beach Street has loads of of Chinese/pan-Asian restaurants and shops, with Washington Street, Knapp Street, Harrison Avenue, and Tyler Street connecting it to Kneeland Street.

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Washington Street is another main road. Look at the different types of architecture. 

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The unmistakable scent of Chinese Five-Spice seasoning is strong in this area, and it is incredible. 

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We were hungry, and the scents were making us crazy.  Deciding where to eat was tough, but we found a small, cozy place with just enough room for us. 

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Gourmet Dumpling House was my favourite of all the places we visited in Chinatown. Everything appeared simple and modestly presented, but was so full of flavour. 

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One thing I love about traditional Chinese (and especially Szechuan) food is that many dishes are based on Mala, a combination of numbing/tingling (ma) and spicy (la) flavors.  

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We shared a variety of steamed dumplings, roasted garlic broccolini, and fried crab rangoons packed full of chives, onions, and herbs.

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Update: I am so, so very sad to learn that this place recently closed. Perhaps another talented entrepreneur will pick up the torch soon. Surely?

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We later visited the famous Empire Garden aka Emperor’s Garden Restaurant (no website), famous for traditional cart-service, Dim Sum, and other delicacies, as much as the beautiful building itself. 

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We fell in love with the pink and gold vintage décor, hand-carved shell and cherub designs, crests, lighting fixtures, gold leaf, and ancient Chinese symbolic art. 

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The restaurant used to be a theater and has a rumoured naughty reputation, despite no real sources to prove it. 

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Sweet old ladies roll carts around to your table and let you choose whatever you want, keeping tally on a sheet sitting on the corner of the table. 

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I know this place has been around forever and is a neighbourhood favourite, but I am not going to mislead you about the quality of the food.

Everything I tried was unbearably greasy, drippy, slimy, had no flavour, or was filled with something completely unidentifiable. I had no idea it was possible to go so wrong even with basic eggrolls. 

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I have a fairly well-developed global palate and have even had traditional Chinese food prepared for me by a health-obsessed Chinese grandma in the past, so I know my distaste is not based on the lack of sugar/salt we are used to with Chinese buffets in the USA.

To be blunt, I found the food disgusting. Regardless, we should protect this place at all costs. I do not regret going at all and would gladly go again just for the ambiance. 

And maybe one of those exotic cocktails I keep hearing about. 

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We popped into as many little bakeries as we could, sharing bites and moaning on the sidewalk, or taking bags of treats back to our hotel to snack on later. 

Ho Yuen Bakery on Beach Street (no website) is just one of these wonderful cafés to pick up mooncakes and to watch the bakers demonstrate their skills.

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Great 101 Bakery next door (no website) had so many cute, unique pastries that I panic purchased a whole sack of them, not even knowing what they were until later. No regrets.

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This one appears to be Chinatown’s take on a hot dog and we were not mad about it at all. 

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So many beautiful treats. 

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There were a few food court type shops where you could step in and order everything from the classics to bubble waffles. 

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We had a great time browsing the Asian beauty supply shops and specialty goods stores full of ginseng, tea, and mushrooms.

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Check out this giant turkey tail! 

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I love the vibrancy of Boston’s Chinatown, the largest anywhere outside of China except for New York City, and the only surviving historic Chinatown in New England since the 1950s. 

Boston was the first city in the USA to purposefully create a red-light district, the Combat Zone, in order to concentrate its drug trades, gangs, and, often, forced prostitution rings. Much of this activity was facilitated and perpetuated by the city’s police force and other corrupt officials. 

The Combat Zone was just a small part of Chinatown, named for the amount of terrifying violence and crime that took place in the streets, and because of the masses of uniformed soldiers that frequented the area while on leave. 

Some of the most famous strip clubs were the Naked i Cabaret, the Two O’Clock Club, and the Teddy Bear Lounge, the latter two where comedian/late night host Jay Leno got his start. A handful of adult bookstores and theatres along Washington Street. The Wall Street Journal even went so far as to call this area a “sexual Disneyland” in the 1970s.

LaGrange Street was where you could find female prostitutes, but the Pilgrim Theatre was where you picked up men. North Street, formerly Ann Street, was known as the “Black Sea” where more than half the city’s brothels and gambling dens could be found.

This photo of the Combat Zone is shared from the Boston Globe’s website:
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The city’s gay community and mixed-race couples found refuge and more tolerance living in the Combat Zone than in other neighbourhoods, despite the dangers. Washington Street’s south end was once called the Gay Times Square and the popular Playland Café on Essex Street was a haven.

Over in Bay Village and Park Square, gay clubs like Jacques Cabaret and the Punch Bowl were wildly successful. 

There was a city-wide push to evict all of the residents and clubs in the Combat Zone, who were unfortunately lumped into one giant group of equally-evil derelicts, as well as an initiative to relocate them to the city’s Financial District that sat empty after banking hours.

City government officials maintained a relatively lax attitude about it and let things follow their natural course, which meant a large degree of fading out, people dying, and the eventual emergence of the internet and VHS tapes negating the need to physically go out somewhere to get one’s fix.

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Urban renewal and development, creating greenspaces and parks, moving in government offices, churches, and new upscale homes also raised property value and rent prices so high that most Combat Zone residents were forced to move.  

The Combat Zone was once so notorious that Aerosmith wrote about it in their song “Lightning Strikes” and the famous writer Stephen King referenced it in a few of his novels, including Blaze, Cujo, and The Stand.

Today, Centerfolds and the Glass Slipper on LaGrange are the only two remaining “gentlemen’s” clubs. They sit quietly innocuous, surrounded by cafés, galleries, and offices.

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So where do Chinese immigrants come into the equation?

Chinatown, the historic Chinese-immigrant community, actually existed long before the Combat Zone district that had its heyday between the 1970s-1990s. Geographically this area falls within a tidal flat, not the most desirable or sturdy place for residences, and it was a less hostile environment for immigrants back in the 1800s.

The Chinatown neighbourhood was also known as Boston’s historic garment district and several Chinese laundries opened up on Harrison Avenue. Van’s Fabric has been open since the early 1980s and is one of the oldest community staples from the garment district era. 

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Boston has a total Chinese population of nearly 10%, but more than 70% of Chinatown’s residents are Chinese. They also share the neighbourhood with Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and other Asian immigrants.  

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and various immigration raids have caused the population to fluctuate, though it continues to be the most densely populated district in Boston. Interstates were built that divided up the community, but it has remained tight-knit despite all odds. 

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A large population of Chinese and other Asian immigrants has been growing in the nearby towns of Quincy and Malden. Boston’s MBTA Red Line and Orange Line, respectively, connect residents from Quincy and Malden directly to Boston’s Chinatown. 

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In addition to new and modernized competition, Boston’s Chinatown also faces threats of gentrification that has already caused many places to close their doors.

Funding requests for infrastructure and renovations within Chinatown, by Chinatown residents and business owners, are often ignored. Instead, outside developers have been swooping in to destroy historic buildings and replace them with unimaginative tri-colour shopping centers and condos. 

Walking around, I was sad to see the number of empty storefronts with closing notices.

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There is great news though! Boston Chinatown Neighbourhood Center, Asian Community Development Corporation, Asian American Civic Association, the Chinatown Public Library’s Reading Room and Chinese Book Club, Chinatown Main Street, the Chinatown Cultural Center Committee and its Chinatown Lantern Cultural and Educational Center are just a few of the cultural and legal organizations working to keep Chinatown alive and make it thrive.

Boston Magazine published a fantastic article about Chinatown’s Power Players and the wonderful work they are doing in Chinatown. 

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Each of these organizations work to address the lack of public education, youth and elderly programs, employment, funding, housing, city services, and sanitation concerns, to help immigrants learn English and adapt to American culture, obtain resources, and to preserve the culture and livelihood of residents in historic Chinatown. 

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Some of the most exciting times to visit Chinatown are during the Chinese New Year celebration, the Lion Dance Festival, the August Moon Festival, the BCNC Oak Street Fair, the Chinatown Main Street Summer Festival in July, and the Lantern Festival which features Lion dances, Asian folk dances, martial arts demonstrations, and traditional Chinese music and vocal performances.

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Fall Cleaning Day, Chinatown’s version of Earth Day, is a day for cleaning up and restoring the community, learning and demonstrating environmentally friendly practices, and meeting Green businesses in the community. 

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In the area for a while? Follow me to some of Boston’s Downtown, North End, Back Bay, Bay Village, and Kenmore neighbourhoods (in progress). 

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2 thoughts on “Following our Noses Around Boston’s Historic Chinatown

  1. Pingback: Sniff Around and Find Out; Boston’s Little Italy in North End | Fernweh

  2. Pingback: Boston’s Downtown District; Lobster Rolls & Faneuil Hall | Fernweh

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