Culture and Community
As Chinatown solidified its presence, internal groups began weaving the framework of a community. At first, tongs, secret mafia-like gangs, organized opium dens, gambling rings, and extortion rackets across Chinatown. Occasional bouts of violence between rival tongs gave Chinatown an infamous image in the press, and disdain among the city police. Yet tong influence gradually waned through the 1910s, and Chinatown became more hospitable for families and businesses. Civic leaders built community schools and mutual aid organizations, many of which still stand today at the tail end of a century. Family associations, with membership based on common surnames like Wong and Chin, acted as fraternal associations that provided brotherhood among a mostly male population. External support from Christian missions and settlement houses provided community support and helped set up American institutions like the Chinatown YMCA, Boy and Girl Scout Troops, and Christian churches. .
Women of Chinatown
The “bachelors’ society” of Chinatown began to change in the early 1900s, despite the official exclusion of all Chinese immigration until 1943. As ethnic cleansing (ranging from local anti-Chinese labor laws to massacres of laborers) drove Chinese immigrants out of Western states, more families settled in Boston. San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake destroyed immigration records, enabling thousands of Chinese immigrants to claim citizenship and bring their wives and children into the country. Bribery and falsified documents enabled Chinese women to come to Boston via the Canadian border. In the 1930s, Chinese women formed the New England Chinese Women’s Association, actively campaigning for Chinese nationalist causes and the end of Japanese occupation of China. Amelia Earhart led women’s programs at the Denison House in Chinatown in the late 1920’s. Five years after she left Boston, 18-year-old Chinatown native Rose Lok flew solo from Logan Airport as one of the first Chinese female pilots in history.
“Death, disease, poverty, and loneliness:” Even before City Hall’s 1956 Urban Renewal plan called for the destruction of 90% of Chinatown’s residential space, Boston’s government had been trying to clear the “filth” for half a decade. The widening of Harrison Avenue in 1893 was a first attempt to drive out residents; the noise and pollution brought by the elevated “El” tram in 1900 drove out everyone except the Chinese. By the 1960s, construction of the Massachusetts Turnpike and expansion of Tufts Medical Center had reduced Chinatown’s land base by half and displaced hundreds of families. Boston’s adult entertainment district moved adjacent to Chinatown with Boston City Council approval in the 1960’s. It separated Chinatown from Boston with a “Combat Zone:” an industry of adult films, brothels, and prostitution. After advocacy by Chinese civic leaders and local families to eliminate the area and economic changes, Chinese and Vietnamese business owners established themselves in this area during the 1980’s.