In 1960, the US census counted only 100 people of Asian descent living in Quincy. Today, the number of Asian Americans has grown to more than 28,000, nearly 30 percent of the city’s population. Quincy now has the highest concentration of Asian Americans of any municipality in Massachusetts, and as generations of Asian families now call it home, they are increasingly shaping the city’s culture — and its future.
“Much of the talk about the expansion of Quincy is the physical manifestations of change" — the new streetscape, buildings, and businesses, said Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “But just as important is the changing demographics of Quincy, which has been about as dramatic as anything. It has significantly transformed Quincy."
With its proximity to Boston, low cost of housing, and highly rated schools, Quincy is “still affordable enough for immigrants and families to move here," said Ben Hires, chief executive of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center.
Hires, who took his job in June, draws parallels between Boston’s Chinatown of 50 years ago and Quincy today. He said the BCNC emerged at a time when the city’s Chinese community was seeking greater access to city services and health care.
“I think today in Quincy there’s a connection to that story,” he said. “There’s still a need to connect resources and language and make sure that the institutions that make up a community are open to the people who live there.”
To that effect, the BCNC last year opened a branch on Hancock Street in downtown Quincy to provide English classes, youth leadership programs, and workforce training to the city’s new arrivals. It’s one of a handful of charities that have expanded their reach from Boston’s Chinatown into Quincy to serve the growing Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, and Filipino communities.
And that need has grown fast amid the pandemic.
“We’ve seen an uptick in three times more [people using services] because of COVID-19, as the community continues to grow," Hires said. He’s hoping that spurs more Asian Americans in Quincy to play a larger role in city politics and civic life. “With a city in transition, it’s a question of representation where it matters most."
The process is underway: Tackey Chan has served the district as a state representative for nearly a decade, and in 2016 Nina Liang and Noel DiBona were the first Asian Americans elected to the Quincy City Council. This year, Liang, a first-generation Chinese American, was sworn in as the council’s president, the first person of color to hold the position.
Liang, whose family owns the Fuji restaurants chain in Greater Boston, said she first took an interest in politics when the city government started a major construction project outside her family’s storefront.
“We had a couple businesses that were directly in front of the massive hole in the ground," Liang recalled. "It was really frustrating; we wanted the revitalization and to see Quincy Center thrive. But I felt really left out of the conversation.”
Today, one of Liang’s key goals is ensuring that the city’s growing immigrant populations get the access that she craved. She’s been pushing the city to offer more translation services for its public meetings, e-mails, and other communications and has been working with Mayor Thomas Koch and other key partners to put them in place.
“We can send out notices about street closures or packages about COVID-19, but as a business owner or resident, if it’s not translated, it’s difficult to grasp fully the value of that resource,” Liang said.
Tim Cahill, president of the Quincy Chamber of Commerce, said that since taking on that role in 2017, he has made it a priority to reach out to Asian American owners of restaurants, salons, and stores in Wollaston and North Quincy that serve Asian immigrants. He has been working closely with Liang to ensure they feel they have representation.
“The language and cultural barriers have been a challenge, and most of these businesses are highly independent,” Cahill said. Recently, the chamber added three Asian American members to its board. “We’re really digging in and trying to get these businesses to be part of the chamber,” Cahill said. “They are becoming more active politically.”
Watanabe said that for all the progress seen by Asian Americans in Quincy, there are still areas where representation falls short. Asian Americans make up 39.5 percent of the city’s public school students, but only 3.5 percent of its teachers. And there’s a similar lack of representation in the fire and police departments. But he said that the Asian American population’s growth fits with the city’s increasing diversity overall, as more Black and Latino families also call Quincy home.
“At the Kam Man supermarket, one can go and see, on any day, large numbers of Asian Americans and other people of color that are utilizing that store for its variety of foods,” Watanabe said. “It’s proven to be a boon for the Asian Americans but the general population, as well, and represents the growing diversity of Greater Boston.”
And while Watanabe said that more diversity has not been without its challenges, he and others have watched as Quincy’s old and new inhabitants have come to celebrate its changing face.
“We’re not building a Chinatown in Quincy," said Philip Chong, chief executive of Quincy Asian Resources Inc., a nonprofit serving immigrant communities. “I think we’re building a Quincy in the identity of the individuals who live there. Quincy Center is such a great opportunity for change . . . You have the benefits of a very diverse culture, and it’s just building off the American Dream we’re all pursuing.”
Read more about Quincy and explore the full On the Street series.