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This Lunar New Year, Boston’s Chinatown is at a crossroads

Pei Ying Yu (left) greeted a friend as she shopped for Lunar New Year at the C-Mart Supermarket on the edge of Chinatown.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Just across the Mass. Pike from Chinatown, C-Mart was abuzz with the kind of energy seen at supermarkets only on the cusp of a huge holiday.

Pei Ying Yu was among the throngs considering produce and waiting in line at the deli. She had big plans. The Lunar New Year is Saturday and she will prepare eight dishes plus a soup. She traversed the aisles here for more than an hour, hunting for sales, lamenting some prices.

“It’s important to cook the traditional foods to celebrate,” she said Wednesday through an interpreter.

The Lunar New Year, commonly called the Spring Festival in China, is the most significant annual celebration in this corner of Boston, a rolling series of festivities that highlights the hope a new year brings with dinners, dances, concerts, banquets, and parades scheduled across several weeks. It’s when families get together to celebrate their heritage and honor their ancestors.

Pei Ying Yu shopped for Lunar New Year at the C-Mart Supermarket on the edge of Chinatown.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

“It’s like Thanksgiving,” Suzanne Lee, a retired educator and Chinatown resident, said recently. “No matter how far you are, you come home.”

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But that home, one of Boston’s smallest neighborhoods, an ethnic enclave with a rich history in the city’s urban core, is changing. Talk to seemingly anyone in Chinatown and they’ll say that displacement is the largest concern. And demographic data back up the notion that the effects of years-long gentrification are roiling the neighborhood.

Officially, more than 4,200 residents live within about one-fifth of a square mile. (Advocates have long challenged the population estimate here as severely undercounted.) Space is tight; greenery is hard to find. Mostly, it’s an urban canyon of concrete and brick, tight, bustling streets with restaurants and shops at ground level and apartments above.

According to city figures, about 64 percent of the neighborhood’s population identifies as Asian or Pacific Islander. Half the population is foreign-born, with just under half of all Chinatown residents speaking Mandarin or Cantonese at home. There was a time when those numbers were much higher, said Karen Chen, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association. An old master plan for the neighborhood estimated that in 1990, 91 percent of residents were Chinese.

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A quarter-century of gentrification has already significantly altered the makeup of Chinatown. Housing displacement is such a dominant concern that, on the eve of the Lunar New Year, some Chinatown luminaries are considering existential questions.

“The biggest threat is still the survival of Chinatown,” Lee said.

Pei Ying Yu crossed Washington Street before shopping for the Lunar New Year at the C-Mart Supermarket on the edge of Chinatown.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

This is not a new prognostication. In 1994, then-mayor Thomas Menino said bringing more affordable housing to Chinatown was one of his priorities. “Chinatown is a unique neighborhood that is being pressed in on all sides,” he said at the time.

Three years later, one Globe op-ed column warned, “This could be the beginning of the demise of residential Chinatown.” In 2002, it was similar doom-and-gloom with one resident flatly stating, “Chinatown is disappearing.”

Chinatown’s history explains some of the pessimism. It has long been buffeted by outside forces and suffered from political marginalization in decades past. Last year, Frank Chin, long seen as the neighborhood’s political godfather, died. Some say the role filled by “Uncle Frank,” as he was known, cannot be duplicated. Others maintain Chinatown has matured politically, that the days of a few political gatekeepers representing the community are over.

The city’s current mayor, Michelle Wu, is the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, speaks fluent Mandarin, and is among the highest-profile Asian American politicians in the country. Wu, who grew up in Illinois, has spoken eloquently about what the neighborhood means to her.

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Still, Chinatown has never produced a city councilor. Lee came closest, in 2011, when she finished 97 votes shy of Bill Linehan from South Boston.

Meanwhile, construction of the Central Artery and the Massachusetts Turnpike took sizable bites out of Chinatown decades ago, and the steady expansion of Tufts Medical Center ate away at blocks.

Now, the change comes from a more amorphous source: capitalism that exacerbates the housing crisis.

For Paul Lee, a retired corporate attorney who was among the first Asian American partners at a major law firm in Boston, the problem of gentrification in Chinatown is huge. The lack of affordable housing is a result of skyrocketing housing costs, inflation, and a complex approval process that causes delays, which in turn add costs. Building a unit of affordable housing is more expensive now than before the pandemic, he said.

”There’s a limited amount of land and housing available,” Lee said.

Angie Liou, executive director of the Chinatown-based Asian Community Development Corporation, said the neighborhood is seeing the same housing pressures that it faced before the pandemic.

”When people are looking for housing, there’s just no option,” she said.

Her organization currently manages about 400 affordable units; about 250 more are in the pipeline. When asked if demand would outstrip that supply, she doesn’t hesitate: “Oh yeah.”

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With rising construction costs, Liou said, the only way for affordable housing to be built in Chinatown is if a project is underpinned with lots of public subsidies.

“We want it to be an authentic and living neighborhood,” she said. “That’s what makes it feel real. It still has a soul.”

Some worry the characteristics that make Chinatown what it is are slipping away. Suzanne Lee, 73, is concerned that Cantonese restaurants in Chinatown could cease to exist “within my lifetime,” once unthinkable for a nook of the city known for its food options.

The housing crisis is a problem throughout Greater Boston. But here, the issue is typically pointed.

Chen, of the Chinese Progressive Association, shared an anecdote of two men currently renting out a single bed in a room. One works days, she said, the other nights, so they alternate sleeping in the bed, each paying about $350 a month.

Amid such challenges, many first-generation immigrants and working-class Chinese Americans still look to Chinatown for their day-to-day needs, as they have for more than a century. A plaque at Ping On Alley memorializes the city’s first Chinese immigrants, who pitched their tents there starting in 1875.

At the C-Mart Supermarket, Yu selected what she needed for the New Year’s celebration — fried pork skin because fish skin is too expensive — and chatted with other shoppers in Cantonese and the Taishanese dialect.

Yu’s story is all too common in Chinatown. Yu grew up in Taishan, China, and moved to Boston in 2010. She thought it would be easier to find work here and that the health care would be better. Plus, she had relatives here.

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She lived on Hudson Street in a one-bedroom with her younger sister and another roommate. In 2015, she was evicted after a new owner purchased the property, she said. Now retired from her job in home health care, she lives in the South End. But Chinatown is still her anchor.

On Wednesday, after her shopping excursion, she walked back into Chinatown, to her old apartment. Part of it was boarded up; it’s still under construction.

“They built this big building and they’re not even renting it out,” she said. “So many people need housing.”

Jeremiah Manion of Globe staff contributed to this report.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him @Danny__McDonald.