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How Boston’s Chinatown dining scene came to be

An anthropologist on 150 years of Asian food.

In 1920s Chinatown, popular restaurants like Hon Hong Low attracted non-Chinese customers.CHSNE Archive

Always look up when you’re in Chinatown, my colleague said, for a sense of the people who’ve been here before us and for the real life of a place. He’s of an old Chinatown family, and we were looking up, above the restaurants and shops, at the sign for the family name association he belongs to. It’s an association that has existed in Chinatown for about five generations, originally helping newly arriving immigrants who shared the same surname to find work and housing — and creating a sense of community around a shared dialect, too.

Boston’s Chinatown population really began to swell in the last quarter of the 19th century as Chinese workers, many from the railroad, came east. The neighborhood developed its own social structure based on alliances for newcomers from different clans in China. Eating establishments sprang up to feed the new arrivals— men learned to cook and took charge of the kitchens, as no women came early on. Because Chinatown’s inhabitants were mostly from southern China, specifically Guangdong Province, Cantonese cuisine ruled the day.


More non-Chinese, flappers and lounge lizards among them, began to visit Chinatown in the 1920s, drawn by food both exotic and cheap. Restaurants were open late, attracting young couples after dances and shows. And when World War II brought sailors to the Combat Zone (now the Theatre District), some of the scandalous overtones of the nearby bar, dance hall, and bordello area crept into Chinatown.

The first non-southern Chinese food — called mandarin, northern, or Peking style — appeared in the neighborhood in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (Shanghai, at that time, was considered northern.) The names greatly oversimplified the huge diversity of China’s regional cuisines but at least introduced Bostonians to more dishes. The New Shanghai Restaurant offered many of us a first taste of crispy Peking duck. (It quickly became my family’s special treat on birthdays.)


During that era, Cambridge restaurateur Joyce Chen helped bring regional Chinese food to national consciousness and Bostonians to a higher level of connoisseurship. She was one of two J.C.s in town in the ’60s and ’70s, the other being, of course, Julia Child. In her televised cooking show and best-selling cookbook, Chen put “real” Chinese food within reach of home cooks. More non-Chinese came to Chinatown to shop for ingredients, feeling empowered to make dan dan mian and other “restaurant” dishes.

After the Vietnam War, Chinese-Vietnamese immigrants, too, began settling in Chinatown, eventually starting their own restaurants. In the 1980s, Chinese from other parts of Asia, including Thailand and Malaysia, brought those cuisines to the scene. Finally came the American sushi “boom”— most sushiya in Greater Boston are owned by Chinese, and some Koreans.

Chinatown is still the place to go for many regional Chinese foods — especially for dim sum, which few people make at home. Students in my food anthropology course enjoy it at restaurants like Chau Chow City, China Pearl, and Hei La Moon. I remind them, though, that dim sum lacks the shape, the template of a traditional Chinese meal, which includes soups and rice, etc. Instead, it’s a social event, a way of getting together with family and friends over tea and snacks — a pastime that never gets old.

Merry White is a cultural anthropologist at Boston University. Her most recent book is “Coffee Life in Japan.” Send comments to magazine@globe.com.