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Boston’s Chinatown is poised on a precipice

On her 57th birthday, Cui Li Chen sat on her bed waiting for her husband to come home. The couple share a cramped three-bedroom walkup sublet in Chinatown with five other people. There is just enough room to stand in the tiny bedroom, the only room they have to themselves. They had their own apartment until a landlord forced them out of their home when they were away visiting their son.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Every morning, Gaoxin Wu descends the stairs from his third-floor apartment for his daily walk through Chinatown, and each door on his way down to Beach Street has a fading red-and-gold Chinese prayer poster on it.

They are, for him, reminders not of tradition, but of change — and loss.

Not that long ago, every apartment in the building was occupied by immigrants from China. But after the rent went up recently, there are now foreign exchange students and a young white couple in the small building.

Outside, the 62-year-old Wu dodges business people in suits with briefcases cutting through the neighborhood as he makes his way to the Chinatown Gate, a symbolic entryway where Asian immigrants gather for card games and camaraderie, before heading off to work at local restaurants.


Gaoxin Wu enjoyed his lunch of noodle soup in the kitchen of his Beach Street apartment. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

For years, every step along his walk was an uninterrupted reminder of his heritage, one Chinese-run business after another: menus in traditional Chinese in some windows, roasted duck in others, and during Chinese New Year, doorsteps dotted with heads of lettuce and oranges soliciting good fortune.

Now, he is surrounded by the strange and new: an upscale eatery that charges $15 for a soup bowl of noodles around the corner from an old-timey place where a full meal still goes for $7; gimmicky chain stores offering bubble tea that draw outsiders, but not so much locals. There are tourists wheeling luggage to Airbnb rentals in the old row houses that generations of Chinese immigrants can no longer afford.

A block or so from the Chinatown Gate one recent morning, five Asian elders meditated in silence in a sidewalk park. They sat on the ground cross-legged, their heads bowed, hard in the shadows of the Radian, a new glass apartment tower where a 911-square-foot, one-bedroom unit can go for nearly $6,000 a month.


As downtown Boston has experienced a residential boom, new buildings such as the Radian form a kind of castle keep that hem in Chinatown at its borders; and now, as the changes in Wu’s own building on Beach Street show, Chinatown is beginning to be hollowed out from within, one family at a time displaced by rising rents and condo conversions.

A cyclist left Mary Soo Hoo Park past the Chinatown gate and headed toward the luxury residential towers that now encroach on the neighborhood.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The changes are a source of alarm. Locals say the threat to their neighborhood culture is no longer abstract, that Boston is in danger of losing its last true, historically ethnic enclave.

“Chinese people will not be able to live in Chinatown,” Wu said through an interpreter, “and Chinatown will be a community without Chinese people.”

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The Sun Sun Supermarket closed three years ago, along with other neighborhood grocers that catered to local customs. The Twin Dragon Seafood market on Tyler Street that supplies local businesses with fresh, raw seafood is being displaced by another bubble tea shop, a draw for students and tourists.

“They’re looking for cafes and small eats, instead of sit-down restaurants,” said Kawa Fong, whose family founded the Asian Garden restaurant, now located on Harrison Avenue, nearly 30 years ago. His business has survived thanks to loyal clientele, but he has seen others pushed out.

A shaft of early morning light illuminated a pedestrian passing the Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center and Hong Lok House on Essex Street in Chinatown.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

No one says Chinatown will disappear, at least not as a point on a map. But Paul Watanabe, a professor and director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said gentrification has the potential to convert the neighborhood into nothing more than a Chinese-themed Potemkin Village. That’s just what happened to Chinatowns in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.


“They’re like Disneyland; it’s what we call a Chinatown without the Chinese,” said Watanabe, who has studied the neighborhood for years.

Over the last two decades, more than 2,000 housing units have been built in Chinatown or on its edges, in high-end developments such as Millennium Place, Radian, and the Kensington, according to the Chinatown Community Land Trust, which works with the city and other groups to preserve housing.

They are gleaming architectural newcomers that tower over rows of small, century-old brick buildings, some covered in graffiti, others sporting neon storefront signs.

According to the Chinatown Community Land Trust data, the first half of the modern building boom saw only 14 percent of the development set aside as affordable. Since 2010, the record is somewhat better, with 30 percent of units carrying income restrictions.

Vicky Chen (left) and ZhiQiang Zheng practiced introducing themselves in Mandarin. Kindergartners study Mandarin in teacher Xiao Ping Xie's class at the Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Chinatown.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

As a result, the neighborhood’s demographics have shifted, according to the Chinatown Community Land Trust: Only 58 percent of the neighborhood’s residents were Asian in 2017, compared with almost 70 percent in 2000. Citywide, Asians make up 10 percent of the population. Asian communities have moved to Malden or Quincy or the suburbs.

And things have the potential to get worse. In 2018, the median rent for a new one-bedroom on the market was $2,875 a month, and $3,500 for a two-bedroom — beyond the means of working-class immigrants such as Wu. This is a community in which nearly 70 percent of households earn less than $50,000, according to city figures.


In 2000, 62 percent of housing in the Chinatown area was set aside for low-income residents, while 21 percent was available at market value. Today, that balance has effectively flipped: Now just 30 percent of the housing stock is for low-income residents, while 53 percent goes at market rates.

Community groups have been agitating for more protections from City Hall for years, and their most recent efforts are taking on an urgent tone.

Earlier this year, residents organized a rally calling for the city to lay out new zoning rules that would protect row houses from redevelopment; that request is being reviewed as part of the city’s new master plan.

More recently, in October, dozens of residents gathered at the Josiah A. Quincy School for a community input session on preserving the neighborhood’s historical and cultural identity.

Lydia Lowe, executive director of the land trust, said the recent actions are intended to preserve not only Chinatown’s affordability, but also its character.

Residents made sure everyone was fed at the Stabilize Chinatown Block Party at the corner of Maple Place and Johnny Court in Chinatown.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

“Will [Chinatown] still play a core role as an anchor for immigrant working-class families, as it has since the 1880s?” Lowe asked. “Are the businesses going to be here to support that kind of life, the immigrant working-class life in the community, or are they just going to be catering to tourists and foreign students?”

The preservation of existing affordable housing is the only reason that what’s left of Chinatown remains, Lowe said. The city needs to move much more quickly to keep what’s left, she added, like imposing immediate zoning changes to protect the stock of row houses. The law the city passed in 2017 regulating Airbnb and other short-term rental platforms has helped somewhat to blunt the industry’s impact in the neighborhood.


“We’re trying to encourage the city that we need to be bolder, because the market is so bold, and aggressive,” she said. “I think the problem is we’re too slow, and the market moves very fast.”

City officials say they recognize the value of an authentic Chinatown, and the need to support existing residents and small businesses. They are pushing for more housing for lower-income people, and — despite the proliferation of luxury apartment buildings — are posting small victories.

Meiho Kung and Weng Ngan Hum enjoyed a dance class at the Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center on Essex Street in Chinatown. About 30 women joined in for two hours of dance in several styles.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Millennium Partners, the developer behind the Winthrop Square tower and other new expensive residences nearby, agreed to use some of its city-mandated mitigation payments to help community groups build 168 units of affordable housing on a small, city-owned lot in Chinatown.

Separately, in October, the developer of 232 housing units in a 20-story tower at the Motor Mart Garage on Stuart Street — on the neighborhood’s western border — agreed to fund 42 new income-restricted housing units in Tai Tung Village on Harrison Avenue, in the heart of Chinatown.

“We’re just trying to push a big pipeline of affordable housing in Chinatown,” said Sheila Dillon, the city’s chief of housing and neighborhood development. “I think that’s how we’re going to save Chinatown housing, by building enough so that [the neighborhood] retains its character.”

She sees hope, pointing out that by 2017, the number of Asian residents living in Chinatown started to stabilize after drops in previous years, thanks to efforts to preserve what remained of the housing they can afford.

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Until the early 1800s the area around present-day Beach Street was tidal flats. Once filled in, city officials pushed for new housing to lure workers for the area’s growing manufacturing companies. A succession of ethnic groups made their homes there: white Protestants, followed by Irish, Jewish, Italian, and Syrian immigrants. Chinese immigrants began arriving in the early 1890s to work in the garment industry, which provided steady employment for 100 years.

However, it took far longer for the Chinese to gain political clout than other ethnic groups, in large part because of the Exclusion Act of 1882. In its various forms over several decades, the federal law prevented Chinese laborers from bringing their wives and children into the United States and prohibited them from becoming American citizens. It was not repealed until 1943.

Without a political franchise, local historians said, the concerns of Chinatown residents were pushed aside again and again, as Boston went through successive phases of urban expansion and renewal. When the Massachusetts Turnpike was extended in the early 1960s, it cut right through Chinatown. When Scollay Square was razed in the 1960s, some of its burlesque businesses relocated to the edge of Chinatown along a strip that became known as the Combat Zone. And the steady expansion of Tufts Medical Center over the decades ate away at other blocks in the neighborhood until the 1990s, when residents finally halted a proposed garage for the hospital.

City planners “never recognized there was a residential community in the middle of it,” said Michael Liu, a local activist whose family was one of the first to settle in Chinatown decades ago, and is writing a book on the neighborhood’s history.

Jun Yu, 8, performed a dance on stage in Chinatown during the August Moon festival.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Liu said one catalyst for the Chinese community’s political awakening came in 1985, when an Asian restaurant worker and recent immigrant was severely beaten by a police officer in the Combat Zone in broad daylight. In response, then-mayor Raymond Flynn organized a community meeting, which brought together several factions of neighborhood residents and allowed them to air their grievances.

Today, Chinatown proper has a smaller footprint. It stretches from Essex Street near Downtown Crossing, south to Marginal Road, by the Massachusetts Turnpike; its eastern border is Surface Road, atop the Central Artery, and the western boundary is Charles Street, just past the W Boston boutique hotel.

But those city-drawn parameters don’t recognize how far the neighborhood once reached: across the turnpike and past Herald Square, or into the garment district. Nor do they account for the Chinese elders who had moved into the row houses at the edge of the South End, and the grocery stores and other Asian businesses that sprouted around them.

For the working-class residents who called the area home, it was a way of life that was never limited to one specific boundary, and yet the proliferation of luxury apartment towers and the new people they bring have worked to only condense what is left of Chinatown.

“When it was a working-class neighborhood, no one cared about the borders,” said Karen Chen, of the Chinese Progressive Association.

Suzanne Lee, a former teacher whose grandfather immigrated to Chinatown in the early 1990s, recalled a time when children played in the neighborhood, when locals could both shop and work in neighborhood stores, when the nearby factories provided employment for the entire community, and people who worked there could also afford to live there.

“You’d have this vibrant community scene,” she said, during a recent tour of her neighborhood, by Harrison Avenue.

“This all used to be [affordable] housing,” she said, pointing around her at the luxury condos and Tufts properties. “This is all changing, so much, so fast.”

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Cui Li Chen, 57, and her husband received political asylum and emigrated from Taichan City, China, seven years ago. He used to work in car factories in China; now he works in restaurants in Chinatown. She does odd jobs around the neighborhood. They share a three-bedroom apartment on Hudson Street with an elderly couple and another family, with a young child, but Chen doesn’t know for how much longer. The lease expires next year, and she expects the landlord will raise the rent again — this time, beyond what they can afford.

Just three years ago, Chen and her husband were forced to move out of another apartment only a few row houses down on Hudson, after new owners acquired the place. The new landlord sought to have the building condemned, locking doors and putting up no-trespassing signs. Things happened so fast. Chen didn’t know her tenant rights. She was told she could return once the place was remodeled, but she never did. It was all a ruse, she said, so that the landlord could displace the residents and redevelop the property. Now, those units have been demolished, and new luxury units are being built.

One recent evening, Chen went to the Chinese Progressive Association looking for help, fearing it could happen again.

“I was going to be in the streets,” she said through an interpreter. “My only goal is housing. If you have stable housing, life maybe is better. When you don’t, life can be difficult. It’s been tough for us.”

Karen Chen said she hears similar stories all the time from a steady stream of residents: elders in the last row houses, for example; the barber shop owner facing eviction from a landlord who wants to convert his place to a short-term rental.

“It was once one all-working-class neighborhood,” she said.

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Gaoxin Wu, the 62-year Chinatown resident who walks his neighborhood daily, heads to his local supermarket across busy Surface Road. He passes the famed Hei La Moon banquet hall and enters the CMart Supermarket, which offers the same foods he ate decades ago in his native Fujian province: vermicelli noodles, the familiar red cooking wine. Spare ribs were only $2.18 a pound. He grabs pork belly for his lunch.

Gaoxin Wu waved his arms during his morning exercise walk in the Public Garden. He fears he and his wife are one more rent increase away from having to move out of Chinatown and away from his friends.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Since immigrating to the United States 30 years ago, Wu has always lived in a Chinatown, mostly in Boston but also briefly in Philadelphia; nowhere else can he easily find others who speak his language and know his customs, or stores that stock his foods.

But the CMart supermarket, too, is soon to pass. A developer bought the building that houses the grocery store and banquet hall, with plans for a 24-story office tower — but no housing.

Several years ago Wu asked the Chinese Progressive Association for help when his landlord sought to evict him, so he could impose a big rent increase. Under pressure from housing court, the landlord agreed to let him stay with small yearly increases of $100 a month. But now those are adding up, and Wu expects another when his lease is up in January.

Wu lives on a disability check due to a back injury, and he and his wife have been on a waiting list for public housing for a decade. For now, the couple share their two-bedroom apartment with two elderly Asians who work in restaurants. It’s a tight dark space, with little furniture. A calendar from a Chinese grocer hangs on the refrigerator, and several Chinese newspapers lay on a small table, by a 24-pack of water bottles. Outside, in the hall, a smoke alarm chirped, demanding a new battery.

Back in 2012, when Wu first moved in, rent was roughly $1,200; now it is $1,700, at the limit of what they can afford. The next increase, probably in a few months, Wu said, will be the breaking point.

“We’ll have to leave,” he said. “We’ll have no choice but to leave.”

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.