Gaining a Sense of Home in Chinatown

by Danielle Ngo

A little more than a year ago, I moved to Boston after a lifetime in California. I moved here by myself, without knowing any friends or family or tangential acquaintances to speak of. I’m a dual-degree UEP/AFE student and just completed my first year out of three over in Medford/Somerville. Now in my “first year” at Friedman, I’m feeling déjà vu. “Where are you from?” “How long have you been in Boston?” “Where do you live?” All the answers to these questions deceive my self-imposed, overly-complicated place-based identity.

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At CPA’s Block Party, an elder pauses in the middle of a watermelon eating contest to size up his opponents.

After a year at UEP, I spent my summer down the street, interning at the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA). On paper, I interned at CPA to support the Chinatown Community Land Trust (CCLT) as a Tisch Summer and CORE Fellow. I worked on affordable housing issues through historic preservation and tax incentive programs. In hindsight, what I gained most from interning at CPA was the sense of family that I longed for and huge sense of respect towards the Chinatown community. In the process of doing some pretty dry research for the CCLT, I soaked up some oral history of Chinatown through conversations with CPA staff and members.

CPA is a minute (really!) walk from the doors of Jaharis, on the first floor of the Metropolitan Building, sitting atop Parcel C, at the corner of Ash and Nassau. In 1993, the New England Medical Center made an offer to the City of Boston over Parcel C, with the plans of building an eight-story parking garage. In what is noted as an environmental justice and community organizing victory, that plan for Parcel C was cancelled. Instead, the Metropolitan was built and provides 284 units of market-rate and affordable housing, underground parking, and office space for community-based organizations, such as CPA.

CPA, as an organization, started much earlier. In 1977, Suzanne Lee founded CPA while organizing Chinatown parents during the city-wide busing struggle, a time when Boston assigned students to schools outside of their neighborhoods in an attempt to desegregate the public schools. Since then, CPA has organized and accomplished many victories for the Chinatown community across housing, labor, language access, voter turnout, youth engagement, and more.

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A mural piece in ACDC’s office depicting some historic organizing struggles.

CPA’s office is bursting with such stories about community history, struggles, and victory, making my internship all the more immersing in Chinatown. Back home, I grew up in the suburbs of San Diego, and I was unfamiliar with the unique characteristics a Chinatown could have. Here, there are family associations run through traditional family clans that double as benevolent associations, community organizations, and landowners. There are many Chinese dialects spoken, primarily Cantonese, Mandarin, and Toisanese. Many of the Chinese elders used to work in Boston’s garment factories and restaurants. Josiah Quincy School offers classes in English and Mandarin for a full immersive bilingual education.

With such a vibrant character, I am glad there are organizations like CPA that provide a space for residents and community members to address their concerns. Chinatown is fairly well connected to transportation, but at the same time, they face environmental justice concerns from the air pollution generated from I-93. With the 2016 presidential election in mind, it’s reassuring to know CPA campaigned for Governor Patrick to sign into law the Chinese and Vietnamese bilingual ballots through Boston home rule petition. Over the summer, CPA’s Worker Center successfully aided 236 home care workers employed by Medical Resources to unionize, the first union in their industry in the nation.

I am trying my best to share these stories and take them for more than referential knowledge. I want to use these stories to contextualize my own experience in Boston, and hopefully help my peers at Friedman do so in their own way. To many people and at many times, I am merely a Friedman student, and yet another temporary visitor feeding upon Boston’s academic capital. However, I am working on consciously and intentionally being a solid community member to Chinatown and other neighborhoods I live in (eat, work, sleep, play). In this past summer alone, I reached the basic level of familiarity to its history, present day, and people, enough to feel a second home in this pocket of Boston.

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View from the Metropolitan, onlooking the historic row houses in the foreground, affordable housing complex Tai Tung Village in the middle, and I-90 in the background.

I don’t mean to say that I belong in Chinatown, but I do mean to say that Chinatown reminds me of home, and I want others to feel the same way, in their own way. I want my peers at Friedman to step outside of the so-New England brick walls and eat at a local restaurant. My top favorites are a bánh mì from New Saigon, super cheap ($4.99!) lunch special from Jade Garden, or box of rolled rice noodles from May’s Bakery (once they’re done with construction!). I want my peers at Friedman to know that Chinatown is much more than Tufts’ “Downtown Boston” campus, and that two-thirds of the land is still a vibrant community for grandparents, working adults, and youth (aside: May we please say that our campus is in Chinatown, not Downtown Boston? It’s very squarely in Chinatown). I want my peers at Friedman to feel like Chinatown can be a second home of sorts to them, as well. Whether if you’re coming from similarly far distances like me, plus or minus the rest of Earth’s circumference, I invite you to join me in appreciating Chinatown, its history, its present day, and its people.

Danielle Ngo is a second-year UEP/AFE student from Escondido, CA. In her spare time, she enjoys playing ultimate frisbee and watching endless amounts of YouTube videos.

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