A Chinatown tour guide shares the secrets of her enduring love affair with the neighborhood and community that's become her home.

By Jacqueline Church
April 07, 2020
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My relationship with Chinatown started as many affairs do: intrigue with a hint of danger. Back in those dirty old Boston days, Chinatown’s reputation was pretty dodgy. The "Combat Zone" moniker hung around like the scent of stale beer and smoke the morning after. Walking home through the city at night, I was warned to avoid this neighborhood. That advice always seemed counterintuitive to me, since the rest of the city was dark, while Chinatown was alive with happy people and fully lit with its unique mix of neon and fluorescent light, equal parts charming and hideous.

We have matured, both of us, since those early days and I’d like to think we’re both much improved. Like many a marriage, the zesty early days have matured into a deep, abiding love. A therapist once shared this wisdom with a friend of mine, “It takes a long time to get to know someone.” Indeed, I know her more and appreciate the secrets she still holds. (Chinatown, I mean, not the therapist.) Just a few weeks ago I came upon a basement mahjong parlor I'd never seen before.

Getting to know her

You can still see the name “South Cove” in many of our community organizations. It hints at our origins, as the South Cove of Boston Harbor was landfilled to accommodate a growing city. Beach Street, one of our main thoroughfares, welcomes visitors with a beautiful Paifang—our Chinese gate—and reminds us of our founding in 1806 when it was the beachfront of Boston’s South Cove.

From our Cantonese laborer origins, to a more diverse community today, Chinatown retains deep roots, along with some remnants of ancient tribalism. You might see Mandarin speakers give the slightest shrug or sniff at Cantonese speakers; Taiwanese flags battle for prominence with Chinese flags on the run-up to the October 10 holiday marking Taiwan’s founding as the Republic of China.

I'm well aware that my outsider status and my half-Japanese heritage gives many older Chinese people reason to distrust me, and I’ve tried to earn my way in—respectfully. Early forays into Cantonese restaurants were a great education, but I longed for a little spicy heat. Ultimately, when I asked for chili oil, I learned the saying: “Learn to eat spicy food and you’ll never know the cold.” A poetic way of saying it was OK—maybe I’d waited just long enough to show appreciation for Cantonese restraint. Maybe.

When I began to lead food and culture tours through my adopted neighborhood, I became aware of elder Chinese men lingering around the perimeter of my group. They watch, listen, as I share the philosophy and history of the gate. They observe my enthusiasm and size-up my authenticity. The first nod of approval from one of these Gong Gongs—grandpas—was something I’ll never forget.

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Struggle builds character

This community has weathered many challenges. I often reflect on the outright hostility and assaults our early immigrants faced as racist rhetoric was used to demonize them as predators, criminals, deviants. The union organizers’ endgame was leveraging the fear of "other" to build their membership. The Chinese Exclusion Act is largely unknown in the general population. I invite my guests to imagine leaving your family—in a culture where family is everything—landing in a new country alone, not speaking the native language, with people openly aggressive toward you. How would you fare?

After WWII brought the end of the Exclusion Act era, arriving women enjoyed freedoms here that were uncommon back home. Ruby Foo became a successful restaurateur. Mary Soo Hoo, was a fierce advocate (affordable housing, clearing out the adult theaters) and co-founder of the Sampan, which is the only bilingual Chinese-English newspaper in New England. Many business owners today are one generation away from this generation of founders.

As the population doubled, the residential housing was cut in half to improve highway access. Growing hospitals soon scooped up more property and today, the neighborhood battles the headaches brought on by Airbnb and luxury development. And yet, Chinatown has thrived.

While a couple of empty lots languished, new restaurants arrived. Overall, the neighborhood grew in some ways, shrunk in others. Venerable old restaurants continue, alongside second-generation restaurateurs. The once Cantonese-centric scene has become a diverse and vital destination. Northern / Mandarin, Xi’an, Hunan, Sichuan, Taiwan, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, fancy modern bakeries and traditional ones persist, and the dim sum is amazing. Two large banquet halls were, until recently, still bustling with steam carts in the mornings seven days a week. One is where I was married.

A sign of growing and changing population, recent times have seen public expressions of protest for democracy in Hong Kong as well as some against China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims. Any enduring relationship must be strong enough to hold difference.

While we fight a massive development proposal that would divide the Leather District and wall off Chinatown from her neighbors, adding zero housing, affordable or not, we consider the long shadows cast by history. The next chapter in this grand dame’s story is being written in the notices taped on quiet storefronts. We cannot know yet whether our Chinatown community will have resilience enough to survive this current challenge. I will be here to help give it every chance and one small outsider’s voice.

Here are some places I love and long to return to:

For dim sum

Hei La Moon

We had our Chinese wedding here, and HK relatives raved. It's a classic Cantonese dim sum / banquet house with all the classics like har gow and yuchi gow, plus some Sichuan additions like cold poached chicken in chili sauce. The OG cart includes sticky, sweet, savory, and spicy chicken feet.

88 Beach St.

China Pearl

It's a venerable multi-generational spot and the only place where Hai Kim (giant stuffed crab claw) is available on the regular.

9 Beach St.

For barbecue

I take my tours to Great BBQ for fantastic char siu and great duck, and I crave the soy sauce chicken legs, terrific cuttlefish and duck at Best BBQ.

15 Hudson St. / 86 Beach St.

For inexpensive HK diner-style

Hong Kong Eatery

Think quick and comforting wonton mein with a side of great barbecue.

79 Harrison Ave.

For home cooks

Empress Delicacies

This is my go-to for dried Hokkaido scallops essential in homemade XO sauce (they also sell a great one) and fancy fried rice as well as all the sea cucumber your herbalist recommends.

36 Harrison Ave.

For Cantonese seafood

Jade Garden

Fish tanks in the window signal a true Cantonese seafood house. Their white board (in Chinese and English) tips you off to the freshest catches. Don't miss garlic scallops on bean thread noodles served on the shell.

20 Tyler St.

For your bakery cravings

Ho Yuen

Savor old school faves, mooncakes large and small, and as a bonus you can watch the bakers working if you linger a bit over your choice.

54 Beach St.

For your Mala fix

Taiwan Cafe

Enjoy ethereal fish hot pot, xiao long bao, and Taiwanese comfort foods. Make sure to try the dry fried green beans.

34 Oxford St.

Five Spice House

This newer spot is quickly getting a reputation for the numbing tingling (ma) and spicy (la) flavors

58 Beach St.

For Peking duck and Northern specialties

China King

Visit the only true Peking duck in Chinatown and ask Doris for the wonderful braised lamb—which is not on the menu).

60 Beach St.

Jacqueline Church is a freelance writer and owner of Boston Chinatown Tours. Ask her sometime about what it’s like to marry the favorite son in a Cantonese family. Better yet, ask her to come eat with you in Chinatown.