No Secret

Local writer Cynthia Yee shares with us a few excerpts from her new creative non-fiction piece, “No Secret”

 116 Hudson Street in Boston’s Chinatown.  Image courtesy of Cynthia Yee

116 Hudson Street in Boston’s Chinatown.

Image courtesy of Cynthia Yee

I grew up in a world of secrets and transgressions, surrounded by mystery, embraced by hope.  Breaking rules was not so bad if somebody loved you.


MaMa was a baptized Catholic, but not for the reasons one might think.  She wanted to adopt a boy.  She learned that, in America, Catholic Charities gave out boys.  MaMa felt it was her duty to provide a son to pray to my Dad in the afterlife, and she had four daughters.                                 

Two nuns visited us and asked about the photos on the wall.  

The first nun pointed to the four photos of my real and fake Grandparents.  

“Who are they?”  “Do you pray to them?”  and then told us we must not do that.  

“They are asking who the photographs are, MaMa.”  “They want to know if you pray to them,” I said.  

MaMa smiled, as if the nuns just could never understand, not in a thousand years. 

The nun then pointed to the sewing machine. 

“Do you sew on that machine?” “Do you sew on Sundays?” and then told us we must not do that, too.

“They want to know if you sew on Sundays,” I said to MaMa.  

MaMa smiled her friendliest smile, the one reserved for Americans, and said, 

Sis-See Dah ah, U li-kee Gar Fe?”  my MaMa’s version of “Sister, you like coffee?” and she offered them fresh cups of coffee with cream and sugar in our best cups and saucers.

After coffee, the nuns got up to leave.  They gave us a present, a framed painting of a pretty white woman with pink cheeks and long brown hair, wearing a veil and a flowing dress, floating above a bush, with a circle around her head, her hands clasped together.  They said, “This is Our Lady of Fatima.”  MaMa smiled, nodded, and took the framed picture from them. She hung it next to the black and white photos of my real and fake Grandparents.  I don’t think MaMa knew the right answers to the nuns’ questions, but whether Immigration or the nuns came to visit, we were now all set.  MaMa believed in the promises of America and in Heavens’ blessings, in equal measure.  

My Dad said, “We don’t need a boy.  We live in America now, and the King of England has a daughter and she is the Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth.  Even the President of the United States has daughters.  My daughters are fine.  Cynthia is fine.”  MaMa smiled at me, and said, “That’s why you are a Little Girl Emperor, because your BaBa thinks like that.  Like an American.”


Well, Sally was a sight that made you stop what you were doing, and take notice.  Everybody, up and down my street, had black hair.  Unless they were old.  Then they had gray hair, or no hair.  Sally, on the other hand, had red hair some days, pink hair other days, orange hair, when she felt like it, and on some days, if she got the formula mixed up, she had purple hair with pink highlights.  She wore a lightweight housedress with a collar, four buttons in a row that ran down the front, beginning at her chest and ending at her middle, and a flair skirt that swirled.  Her round breasts hung low, almost down to her waist, and she wore shoes with thick heels. She had the look of a disposable doll, frumpy and well filled out, a doll one would not miss much if it disappeared. On sunny days, she wore sunglasses with bold red frames.  Nylon stockings rolled up at her ankles and red rouge smeared on her cheeks, she looked a bit like the clown I saw at the circus the nuns took us to see, but she was not the smiling kind of clown.  Her face wore an unwavering seriousness, and her walk spoke a focused determination. All the women on my street sewed at home, but Sally did not sew, and she did not stay at home. She followed old men home.

I watched this happen over and over again.  The old man, signaling her, looked to his right, then to his left.  He caught her eye with his eye, a whisper, or a small wave of his hand.  Then he looked away.  He pretended not to know her.  She followed. I thought it a call and response game. The old man slithered off, hands in his pocket, glancing over his shoulder.  Sometimes I felt the signal coming before the man made it.  The old men tried not to look obvious.  That was the first sign.  Trying to look invisible.  I did not blink.  The men slinked away and Sally followed, muttering under her breath.  Never too close.  

Sally’s visits to old men in the attics and rooming houses of Chinatown, and following old men home, made me wonder what she did exactly.  She answered to “Rose” and sometimes to “Mary.”  I wondered if the nuns had named her Mary.  They gave that name a lot to Chinatown girls registering for the public school next to the convent.  Jesus’ MaMa’s name came up when we got toys at their Christmas party, and so did Mary Magdalene, a loose woman.  Children called her Sally.  “Here comes Sally in the Alley!  Three bucks a throw,” we chanted as she walked down the street on one of her missions. No matter that she did not live in an alley.  She lived in a red brick row house, like mine, next to the convent.  We didn’t know what a “throw” meant.  We liked rhyming.  A Lo-Fan, a barbarian, a white woman, a woman with neither husband nor children, living in Chinatown, alone.  Sally stood out.  

This is a work of creative non fiction.   

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first significant law restricting immigration to the United States based on ethnicity.  It outlawed intermarriage and barred paths to citizenship.  The Chinese adaptation to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the creation of a system of paper sons, whereby young boys were claimed as legal sons by Chinese American fathers.  These young boys and young men came to work and sent home remittances to support their families and clans.  Though the Exclusion Act was eventually repealed in 1943, allowing 105 visas per year for the Chinese, the repercussions of this Exclusion Act continued for four generations.  The Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949 further exacerbated the fracturing of Chinese American families when diplomatic ties between the United States and the Peoples Republic of China were suspended.  The men who came to work became stranded and many lived in the attics and rooming houses of Boston’s Chinatown.

Cynthia Yee, who grew up in Boston Chinatown, honors these sojourner men, many of whom were her neighbors and relatives, and who lived and died alone.  She thanks Alysia Abbott, author of “Fairyland,” and in whose Memoir class, Cynthia originally sketched out the “Sally” story.  “Thank you, Alysia, for reminding me every time we met, how much you liked my Chinatown stories, even remembering my Sally story, long after the class had ended.”  Cynthia also thanks Professor of Narrative Journalism, Mark Kramer, for advising her, even though he said, “It feels l like I am feeding a baby bird who keeps turning its head.”  To him, Cynthia says, “I listened and collected every word from your mouth, like pearls. Thank you.”

Cynthia looks forward to sharing with us her next piece “Don’t Look” soon!

How a new credit scoring system could help immigrant families purchase their first home

The company that created the popular FICO credit score, Fair Isaac Co, announced earlier this week that they will release another version of the FICO score next year called UltraFICO. The UltraFICO could grant access to credit millions of people who wouldn’t qualify for certain loans using the current FICO score, in particular those who have limited credit history.

UltraFICO will take into consideration a person’s assets, including savings and checking account. People will be able to raise their UltraFICO score through maintaining positive account balances in their bank or by using their bank’s billpay features and demonstrating responsible money management. A Fair Isaac rep said that there are 53 million people who do not have a FICO score and UltraFICO will catch upwards of 15 million of them.

ACDC serves hundreds of families each year through housing and financial education workshops. One topic that regularly trips up our clients is credit. We provide credit building seminars to teach people the basics of credit. Because many of our clients have only been in America for a few years, they often don’t have long credit histories and as a result, they have a hard time getting mortgage ready. Sometimes only when they decide to apply for a mortgage do they realize that their credit score is low or even non-existent.

We hope that new credit tools such as UltraFICO will open up more opportunities for our clients on their journey to home ownership.

If you’re interested in speaking with one of our housing and financial counselors for a free 1on1 consultation, please contact us.

Meet one of our Malden youth!

Over 20% of the population of Malden is Asian. Malden High School represents the most ethnically diverse high school in Massachusetts. Located just 5.5 miles north of Boston, along the Orange Line, Malden continues to be a hub for new immigrant families, especially for families that have been priced out of Boston’s expensive housing market.

We knew there was demand for a youth program for Asian American youth because we already had a number of Malden youth travel into Boston weekly to be a part of our Chinatown A-VOYCE program. Earlier this year, we launched our A-VOYCE high school youth leadership program, conveniently held at Malden High School, with an initial group of 8 youth. During the summer, the program expanded to 15 youth, all from Malden. ACDC recently opened a Malden office across the street from the high school, so still very accessible to students.

One of the summer program youth leaders, My Hua, shared her perspective on growing up in Malden:

 My (on the left) with friends at Coytemore Lea Park.

My (on the left) with friends at Coytemore Lea Park.

“Hi! My name is My, and I’m a senior at Malden High School. I've lived in Malden ever since I moved here from Vietnam when I was only a year old. I have 2 siblings, a sister and brother, but my family feels so much larger than that because I was raised close to my cousins. Which I have 14 of! On my mom's side alone!

Living in Malden has always been pleasant, it's so familiar and secure to me yet always changing its shops, residents, programs, and activities. The city continues to grow and improve—just like me!

For one of our workshops, we asked youth to write about some of their favorite hangout spots in Malden. This is what My wrote.

To grow and improve myself, I joined A-VOYCE. The program gave me the learning opportunity to speak up and make a change in the city that I’ve always called my home. I’m really grateful for being able to be a part of the program, and I’m always telling others to join as well ! ” 
— My Hua

“Coytemore Lea Park is an easily accessible park that is really pretty and large. I go there often with friends, especially since they live near the park, and it's fun to go to when the weather is warm.

The park has a lot of pleasant attractions for everyone to enjoy. There is one main path that stretches through from one side of the park to the other. There is a large playground in the middle of the park, a small seating area, a basketball court, and even a public garden. This is a place to me that holds special memories. Both my family and friends like to walk around the neighborhood, and we often come to this park. Going to the park always results in a good time for me, no matter what.

The park looked different a couple years ago. It was the same size, but the playground was tiny and the main path was a dirt path. Whenever it rained, the path would turn into mud puddles and would make it slippery for me to walk. I hated it! Malden eventually renovated the park into what it looks like today, but that isn't the end of the story.

It is the community’s job to maintain the park and keep it clean, especially the public garden. But some park goers allow their kids to run in the garden and trample the plants and flowers planted in there, making the garden very unpleasant to look at for the rest of the community who go to the park. However, members of the community soon worked together to try and regrow the garden. Today the garden is in the progress of becoming a really beautiful place to plant vegetables and flowers. Plus, parents are a lot more careful with their kids playing inside there now.

The park’s improvement truly makes me proud to be a part of the community, and I believe it will improve even more to years to come – for generations of families and friends to enjoy.”

We are excited to bring more Malden youth perspectives, like My’s, for you to enjoy. My, it’s great to have you as part of the ACDC family!

If you want to support more young leaders like My, please consider making a donation: