How Can Artists and Residents Work Together to Shape the Future of Rapidly Changing Chinatown?

Art, like community voices, can be powerful. When art is inspired by community voices and experiences, it can become a tool for change.  

How can we continue to preserve Chinatown through art? How can emerging artists and residents work together to shape the future of a rapidly gentrifying Chinatown? These are some of the questions that we explore at Residence Lab, one of ACDC’s placemaking initiatives that leverages the community’s assets, skills, and experiences to cultivate spaces that foster happiness, engagement, and mobilization, in collaboration with BCNC’s Pao Arts Center. 

This year’s Residence Lab artists are Katytarika Bartel from Angry Asian GirlsPonnapa Prakkamakul, a landscape architect, and Crystal Bi and Lily Xie from Mooneaters Collective. They are working alongside our residents in a seven-week workshop series to co-create the future of Chinatown through art. Our artists use various mediums such as soil, zines, and portrait photography to highlight the narratives of marginalized communities in their work. 

With Chinatown boundaries shrinking under the pressures of gentrification and displacement, we developed the ANCHOR initiative as a strategy to “anchor down” and preserve Chinatown homes, businesses, and cultures through creative collaboration, art activism, and resident mobilization. The acronym serves as guiding principles for this work: 

Activating spaces 

Neighborhood needs 

Community 

Housing 

Open spaces 

Resident-centered 

Photo: A-VOYCE Alumni Zi and Billy in front of the ThinkChinatown Mural “Tied by a Thousand Threads” during the unveiling event

Photo: A-VOYCE Alumni Zi and Billy in front of the ThinkChinatown Mural “Tied by a Thousand Threads” during the unveiling event

In 2016, Billy and Zi, both ACDC youth program alumni, wanted to develop a platform for residents to transform underutilized spaces. With this in mind, they created ThinkChinatown, one of ACDC’s first ANCHOR projects. Yvonne, a Chinatown resident submitted a proposal, which culminated in a collaboration with local artist Shaina Lu, to create the mural, “Tied by a Thousand Threads” currently on display along 15 - 25 Harrison Avenue. This two-part art project, which consisted of the mural and a video documenting the project, not only connected the intergenerational experiences of Yvonne’s immigrant family, but also the shared experiences of the Chinatown community spanning from the early 1900s to today.  

Through ThinkChinatown, ACDC saw the empowerment and mobilization that comes from listening to and prioritizing the voices of the Chinatown community. We recognize the potential that art has in unifying people and advocating for change, which is why we launched Residence Lab.  

We are so excited to learn from the skills and experiences that our artists and residents bring to the table. Stay tuned for a Residence Lab profile series where we highlight each Residence Lab artist and some of our residents! 

Photo: Residents and Artists Lily Xie and Crystal Bi at the Chinatown Backyard

Photo: Residents and Artists Lily Xie and Crystal Bi at the Chinatown Backyard

Thank you again BCNC’s Pao Arts Center for partnering with us. Special thanks to ArtPlace America, Barr Foundation, and Sasaki’s Fabrication Studio Foundation for your generous sponsorship and support in helping make Residence Lab possible.

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The Story of Legendary Asian American Artist, Tyrus Wong

Bambi in Pastel by Tyrus Wong

Bambi in Pastel by Tyrus Wong

Bambi, the Disney Movie

Bambi, the Disney Movie

Many of us have either seen or heard of Disney’s classic animated film, Bambi. The story of the brave, orphaned deer and his faithful rabbit sidekick, has captured the heart of countless Americans since its 1947 release. However, few know the inspiring story of the person who was a major influence on Bambi’s visual aesthetic, Tyrus Wong, a Chinese-born American artist. In a time period when the Chinese were heavily discriminated against and not seen as American, Wong broke societal standards with each stroke of his brush. Weaving Chinese art and Chinese presence into American culture, Tyrus Wong is a symbol of perseverance and resistance for the Asian community. 

“Wong broke societal standards with each stroke of his brush.”
Tyrus as a young man; courtesy of the Wong family

Tyrus as a young man; courtesy of the Wong family

Tyrus Wong was born in the Guangdong province of China and immigrated to America with his father in the late 1910s. As a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Wong was separated from his father at nine years old and lived alone for a month at an immigration station on Angel Island, a center designed to trick and prevent immigrants from entering the US. Tyrus was a self-proclaimed trouble maker at school, playing hooky and doodling instead of paying attention in class. At the time, Asian immigrants often worked at laundromats and restaurants; however, Wong received financial support from his single father to pursue an education at an art school. Living under extreme poverty, Wong practiced painting using newspaper and water. 

 Even at a young age, Tyrus Wong’s work stood out from the rest. He became an extremely versatile artist over the span of his career, mastering watercolor, pastel drawing, calligraphy, and even kite-making. One of Wong’s greatest talents was applying minimalism to convey a story. As Tyrus narrates in the opening of Tyrus, a documentary about his life, “If you do a painting with five strokes instead of ten, you can make your painting sing.”  

In one of his early pieces, Wong reimagines the softness of a snow monkey’s fur with a smudging technique, juxtaposing the soft texture with rough strokes that form a tree branch. Where soft meets hard, the snow monkey hangs precariously from the branch with one arm. Wong may have related to this monkey who is painted with a gentle smile despite dangling so high up in the air. From getting incarcerated at Angel island to not being properly credited for his artistic contributions at Disney and Warner Bros until he was in his 90s, each experience with racism and prejudice did not stop Wong from creating beautiful art that captivates and inspires.  

Tyrus Wong’s 1933 Snow Monkey; Still from from “Tyrus” film

Tyrus Wong’s 1933 Snow Monkey; Still from from “Tyrus” film

“Wong may have related to this monkey who is painted with a gentle smile despite dangling so high up in the air.”

Tyrus Wong passed away in 2016 at 106 years old, though his strong legacy remains. ACDC is proud to be screening the documentary, Tyrus, at this year’s opening night of Films at The Gate. Directed by award-winning filmmaker Pamela Tom, Tyrus honors the life of an Asian American trail-blazer in the 20th century. The movie presents Wong’s life holistically, addressing AAPI life during immigration exclusion, housing discrimination, and the Japanese internment camp.   

Join us on August 23rd at our annual Films at the Gate event to witness the manifestation of startlingly beautiful and deeply intricate artwork and the life of the humble Chinese immigrant who created them. The screening is scheduled for 8pm and is free to the community.

Meet Pamela Tom at a special pre-screening reception that includes a light dinner and cash bar! All proceeds benefit ACDC’s youth leadership program, A-VOYCE.

Colorized black and white photo of Tyrus painting; courtesy of PBS

Colorized black and white photo of Tyrus painting; courtesy of PBS

How Affordable Housing Reunited Erica's Family

Erica in front of her childhood home at Oak Terrace Apartments; photo by Christine Nguyen

Erica in front of her childhood home at Oak Terrace Apartments; photo by Christine Nguyen

I grew up with the foundation that family is important and to me, and Chinatown is a part of my family.

Erica Lam recently served as ACDC’s Massachusetts Promise Fellow, supporting the See-Town Tours and an after-school program for Dorchester youth. Erica also happens to have grown up in ACDC’s development at Oak Terrace in Chinatown! Here, she shares her family’s experience of finding stable and affordable housing and how through her work at ACDC, she has become an advocate for the community.

How long have you lived in Chinatown?

When I was born, my parents didn’t have enough money to afford a place of their own, even with both of my parents working--my mom working two jobs. For the first few years of my childhood, I didn’t get to live in the same house as my parents and my older brother. They initially lived in the basement of my grandparents house in Quincy, while I lived in Dorchester with my cousins, aunt, and uncle--the eight of us under one roof. 

Erica on the bottom right with her cousins in their Dorchester home; photo courtesy of author

Erica on the bottom right with her cousins in their Dorchester home; photo courtesy of author

While we were lucky to have relatives nearby to help out and take care of my brother and me, this also meant that he and I grew up in separate homes and neighborhoods and with different families. I lived with my aunt and uncle in full house with cousins my age, and where quality time with family was the foundation of my early childhood. My brother on the other hand, grew up with my grandparents and was the only child in his house. Because I only saw him on weekends, for a long time, I had no idea of what his home life was like.

Winning the housing lottery for Oak Terrace changed our lives because that was when my family started living together under one roof
— Erica

When ACDC’s Oak Terrace development opened in 1995, my mom won the lottery for an affordable housing unit. We moved into Oak Terrace in Chinatown when I was 3 or 4 years old, and I continued to live there for 23 years.

How did having affordable housing help your family?

Winning the housing lottery for Oak Terrace changed our lives because that was when my family started living together under one roof. The transition of moving to a new neighborhood and home life was initially difficult for me as a child because I didn’t have my cousins to play with anymore--it was more quiet at home. My parents were now focused on paying the rent and saving money. 

Erica with her parents and brother; photo courtesy of author

Erica with her parents and brother; photo courtesy of author

For my parents, having a place of their own created an empowering sentiment of being able to provide for their own family. They weren’t as dependent on extended family, which lifted a major emotional burden for them. Having our own place was also motivation for them to work harder to continue building stability for us.

What was the best part of growing up in Chinatown?

The best part of growing up in Chinatown was how the stores, restaurants and schools were easy to get to, and that alleviated pressure from my parents. My parents worked all the time, but because there were so many cheap restaurants in Chinatown, we were able to feed ourselves. I was also really close to all of my schools, so I felt safe traveling the short distances to and from school. I was one of the lucky few who got to sleep in a little more and wake up just in time for class. 

What does Chinatown mean to you now?

I feel like I was lucky enough to grow up in this community, but aside from the fortunate few who can get an affordable rental or condo, it’s impossible for me to afford it now.

Now, Chinatown to me is a home where I can never move back to. I feel like I was lucky enough to grow up in this community, but aside from the fortunate few who can get an affordable rental or condo, it’s impossible for me to afford it now. It has changed so much. There are more franchised boba shops and restaurants, and many of the local mom and pop shops that I went to as a kid are gone--outpriced by the skyrocketing property value. Chinatown felt like a neighborhood when I was younger. I hold onto memories like the ice cream truck coming around in the summer and kids rushing towards it, but nowadays, it’s nothing like that. It seems more and more like a business district where people pass through to get to their next meeting.

What is your hope for Chinatown’s future?

My biggest hope for Chinatown is that the elders and children don’t have to fight as hard to stay because they’re not being pushed out by developers and landowners. I really hope that this neighborhood will go back to being a place where people feel safe to start local businesses without the fear of being outpriced. I hope that new residents, especially those who have moved into the luxury condos and rentals in Chinatown, recognize the value and strength of this community.

How does it feel to be working with the community that you grew up in, working towards those hopes?

For me, having the opportunity to work in Chinatown with ACDC was a wave of emotions. Chinatown nonprofits played a formative role in my upbringing, starting with Red Oak, BCNC and eventually becoming a youth at Boston Asian YES--all within the same block. Giving back to my community wasn’t something new--it was something I always wanted to do, but never knew where to get started. 

When I first came to ACDC, I was super excited because I was able to really dive deep into the history and current challenges of my community. Once I learned about investors buying out buildings and about the families who were evicted, I felt shock and anger. I thought, “How could they do this? Don’t they know the impact they’re having on Chinatown? Why do we need another hotel or luxury apartments that the community folks can’t afford?” I started noticing the empty lots in the neighborhood, learned of their hefty price tags and was amazed that such a small piece of land can be worth so much. This new insight was followed by more anger and questions like, “How is it that not more people have noticed this and how outrageous this situation has become?”

Working on the See-Town program and giving Chinatown tours for folks who were mostly new to the community gave me an outlet to plug in stories of Chinatown. With this opportunity, I felt empowered to become an advocate in the fight against big developers whose projects often displace longtime residents and contribute little to no benefit to the local community. I began to think more critically and ask more questions. I shared with my friends and colleagues what I learned and encouraged them to support local businesses. I even started conversations with my little sister about these issues and invited her to a tour so that she could learn more about the community that she’s still growing up in. I hope that she can arm herself with what she has learned and start fighting for her home as well. 

I recently moved into a house with friends in Dorchester’s Savin Hill neighborhood, but some of my family still lives in Chinatown. I grew up with the foundation that family is important and to me, and Chinatown is a part of my family. I know more about my community than I did 6 months ago. I’m resolved to continue staying current on community issues and continue using my voice and story to help others see that their stories are just as important and relevant to the changes happening in our community.

Erica at the bottom left with youth at Coco Leaf during Chè and Chat, an after-school Dorchester program that she ran at ACDC; photo courtesy of author

Erica at the bottom left with youth at Coco Leaf during Chè and Chat, an after-school Dorchester program that she ran at ACDC; photo courtesy of author

Why Community Engagement Matters: A Conversation with A-VOYCE youth Cindy Tsang and ACDC Board President Paul W. Lee

Cindy Tsang, A-VOYCE alum and recipient of the NAAAP Future Leaders Scholarship

Cindy Tsang, A-VOYCE alum and recipient of the NAAAP Future Leaders Scholarship

Cindy Tsang, a first-generation college student, will be attending Barnard College in the fall as an urban planning major. I was so thrilled to find out that she was a recent recipient of a NAAAP scholarship, which celebrates and recognizes Asian youth who demonstrate a strong commitment to serving the community. 

I met Cindy Tsang last summer during A-VOYCE summer leadership academy. She and I had both gone through the A-VOYCE program and came back as youth coordinators, facilitating workshops for Asian high school youth about civic engagement, Chinatown history, and activism. Although we had only spent a few months together, we quickly grew close. Cindy is a bright, passionate, and intelligent young woman who I think of as my sister.  

Paul Lee, who also happens to be ACDC’s Board President and a co-founder, created the The Richard and Chou Lee scholarship with his family. Paul Lee, Of Counsel and former Partner at Goodwin Procter LLP in Boston and has served the Asian community for decades, serving on numerous boards and advocating for community needs.  In 2009, Lee was named a NAAAP 100 Leader for his community service and leadership in the Asian American community. Lee, the son of Chinese immigrants, Richard and Chou Lee, presented the NAAAP Boston Future Leaders Scholarship to Cindy Tsang on June 15, 2019. 

I had the opportunity to interview both Cindy Tsang and Paul Lee about the role of community engagement in the Asian American experience.  

Selina Li: Tell me about the community work you have done so far.

Cindy working with A-VOYCE youth as youth coordinator to draw a “river map”- a representation of their life experiences during 2018 summer leadership academy

Cindy working with A-VOYCE youth as youth coordinator to draw a “river map”- a representation of their life experiences during 2018 summer leadership academy

Cindy Tsang: “In the summer before my sophomore year, I joined Quincy Asian Resources Inc. (QARI) and I worked on their August Moon Festival as a decorations volunteer, a team member during the festival, and a marketing volunteer. After that, I took on a leadership role as a QARI youth representative for two years where I continued organizing the festivals, but more focused on managing logistics for the events.  

I was introduced to ACDC in the summer of 2017, when I joined their Summer Leadership Academy (SLA). I learned a lot about gentrification and urban planning. SLA inspired my independent capstone project where I researched how gentrification in Chinatown impacted the demand for affordable housing in Quincy. 

Last summer, I interned with ACDC to help run the SLA program and I also was elected by my peers to serve as a youth board member at QARI where I mentored other Asian American youth in leadership, helped with civic engagement efforts, and raised awareness about mental health in the AAPI community.”  

SL: Wow, you did a lot in high school! Do you think that your community work in high school influenced your future  aspirations?  

CT: “Working with the community definitely shaped who I am now. Going into high school, I thought I wanted to be a doctor or a nurse, but I realized that I don’t like blood, haha. Being in community-oriented spaces and spaces that empowered youth helped me realize that I really like helping other people and serving the Asian American community. It was empowering to receive mentorship through the programs I joined, to have people believe in me and my potential as a person, as a leader, as a community member. ACDC also introduced me to urban planning and the process of working with the community!” 

SL: What did it feel like to be awarded this scholarship?  

CL: “Just thinking about my growth as Asian American and my struggle with my identity, I used to not be proud of my identity--of being Asian American. But now, I feel a sense of community acceptance and inclusion, and I feel happy that I  am seen  as  a leader.” 

SL: What would you like to say to the Lee family?  

CL: “To the Lee family and to the NAAAP scholarship committee, thank you so much for this opportunity, especially with being first generation and an Asian American woman. It’s really heart-warming and encouraging to know that people believe in me and my potential to be a leader in the Asian American community, and I’m really grateful for all the support and for all the time that everyone spent listening to my story.”  

Cindy Tsang at the NAAAP Future Leaders Scholarship Event with State Representative Tram Nguyen and four other NAAAP scholarship recipients    Photo courtesy of NAAAP website; by Raj Das at ED Photography.

Cindy Tsang at the NAAAP Future Leaders Scholarship Event with State Representative Tram Nguyen and four other NAAAP scholarship recipients

Photo courtesy of NAAAP website; by Raj Das at ED Photography.

Selina Li: Who is the scholarship named after? 

Paul Lee: “The scholarship was named after my father and my mother, Richard and Chou Lee.” 

SL: Why was there a scholarship fund established to honor them? 

PL: “We created the fund because education was really important to my parents. They recognized that as first-generation immigrants, education was the key to advancing, not only for them but especially for their children. They worked hard towards this goal. My father worked in a Chinese restaurant six days a week, and my mother worked at a sewing factory to put us through school so that we could get an education. That was always the top priority in our family, that the kids get an education. They really helped us do well in our careers. It was really the key for our family to achieve the American Dream. So, that’s why we wanted to honor their memory, we wanted to establish a scholarship fund to help other immigrant families advance their education.” 

SL: Who would you want this scholarship to benefit specifically? 

PL: “Our vision is to support students from an immigrant family--someone who is the first in their family to go to college. It’s also important that the individual is active in Chinatown or another Asian community doing community work. We also wanted to prioritize this opportunity for those who need the financial support, so that the scholarship makes difference in alleviating some of the financial burden.” 

SL: How would you want this scholarship to impact youth? Specifically, first generation Asian American youth. 

PL: “Well, it’s really helping them pay for college because college is so expensive now. If this can give them extra money so they can take full advantage of everything that college life has to offer, then they can really experience the college environment and really grow--that’s how we can help folks.” 

SL: How do you hope recipients of the scholarship use the scholarship in their own lives? 

PL: “I hope that they continue to be active in the community, to continue to look at the needs of the community, and advocate for whatever services are needed. [I hope] that they will be leaders and that they will try to mobilize and rally people. What we really like about the fact that the last few scholarships have been awarded to A-VOYCE youth, is we know that ACDC's program emphasizes leadership and civic engagement. We couldn’t be happier.” 

SL: Why do you think that it’s important, especially in this current political environment and with the issues impacting Asian Americans, that it’s important for youth to have this leadership skill and to be engaged with the community? 

Paul presenting ACDC’s Neil Chin Community Service Award to Pam Eddinger, community advocate and President of Bunker Hill Community College (who is also a Barnard alum!)    Photo by Black Dog Pictures

Paul presenting ACDC’s Neil Chin Community Service Award to Pam Eddinger, community advocate and President of Bunker Hill Community College (who is also a Barnard alum!)

Photo by Black Dog Pictures

“When you go to college and you make friends, you tend to do what they are doing. What I would like is for folks to remember that whatever they do--whether they devote their careers to public service or a non-profit service or community service, or if they go into the business or corporate community--that they remember their obligation to the community.  

So, while I was a corporate lawyer, I also did a lot of community work when I had time. That was a little bit unusual because most people in the corporate world, they don’t do as much community work, but that was something important to me. What I hope is that the students who get this scholarship have a successful college experience and come out of it with a renewed sense of their commitment to the community.” 

SL: Do you have anything you would like to say to the youth who are receiving this scholarship, or any advice that you would like to give them? 

PL: “The current and previous recipients have already shown such a strong commitment and dedication to the community. My advice is to just keep doing it--maintain that commitment and don’t get diverted from it. There are a lot of things that you can do and you can definitely explore in college, but also remember who you are and the kind of person that you want to be and hopefully you are the kind of person who wants to help others.” 

Cindy Tsang with Mary and Paul Lee during ACDC’s senior send-off celebration    Photo by Will Ge

Cindy Tsang with Mary and Paul Lee during ACDC’s senior send-off celebration

Photo by Will Ge

Thank you to Paul and Cindy for this opportunity to learn more about both of you and your respective dedication to supporting the community. Congratulations Cindy on your accomplishments! We look forward to continuing to educate and empower youth through our A-VOYCE program, so that they can be leaders in their own community.

The Weight of Chinatown's Streets

Written by Selina Li, her powerful piece is the perfect follow-up to Cynthia Yee’s “Mo Hi: Don’t Look”. Selina’s piece brings us to Hudson Street 30 years after Cynthia’s family was displaced from Hudson.


My mother is someone who I look up to, knowing all the adversities she has had to overcome. Like many other children of immigrants, I am still trying to figure out how to be a good daughter and make her proud without sacrificing my own agency and personal freedom. 

When I recently dyed my hair, my mother reprimanded me and asked me why I would do such a thing to my straight black hair, which she had always admired. “Because it’s my hair and my body," I retorted back in English. What I said felt like a slap in the face to an immigrant single mother who raised two kids by herself in a foreign country.

To her, “it’s my hair and my body,” negated the sacrifices that she had made to come to America. To her, “it’s my hair and my body,” sounded like “I can make my decisions now.” To her, “it’s my hair and my body,” meant “I don’t need you anymore.”

However, I don’t know how to convey to her that dyeing my hair was not an act of rebellion, but a simple desire for a change. As a 19-year-old college student with no stable source of income, I can’t give my mom a house, a fancy car, and all the things that she deserves. At times, it seems like all I have given her are tears, white hairs, and countless nights tossing and turning.

One thing I can do is to honor her sacrifices and highlight her story; to present her existence to whoever chooses to hear it, and to bear her beautiful soul to the world

This is the story of my mom’s humble beginnings and the story of our Chinatown streets.


Sometimes you will find the streets of Chinatown littered with old newspapers, empty soda cans, and cigarette butts. You may pick up the distinct smells typical of many densely populated city neighborhoods: urine, cheap oily fast food, and car exhaust. However, the poorly maintained appearance, pungent smells, and unevenly paved sidewalks are not the only reasons why Chinatown streets are sometimes difficult to walk on.

Chinatown streets carry the history of its people--the hopes, fears, and dreams held by thousands of immigrants, like my mother.

Hudson street, for example, had once been home to a thriving community for hundreds of Chinese, Syrian, and Lebanese immigrant families. However, major construction that started in the 1950s eroded most of Chinatown and transformed Hudson. As a result, most of these families were displaced.

Fast forward to the 90s, the Big Dig still casts its dark shadow over Chinatown. Hudson is crime-ridden and most of the land has been barren for decades.

The demolition of East side Hudson street during the construction of the 50s from Chinatown Atlas

The demolition of East side Hudson street during the construction of the 50s from Chinatown Atlas

The Big Dig replaced the old elevated Central Artery with a tunnel and reorganized the ramps and interchange around Chinatown.
— http://chinatownatlas.org/era/1990s-present/
There was no dishwasher, and you can see here that there were only two burners on the stove top.    Cockroaches were all over the apartment, even on the stove tops and sometimes my mother would wake up early in the morning just to kill the cockroaches.

There was no dishwasher, and you can see here that there were only two burners on the stove top.

Cockroaches were all over the apartment, even on the stove tops and sometimes my mother would wake up early in the morning just to kill the cockroaches.

My mother immigrated to America in 1992. Her first home was a small apartment on Hudson Street in Chinatown with a roach infestation problem. The narrow stairways leading up to her apartment usually stained with urine. There was no air conditioning and only two burners on the tiny stove top. During the winter, she endured a stiflingly hot apartment; the old, overworked radiator painted the ceilings black from its debris.

Due to high crime rates in the area, my mother was often scared to walk home alone at night in the dark. “I was shaking,” my mother recalled. Burglars broke into her apartment twice; she would come home to a wide-open door, her money stolen, and carelessly thrown clothes strewn across the floor.

Not only were living accommodations unpleasant and dangerous, like many Chinese immigrants, my mother also had to rebuild her life from scratch.

又聋又哑
— meaning "dead and mute"; how my mother recalls her initial immigrant experience

“又聋又哑,” my mother tells me, her eyes brimming with tears.

She used this Chinese phrase, meaning “deaf and mute,” to describe her experience immigrating to America. Because of the language barrier and culture shock, my mother felt that her mouth and ears were forced shut. She could hear people talking to her in English, but she was unable to understand what they were saying or respond back. When she tried speaking English, she would cover her mouth with her hands, embarrassed by the sound of the unfamiliar words awkwardly mingling with her thick Chinese accent. And her deafness and muteness translated beyond communication difficulties.

My mother thought of herself as a baby, understanding little of her new world and her place within it. She had to learn life over again. Because her hometown in China had few cars, she learned to look both ways before crossing the street in Boston. She familiarized herself with Boston’s public transportation system. She experienced the bitter cold and snow for the first time. These experiences were debilitating, confusing, and scary.

So why did she do it? Why was she willing to leave her loved ones, bid farewell to a recognizable environment, and cut off her mouth and ears? “The best thing I felt was freedom,” my mother said. Despite the crumbling and barely livable home, she found small slivers of opportunity, hope, and freedom, which gave her reasons to stay. My mother clung on to the resources that Chinatown offered, crediting non-profit programs as the building-blocks for her American dream. She took ESL classes, obtained her citizenship, and applied for jobs with the help of BCNC. Connected by a powerful thread of shared migrant experiences, my mother forged friendships with fellow immigrants and teachers that still exist today. Slowly but steadily, she formed a new life.

As I interview my mother, she no longer covers her hand over her mouth or tries to hide the pain of her past. Rapidly speaking to me in a thick Chinese accent, my mother is breathless, filling the air with memories and feelings she has contained within herself for 27 years. She runs inside her bedroom to uncover more photos of when she used to live on Hudson street. Days after my interview with her, she still brings up moments of her time on Hudson that she had just remembered.

We live in South Boston now, in a cockroach-free condo with air conditioning, four burners on a stove top, and clean crisp white walls. Her apartment on Hudson street is a distant memory. The fear, ignorance, and loneliness that she had felt no longer defines her.

关惠闲 is a daughter, a sister, a mother, an immigrant, a US citizen and, a survivor. I am proud to share my mother’s immigrant experience--to narrate a difficult and depressing time that she initially felt too ashamed to publicize.

Her story along with many other Chinese immigrant stories are symbols of strength, persistence, and resilience. These stories are about immigration, the American dream, and Chinatown streets. They remind us of who we are and where we came from.

Despite its unassuming appearance, Chinatown streets bear the weight of a thousand powerful immigrant stories, providing immigrants shelter, familiarity, opportunity, and a sense of home in a new world.

That is why I am honored to walk the streets of Chinatown—the streets of our first home.

That is why I am honored to walk the narrow, dirty, and smelly streets of Chinatown--the streets of our first home.

Her story is one of the reasons why I have chosen to work with non-profits organizations that serve Chinatown, like ACDC. Over the last three decades, ACDC has grown to provide new immigrants like my mother with affordable housing, financial literacy, self-advocacy skills and community building—essential skills that can transform lives and enact powerful changes in the community.

Pictured: My mom standing in a snowy Boston Common, getting accustomed to her new life in America.

Pictured: My mom standing in a snowy Boston Common, getting accustomed to her new life in America.

My mom told me about how someone hijacked her phone line to make international calls, driving up her phone bill to around $2,000. Although she knew little English, her English teacher was able to explain the situation to the phone company and helped my mom avoid paying the fees.

My mom told me about how someone hijacked her phone line to make international calls, driving up her phone bill to around $2,000. Although she knew little English, her English teacher was able to explain the situation to the phone company and helped my mom avoid paying the fees.

Pictured: Her apartment on Hudson Street.

Pictured: Her apartment on Hudson Street.


Selina is a second-generation immigrant, writer, producer and activist. You can learn more about Selina here. Thank you to Selina for creating this intimate and inspiring piece about your mother’s immigrant experience and how Chinatown became her first home in America.

Special thank you to Selina’s mother for sharing her story—stories that ACDC aspires to honor and contribute to the history of Chinatown. To be surrounded by linguistically and culturally competent hospitals, social service offices, schools and neighbors, helps newcomers overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges—challenges like finding an affordable home and becoming financially stable—that is why our vision is to foster equitable communities that we can all call home.