by Cynthia Yee, a Hudson Street resident displaced by the construction of the Central Artery in 1962. All photos courtesy of Cynthia Yee. This is her "valentine" to Hudson Street, which holds beloved memories for Cynthia and many others who grew up and lived here.
“The past lives on; in art and memory, but it is not static: it shifts and changes as the present throws its shadows backwards. The landscape also changes, but far more slowly; it is a living link between what we were and what we have become.”
Margaret Drabble, A Writers Britain, 1979.
“HUDSON STREET,” the sign read. The Chinese characters underneath transliterated the English words as, “HUT SIN GAI”, “The Street of the God of Beggars.”
I came into the world after my mother escaped being slaughtered in a tropical village in southern China and after my father traded cans of rationed Spam for fresh killed rabbit in Germany, and my mother’s mother begged, to stave off starvation in wartime, but starved anyways. I was born and grew up on these four blocks in Boston’s Chinatown. I never saw a beggar here but I did see a lot of gods. I guess this god in America was mighty busy, filling up our lives with new prosperity.
I gazed up at the tall, gray, concrete wall and the ramp that ran along the top of it. The rubber tires of cars and trucks sped up the ramp and rumbled onto the Southeast Expressway. This wall cast a dark shadow over the edge of Hudson Street and over the remaining red brick townhouses, blocking out, forever, any possibility of sunlight drenched living rooms. New immigrants from China and visitors to Boston’s Chinatown see the wall as always having been there, supporting the ramp that was built so South Shore residents could get home faster from their downtown jobs. I walked along the middle of the black asphalt road. Weeds, taller than I, greeted me. Graffiti on the wall winked at me, teasing me. Vagrants, loitering on the corner, snickered. I hesitated, and almost turned back, but I decided to walk on to the end, where more weeds and a chain link fence overlooked more Expressway.
“1-2-3, Red Light!”, “ M-I-SSI-SSI-PPI!”, “Eeeny-Meeny-Minee-Moe, catch a rabbit by the toe. If he hollers, let him go, 1, 2, 3, 4, and out you go!” Children giggling, children laughing, whispered in the air. Mrs. Soo Hoo, with her smooth fair skin and neatly coiled, shiny black hair, hung out of the second-floor window of her red brick townhouse, calling, “Hep-pa-hek-fan-la!” followed by the voice of Hep-pa’s Syrian best friend, Johnny, imitating her. ”Hep-pa, hek-fan-la!”, in his American accent, picked up by other children, repeating “Hep-pa-hek-fan-la!”, relaying the message all the way down the street, ”Hey, Hep-pa, your mom wants you home to eat rice!” The music of my childhood reverberated in my mind’s eye and I smiled to myself as I walked the length of the now eerily quiet street.
Hudson Street was the main residential neighborhood of Chinatown in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. As Syrian families moved out to the suburbs, new immigrants from a rural area of Guangdong Province in Southern China, called Taishan, settled here. The War Brides Act of 1945 opened up immigration quotas for Chinese women to emigrate and reunite with their sojourner husbands. Chinese American babies were born and Chinese American family life in Boston began, in great numbers, for the first time in American history. The Chinese Communist Revolution or Liberation culminated in the formation of modern day People’s Republic of China in 1949. Diplomatic relations between China and the United States soured. China was closed. Any dreams of Chinese sojourners hoping to return home ended. Old men, stranded here, lived in the attics and rooming houses of Hudson Street, as did young boys, some as young as ten to fifteen years of age. The young boys were sent here as “paper sons”, that is, ‘“sons” only on legal papers, to work and send money home to their families. Young daughters were left behind in the cities and villages of southern China, only to suffer the chaos of the Communist Revolution.
The people of Chinatown and those they left behind were the living legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This law, the first law implemented to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the United States, blocked paths to citizenship and forbade intermarriage. It was repealed in 1943.
Men, like my dad, who were soldiers in the U.S. Armed Services during WWII were able, under the War Brides Act of 1945, to bring their wives here. Chinese American babies, like myself, were born. The young boys, including my three “paper” brothers, grew up to be young men and as immigration quotas expanded for the Chinese in the 1960’s, they traveled to the British colony of Hong Kong to marry southern Chinese women, many of whom had escaped the turbulence of the Communist Revolution by taking refuge there, working in the factories fueling the rapid economic growth of Hong Kong into a modern capitalist giant.
Young brides arrived on Hudson Street. I was almost ten years old and I was in awe. The new brides arrived with luxurious silk cheongsams, sequin embroidered sweaters and purses, glittering gold and jade jewelry, and cedar chests. The fragrance of cedar permeated everything, even the brides themselves. From my new sisters-in-law, I received gifts of silk jackets, gold charm bracelets, and jade heart pendants and it tickled me endlessly.
My mother and my friends’ mothers stayed home stitching piecework, earning 50 cents a shirt, using their own sewing machines and their own electricity. The young brides soon joined them. My father and I helped by flipping collars and cuffs with a sharpened chopstick, folding the shirts, and tying them into neat bundles for the factory owner to pick up. As I grew older, I sewed darts by the hundreds. I had more practice sewing darts than a girl normally might have or would want to have. By the time I was eleven, I designed and sewed my own clothes. Zippers were hard for me so I enlisted my friends, Karen and Susan’s, help. We enjoyed sharing dress patterns, picking out decorative rick rack and cloth, matching by texture and by color. I thought store-bought clothes, all alike, and lined up in the department store racks, were boring and couldn’t understand why anyone wore them. At 2:00 in the afternoon, as regular as clockwork, I watched the parade of fathers marching down Hudson Street to meet and talk at the coffee shops before starting work at the restaurants. Kneeland Street was the crucial divide between residential and commercial life. For me, crossing that wide, busy street into the commercial area, was a big deal. Fathers returned home at 2:00, and sometimes 3:00, in the morning. It was commonly accepted that loud outdoor play began only after 12:00 noon so as not to disturb the fathers’ rest.
When I was born, my parents lived at the upper end of Hudson Street, at No. 133, and we moved across the street to the second floor of No. 116 when I was a young child. There I spent my childhood. An abandoned gas station sat at the upper end of the block. My friends and I played “House” there, using the foundations of old gas pumps as “stoves.” We gathered wild dandelions and the leaves of the hardy ailanthus tree, that grew by the railroad tracks, for our green vegetables. At the lower end of the block on the corner of Oak Street was a Syrian grocery shop in the basement. I loved going there with my mother to buy nuts. Sometimes, I went in by myself, just to walk around and look. At age nine, I enjoyed a measure of freedom. I walked down the steps and took a deep breath as I entered the store, loving the fragrant aroma of pine nuts and olives. The Syrian women shoppers used large spoons with long handles and holes to ladle out the olives from large wooden barrels. As they slurped the green ones, then the black ones, the large ones, and then the small ones, they chattered and chirped in excited voices in their Syrian language. I wished I could do the same: ladle and taste olives and speak that musical language, too.
At Jimmy’s Spa, on the opposite corner, I bought ice cream cones for ten cents. “Vanilla, Chocolate, or Strawberry?”, Jimmy asked, in his cheerful voice. “Vanilla, Chocolate, or Strawberry”, these words formed the beginnings of my first English vocabulary. With the ice cream, though, came a far more important lesson.
I learned that tragedy could be ameliorated by acts of kindness. One day, when my scoop of ice cream fell onto the ground with my first lick, I stared at it with disappointment. I was seven years old and I felt all alone with my personal loss and humiliation. To my great surprise, Jimmy gave me an even larger scoop, accompanied by a big smile. I always remembered that act of kindness from one of the very few non-Chinese persons I came in contact with in those days.
Shared streets and shared toys were our life. An occasional automobile ambled down the street, but for the most part, it was a street free of traffic. One volleyball net strung across the street and one ball made for a fast game of Volleyball. Taishan had a long and illustrious history of producing volleyball champions. It was in our blood and the air we breathed. We knew how to play it without anyone teaching us. A brother and sister owned a pair of bikes, a boy’s bike and a girl’s bike. The whole street shared that luxury. We each took turns riding them down the length of the street, adventuring around the corner by way of Harvard Street, cutting through onto Tyler Street. That is how we practiced being brave, and turning corners without falling over.
A piece of chalk, a few lines drawn on the sidewalk and any small object, like a pebble, made for a game of Hopscotch with our best buddies. Kick-the-Can in the middle of the street was excitement itself. The only equipment needed was one can and good legs. There was the leaping and blindfold game of, “Buck Buck Buck Lo Si Buck, How many fingers have I got up?” the Chinese American equivalent of “One Two Three, Red Light”. One child covered his eyes and leaned against a wall, with his or her back turned, and each child, in turn, hopped onto the stone ledge behind him, calling out “Buck Buck Buck Lo Si Buck! How many fingers do I have up?” The child guessed with eyes covered and then turned around. If he or she were wrong, another child leaped onto the ledge and repeated the chant. The ledge filled up fast with children tucked one behind the other. If he or she guessed correctly, then it was time to switch and start again.
On summer nights, after sewing and cooking, mothers conversed on stoops, while fathers worked at restaurants. It was too hot to stay home. There were only small electric fans to create a small breeze in the small four room apartments. We played Volleyball and Kick- the-Can under the street lamps. Hide-and-Go-Seek in the shadows was a special challenge. Hiding in shadows, being very still and not moving, could become a useful life skill.
Stoops were ideal for board type games although none of us owned board games, per se. We only played board games and ping pong at the Maryknoll Sisters Center on Tyler Street. Baseball card collections were treasures. I played flip ups with my cards on the top stoop. Other days, my friends and I sewed little square rice bags with rice taken from our mothers’ rice bins and scraps of cloth from their sewing. While their backs were bent over their machines, we scurried out handfuls of rice and scraps of cloth onto the stoop, reminding each other to take a needle and a spool of thread. We sewed together and had our own sewing circle by age nine. Each set had its unique design and we admired each other’s handiwork. We shared grains of rice and pieces of cloth so there was enough for everyone to make a complete personal set. Our hands and fingers flipped the little rice bags and caught them in the air with great speed, our gold charm bracelets jangling, playing the Chinese equivalent of “Jacks”. We played this game on the top stoop which was wider than the other steps. We sat on the narrower stoops below to talk and whisper and share our growing Chinese American views about life. Once I discovered, around age seven, that most of the grownups didn’t know English and we did, we had our own secret code: English. We enjoyed a great deal of privacy, sharing our observations, our truths, and misconceptions, as if they were truths until they were proven false. This give and take of conversation taught us to listen to each other and that ideas and opinions were changeable. My father, however, spoke fluent English, so I mistakenly thought, if I spelled my words to my cousin, like “Do you have any M-O-N-E-Y?”, my dad would not know what I was saying. I was wrong, but my dad played along, as if he didn’t know my secrets at all, and I truly appreciated that.
Woven clothesline made sturdy jump ropes. A clothesline never used an entire length of rope so our mothers always had leftover rope. We jumped to classic American jump rope rhymes, like “M-I-SSI-SSI-PPI”, graduating eventually to Double Dutch. We practiced high jumping by having two people hold the two rope ends at ankle height, then moving to knee height, then waist, then shoulder, then ear, then forehead, then above our heads. We jumped higher and higher by leaping sideways. For variety, we linked rubber bands together and made Chinese Jump Ropes. We warmed up by twirling the elastic rope around our ankles first once, then two times, then three times around one ankle, then crossing both ankles, and jumping out of its confines, backwards and forwards, in a series of patterns. Then, we began the game of “Chinese Jump Rope” with one child each holding an end and moving the elastic rope up in increments. We jumped higher and higher, by leaping sideways, and hooking our ankle around the rubber bands, just so, and around, and catapulting over to the other side. We admired whomever could leap the highest over the elastic rope, in the most graceful of leaps and flips, and we tried to better our jumps each time, even jumping at heights above our heads.
When we needed a break or to decide on turns, we played the hand game, “Ching Chang Foo” also known as “Paper, Rock, Scissor,” but we never called it that, only “Ching Chang Foo”. Sometimes we had money to buy strands of plastic strings called “gimp”. We sat and wove gimp together and learned new patterns from each other, using different color pairings of plastic gimp string to create new and unique designs. Pink and white, green and blue, yellow and orange all looked good. I hung my roller skate key on the gimp chain around my neck. I needed that key to adjust the width of my roller skates so it was important not to lose it. Nobody seriously locked their houses so we seldom needed house keys. I knew how to open my friend, Karen’s front door with a special kick followed by a nudge and how to climb up the ledge to knock on my next-door neighbor, Mary’s first floor window, to get her attention and to ask her if she wanted to go to St. James Church on Sunday morning. Religion, for us, was a personal choice that did not involve our parents and we seldom rung doorbells.
On Sundays after church, I bought comics from Carl Martin’s Drugstore. I pilfered a dollar from my dads’ Maxwell House coffee can where he threw his tip money every night. I always took only one dollar. I knew he worked hard to earn it. Comics cost ten cents apiece and twenty-five cents for the Giant Special. I traded comic books with my friend, Bingy, so I had twice as many comics to read. If my mother and I forgot to buy ham, my American food for my week’s school lunch, I would just bring over two slices of Wonder bread to my friend Karen’s house and her kindly mother would ask , “ You want peanut butter with jelly or peanut butter with marshmallows ?” I always said “Marshmallow!” She slathered it on my bread, wrapped my sandwich in waxed paper, and off to school I went, walking and chatting all the way with Karen.
A bag of Wise potato chips cost a nickel and I relished the chips with an air bubble. I called them “hor bow ahn” chips, the “fried egg chips” because they reminded me of the fried egg my mother put on top of my bowl of rice, oyster sauce drizzled on top, and runny egg yolk oozing onto the white rice. So delicious. I shared the chips with my Chinese School friends in between reciting Chinese texts aloud, memorizing them, and cheating. I felt that cheating was the only reasonable thing to do in that situation and sneaking junk food was my compensation for the extra time required after school and on Saturday mornings.
Every Chinese Lunar New Year, I became rich. My parents gave me five and some years ten dollars each, in fancy red envelopes I saved because they were so pretty. My relatives and neighbors gave me lucky red envelopes with a dollar in each. Two envelopes from a husband and wife made for two dollars from every couple. I could calculate numbers pretty fast in my head. My mother accompanied me to deposit most of the money in my Union Bank account but I could keep some of it in a cigar box where I counted the bills over and over, amazed at my new wealth, thinking of how I would spend it. Every Chinese New Year, my father gave me a small brown paper bag filled with firecrackers and cherry bombs and an incense punk to light them. I lit them on the sidewalk and ran, with a finger plugged in each ear. By age seven, I learned to be quick to avoid injury. On Lion Dance Parade Day, I bought a large box of thick hand-cut french fries for twenty-five cents, at the Gam-Sun, a Chinese restaurant owned by the Wongs on the corner of Kneeland and Hudson Streets, or at the Nile, a Syrian restaurant owned by a Syrian family, on the even side of lower Hudson Street. With the firecrackers popping, the large kettle drums beating their steady rhythm, imitating the heartbeat of the Lion, and smoke all around, my friends and I were in Chinese New Year Heaven.
My friends and I knew if we greeted any Chinese adults we met, and there were many about on Lion Dance Day, and we wished them a “A Prosperous New Year to You!”, greeting them in a loud, cheerful voice, “Gung Hay Fat Toy!”, they would invariably smile, reach into their pocket or purse and pull out red envelopes, always two, and give them to us, saying “Grow tall and study hard!” Always. We learned the importance of greeting people with respect, by title as in “Second Uncle!” or “Aunty Chin!” and always in a cheerful voice to show how glad we were to see them. And we were glad to see them. So, it was sincere. Every adult was an Uncle or Aunty and we used our own judgement to figure out whether they were older than our parents or younger because that age rank would determine which form of “Uncle” and “Aunty” we used. “Bak” for older Uncles, ”Sook” for younger uncles, “Moo” for older Aunties, “Sim” for younger Aunties, or “Yi” for some women who were close friends of our mothers. Very old gray hair men and women became “Gung” or “Poh”. Young brides we called “LLoe.” We, children, showed our respect for age and rank, by remembering these differentiations. The holiday celebration always fell on a cold winter day. I wrapped my mittened hands around my warm box of hot french fried potatoes, with my friends gathered around me, huddling and laughing, as we each dipped a french fry into the common pool of ketchup, lots and lots of ketchup. Sharing became my standard for Exquisite Joy.
Our lives were punctuated by many special days, aside from holidays. On our Father’s “Day-Off-Foo”, my cousin, Albert and I, enjoyed special meals prepared from intricate recipes that took our mothers and fathers hours to prepare. It was usually a Tuesday or Wednesday when restaurant business was slow. Stranded sojourner uncles and paper brothers and sisters-in-law came to dinner once a week. Some days, our fathers took us on trips across Kneeland Street to drink chocolate milk at the Lotus Inn on the corner of Oxford and Beach Street. We listened to the men talk Sports and Politics over cups of creamy hot coffee. Albert and I sipped our chocolate milk and felt very special to be in the company of our father and their friends. Freshly killed chickens, still warm, were carried home to be cooked. Whole fish, whole lobsters, ducks, and ribs of whole roast pigs were common fare. Years later, I discovered supermarkets where you could buy packages of frozen animal parts. At first sight, it seemed unnatural and quite barbaric to me. I had learned to respect the whole animal, not just the parts. I witnessed the careful and meticulous way, my parents and uncles and aunts prepared them for our enjoyment. I listened to them tell us about their healing powers and sustaining qualities. To me, what was so pleasurable about eating a drumstick on my birthday or a wing, if there was a whole package of them? It would take the fun out of fighting with my cousin for the one chicken heart or the one chicken liver. High School Biology dissection class proved, later, to be nothing for a Chinatown child who ate like this. We knew and respected all the special parts of an animal and knew how they were interconnected and we learned to respect how they nourished us. We were the transplanted descendants of Pearl River Delta peasant farmers and we respected our food.
American New Year’s Eve was the busiest night at the local Chinese restaurants across Kneeland Street. My dad worked at the Cathay House Restaurant on Beach Street, at the end of Hudson Street. Hudson Street sat on filled-in land. It was once a beach with the Atlantic Ocean flowing by. Therefore, the name, Beach Street, for the thoroughfare which cut through the center of Chinatown. My father worked as the maître d’ , twelve hours a day, six days a week. His fluent English and outgoing personality made him perfect for his job. On New Year’s morning, after serving New Year’s Eve celebrations all night, the men were more exhausted than usual. My friends and I knew to be extra quiet but I could not fall asleep that night. I was too excited. On New Year’s Day morning, my cousin, Albert, and I got up early to peek inside the tall brown paper bags that said “Quinzani Bakery.” They were the bags for the French baguettes they served in the restaurants so they were tall and could hold a lot. We knew our dads brought them home the night before. We peeked at the New Year’s Eve paper hats and noisemakers that our fathers had brought home, just for us. As soon as our fathers woke, our fun began. I donned a shiny red hat and he, a shiny gold one. Some had tassels and some had pom poms. We stretched the elastic string under our chins. We grabbed clangers, clappers, twirlers, and blowout zappers, one in each hand. We marched all around, into the living room, the bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen, up the stairs and down the stairs, and back again, exchanging hats and noisemakers as we went around. We knew that next American New Year, there will be new, maybe even fancier hats and noisemakers, just for us.
My friends and I were scrappy Chinatown street children. We were agile, smart, and full of joy, delighting in the freedom of unsupervised play. We played day and night, in sun, snow, and rain, weekdays and weekends. In between times, we went to school, the Josiah Quincy School, during the day, where we learned English, and Kwong Kow Chinese school, during the evening, where the local grocers tried to teach us “Jook sings “, American-borns, how to read and write Taishanese. Chinese school took away from our playtime and taught by memorization, recitation, and testing. I was a well behaved all A student during the day and a budding juvenile delinquent in the evening. The grocers were kindly, so punishment for infractions was not severe. We, children, knew we had the upper hand. Identity, I learned, was flexible and fluid, expansive and broad. Being Good and Being Bad was a matter of context, not mutually exclusive, but parts of a whole.
Of course, all of us children of Chinatown, grew up. We moved into mainstream American life and went on to successful enough lives. Some of us return to do community work as volunteers, physicians, nurses, teachers, writers, engineers, restaurant owners, artists, and activists. Some of us have children graduating from colleges and graduate programs. Many do not speak Chinese. Most have no idea of how we grew up.
Recently, I find my peers and myself speaking of our childhood with sweet nostalgia. We see each other mostly at the wakes of our parents or the weddings of our children. As we reminisce and laugh, I realize we are the only ones that share that common memory, something that brings a smile to our faces but no one else understood. It is at that moment of realization, for each of us, at differing times, that we begin to feel that we have moved into another generation, and it happens so seemingly suddenly that it often takes us by surprise.
Yet, that sweet memory of simple, youthful play remains. If you were to ask us, former children of Hudson Street, what it was like to live there, each of us will tell you about each house and who lived in it, every rail we slid down, every sidewalk we traversed, every pole we climbed, every stoop we sat on, and every face. It was the landscape of our childhood: always sunny, always a playmate nearby. The street was ours to share and in which to create imaginary worlds, a place where we played games of our own invention and making. Implicit in the freedom we were given was the trust of our parents that we would always choose to do the right thing.
I turned away from the concrete wall. I went into the lobby of the new, modern high rise building on the corner. I spoke to the young concierge and I told him I once lived on this street. He listened and nodded and welcomed me to look around. A man rushed by me. He was picking up and dropping off dry cleaning. Young men and women, dressed in business suits, scurried in and out. People lounged on leather couches. A bright chandelier hung overhead. There was not one Chinese face. Nor did I see any children. I walked out again onto the busy moonlit street.
It was on Hudson Street that I had my first lessons in love, generosity, neighborliness, and a belief in my own agency. “Buck, Buck, Buck, Lo Si Buck, how many fingers do I have up? “, “Ah-Hing, Hek Fan La!” “Ah-Hing, time to eat rice!” “The echoes of chanting games, of children giggling, of my mother calling me to dinner in her melodic country dialect, recede and fade.
Modern Mandarin speakers say another transliteration of “Hudson Street”, one more beautiful and poetic, would be “Han Sheng Gi”, “Street of the Humble and the Profound.” Perhaps.
I took one last glance.
The Goddess of Beggars stood in the moonlit mist. She smiled, held up one hand, and waved.
I blew her a kiss and I waved back.
Goodbye, Hudson Street, thank you.
Cynthia Yee holds an M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education from Boston University and a B.A. in Sociology from Emmanuel College. She taught in Boston’s Chinatown and in Brookline, MA. Play, Creativity, and Exploration as the central work of children, a respect for the Agency of the Learner, with the teacher acting as Chief Co-Learner, and building a warm, supportive, education community where children can grow and thrive, are hallmarks of her classroom practice.
For her work training student teachers, Northeastern University School of Education honored her with the “Outstanding Mentor and Master Teacher of Young Children” Award and the parents of her Brookline students voted her “#1 Teacher” in the Brookline Tab.
The Expression Language and Arts Studio in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, founded by artist/educator, Ilana Zisman, was inspired and influenced by Cynthia’s work. Ilana and Cynthia are the best of friends and colleagues who play and laugh together every chance they get.
The original version of this essay was published by the Chinese Historical Society of New England in 2003. This is a 2018 revision of that earlier work. A companion piece, called “My Name is Hudson Street” opens the online portal to the website, “Chinatown Atlas”, created by Tunney Lee and the Chinese Historical Society of New England for researchers and scholars.
Cynthia thanks the wonderful, caring, and inspirational teachers at GrubStreet for teaching her how to write better and for the support of the Boston Writers of Color Group, which originated there.
Cynthia is grateful to her Hudson Street playmates and neighbors for their gifts of joy and friendship and dedicates this piece to them.