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.