Writer Cynthia Yee shares another insightful and compelling reflection on Boston's Chinatown in the 1950s and 60s. In her latest piece, Yee gives us an inside look into displacement and Life in the Combat Zone, an area known for once having many adult movie theaters, strip clubs and prostitution, all situated alongside Chinatown, where hundreds of families lived and worked, and where their children played. It took years of hard work from Chinatown residents, activists and politicians to shut down most of the adult entertainment businesses, and make Chinatown a more safe and family-oriented neighborhood. Below is an excerpt. Please note that this work contains some adult themes.
…At thirteen, the City leveled down my quiet childhood home and transformed it into a high speed roadway. We’d moved to a place of neon lights and fast action. We moved to the Combat Zone, after the Boston Redevelopment Authorities had called my Taishanese America, “urban blight.” That had led to their next story, “urban renewal,” about rescuing us, though we didn’t need rescuing.
When you let someone make up a false story about your life, you give them the power to destroy it. They razed Hudson Street and built a ramp for the Southeast Expressway. We, longtime Taishanese and Syrian immigrant families, scattered to live elsewhere. It was the end of childhood for me and my friends. A stroke of a pen and a swing of a wrecking ball and I’d grown up.
I lived in an alley never touched by sunshine. It stank of urine and decaying trash. I listened to great bands, going strong, well past midnight. The beats of drums and guitars and the chatter of honky tonk strip joints drifted in the window and lulled me to sleep every night. Prostitutes, pimps, Johns, and cops strolled around my neighborhood.
My Dad, his brothers, cousins, friends, and my paper brothers had toiled on their days off from the restaurants, transforming a factory loft into a living space. MaMa stayed in Chinatown, living a full life, close to her Taishanese grocer at the See Sun Company, and her soul sisters, Aunty Cheong Sim, and MaMa’s best friend, Ah-Goo, Gock-Lim’s Ma. Cooking and chatting with friends, the main social activity for immigrant women, sustained them, and therefore, me.
…The swinging beat of Jerome’s Bar and the Naked I became my teen lullaby. On the front of the Naked I hung a blinking neon sign, two flashing, disembodied, lower legs crisscrossing again and again. Right smack in the middle, a naked eye, between the crossing legs, blinked blue, with long black lashes. The nun at school asked, “What is a pun?” I told her, on Friday nights, I walked past the Naked Eye on my way to the porno house [that showed Chinese films after the adult entertainment].
I saw things other girls didn’t.
My Dad called me every night from the restaurant and asked me about my day, what I had eaten for dinner, and if I’d finished my homework. On Saturday mornings, he cooked French toast for me. He talked and listened to me in English. My Dad loved me. I was his American born daughter, his youngest child, the only one of four daughters that he raised. So, why had he moved his beloved teen to a place of sin? “Your mother does not want to leave Chinatown,” he said…
…Friday evenings, with fathers toiling on in the restaurants, mothers shut down sewing machines, and stopped their work for the local garment factories; on lucky evenings, they took us to the Chinese movies at the State Theatre on Washington Street, in the center of the Red Light District, on the edge of Chinatown. My friends and I preferred modern romances and kung fu flicks with sticks and swords, and brave, agile heroes and heroines. Our mothers liked the costume dramas, Cantonese operas, with actors in heavy make up, elaborate costumes, and shrieking singing, that we children couldn’t understand. The glamorous people on screen spoke in something close to our country dialect. The musical tones and smooth sounds of Cantonese fed our hungry, immigrant souls, even my American-born one…
…My friends and I ran up and down the aisles of the theatre. Our mothers called us back to our seats, the nudist flicks still running. We sat down and covered our eyes with the Chinese movie program, moving the paper hei kiu [pictured below] up and down, playing peek-a-boo with the naked people. I wondered what those solitary white men, sitting in the dark, thought of MaMa, yelling across the theatre as if she were working in the rice paddies.
The American Nudist Colony movie ended at 10:30 pm and just like that, the Chinese movie began. Chinese instruments, Chinese lyrics, Chinese actors and actresses with shiny black hair, dark eyes, flawless skin. Love and betrayal, lovers separated and reunited, courage and honor defended, revenged and redeemed, and always, justice prevailing. We held our breaths when the heroine believed lies, and sighed collectively, when kindness finally conquered evil.
The Cantonese language of the movies seldom sounded like the Taishanese commands our rural mothers shouted at us, telling us to eat, sleep, behave, and do homework. No words of romantic ardor, no “Slay the enemies for revenge!” had ever flowed from MaMa’s’ mouth. The actresses looked nothing like our busy mothers, and the handsome actors, unlike my English-speaking Dad. Still, the distinctive world of Chinese movies enchanted us…
…Through the curtain, late at night, I heard MaMa telling my Dad, the entire movie plot. I dreamt about the story, and on Monday, it still ran through my mind during class. Ah Goo had given MaMa a recording she made of a classic Chinese opera. On separate floors, they sang along with the music and sewed late into the night. Listening to MaMa sing and sew, I lay in my bed, gazing at the rectangle hole, framed with stained wood moldings, cut high in the wall, opening onto the kitchen where MaMa sewed. In the distance I also heard the loud music from the Naked I and Jerome's Bar. I slept.
MaMa and her friends called each other, “So and So’s Mother!” I never learned Ah Goo’s name, nor the other Aunties’ names, only that they were “So and So’s Mother.” I called them Elder Aunt, “Ah Moo” or Younger Aunt, “Ah Sim” or “My Father’s Sister, ”Ah Goo,” if their surname was like mine, Yee, though they were not my aunts nor my father’s sisters, in the English sense. This respectful formality created an easy intimacy, Chinatown a big family linked by aunties, uncles, grandmas, grandpas, and paper brothers.
Aside from the white people on film, I saw housewives on television with puffed hair and neatly pressed house dresses; teachers at the American school in orthopedic black high heel shoes; nuns in long black habits with black head veils, strings of beads with crosses around their necks, and ropes with three knots dangling from their waists; ladies in kitty cat smocks selling blueberry muffins at Jordan Marsh; streetwalkers in scanty tops; Johns in trench coats; pimps in cowboy hats, waving dazzling rings; Theatre District patrons in pressed suits and mink stoles. None of my Chinatown friends and neighbors dressed special, and nobody walked around nude! The parade of white folks’ styles along our neighborhood streets and the naked people on screens confirmed our separateness. And no Chinatown folks, young or old, worked in, or patronized the Combat Zone, though we lived right in it…
…Chinatown changed, and so did we. Aunty Cheong Sim’s son became a physician and medical director of the first Asian American bilingual bicultural health center in Boston. Ah Goo’s son graduated from MIT and became a radiologist. The two young couples who lived above Aunty Cheong Sim opened popular Chinese bakeries and restaurants, and moved out to rich Chinese enclaves in the suburbs. I became a teacher, teacher trainer, and writer. I sent my family’s story to the governments of the Peoples Republic of China and America. I negotiated with them, with letters, translated in Chinese and English. China allowed my two sisters and their families to leave. America gave them permission to enter. My father sold over the house for $35,000. In 1980, the neighborhood was designated a United States Historic District and our homes were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, requiring special permission for further renovations. Today’s developers price my house at over $2 million, and rent it to young professionals. The police have swept the streets of prostitutes. Poor girls of all races, including girls from China, lured with false promises, are trafficked into massage parlors and suburban motel rooms instead. No loud music flows onto the streets to disturb the cafe and theatre crowd. The porno houses are replaced by high rise apartments…
…I walked to Eldo Cake House on Harrison Avenue, where Mr. Yee’s See Sun grocery once stood. The new owners sublet part of the cafe to an herbal store. High rents meant sharing commercial space. A new Boba tea chain has opened next door, with long lines out the door.
Eldo has gone through two new ownerships, but the ladies at the counter stay the same. Immigrant newcomers, they speak three Chinese dialects and adequate English. Customers lined up, seven days a week, for traditional Hong Kong style milk tea, coffee, whipped cream, fruit filled sponge cakes, steamed and baked buns of all sorts, cake rolls, custard tarts. I walk up the three steps and enter the cafe…
…Min came by with her mop, and a paper. “What does this say, Missy? My eldest daughter gave it to me. She said, ’Look at this, MarMee!’ ‘What’s this?’ I said.”
I took the paper from her. “NATIONAL HONOR SOCIETY,” it read. “It says your daughter is in the smartest group in America. This is wonderful!” Min, smiling, kept on mopping. “I don't mind their business. I don’t know English. I can’t help them with school. I feed them. I tell them: ‘if you’re lazy, you sleep in the street someday.’ My daughter is volunteering for a film festival by the Chinatown Gate today. She’s always running around. I don’t bother her.”
Beneath the bluster and damnation talk, love and pride, Chinatown style…
…Sitting at the table by the window, where Mr. Yee’s jars of salty plums and hawthorn fruit wafers once stood, I sipped the nai cha, slurped the last spoonful of ji ma wu, and ate the rest of the sweet purple yam, waiting for the zhoong and char siu bao, boiling and steaming downstairs.
Sun seen yit lat lat
Cynthia Yee grew up in Boston’s Chinatown on Hudson Street before being displaced by the construction of the Central Artery in 1962. 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. She was recently nominated for a "2019 Emerging Artist Award in Literature” by the Director of the largest writing conference in North America, “ The Muse and the Marketplace”.
The State Theatre or the Trans Lux Theatre, at 617 Washington Street, on the site of the Park Theatre, a playhouse in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, became an adult house from 1960 on. Nudist colony footage formed the beginnings of the porno trade. Located in the Combat Zone on the corner of Washington and Boylston Street in the Chinatown/Theatre District, the building was demolished in 1990. The State Theatre, rented Friday and Monday nights by Chinatown merchants to show Chinese movies from Hong Kong, provided entertainment, at an affordable price for immigrant Chinese families, beginning in the 1950s. An upscale furniture store, Roche Bobois stands there now.
The Beach-Knapp District encompasses a collection of six 19th century buildings in the Chinatown neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. It includes two Greek Revival residential structures, 5 and 7 Knapp Street both built in the 1830s. The writer and her family lived at 5 and 7 Knapp Street during her teen years after the demolition of Hudson Street. She and her parents moved out in 1970. The district was designated a United States Historic District and listed on the National Register of Historic Places on December 9, 1980.
The See Sun Company, originally located at 36 Harrison Ave, now the site of Eldo Cake House, was a popular two generation, family owned Taishanese grocery store.
Hoi San dialect (Taishanese), a southern Chinese rural dialect, is similar to Cantonese, but with eleven tones, instead of the nine tones in Cantonese, or the four tones in Mandarin Chinese. Together with a strong singsong rhythm, Hoi San dialect also has unique sounds made by putting the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth and blowing, creating the “thloo” sound. It’s a sound not easily mastered by speakers of other Chinese dialects. One has to learn it by age 2 or 3 to get it right. It is an earthy, peasant dialect, often spoken loudly, laced with humor, and great emotional expression. It is Cynthia Yee’s first language and therefore, dear to her heart.
Taishanese immigrant mothers, raising their American born children, in post Chinese Exclusion Act Boston, often used the filter of “separateness.” This idea was reinforced in many ways, and it helped them to live and thrive in an adverse environment. That said, insularity combined with patriarchy, also created, at times, an unhealthy environment for young girls, young boys, women, and men.