In Boston's Chinatown, Longtime Residents Face An Uncertain Future

The Kensington apartments and Millenium Place condominiums, behind, tower over Chinatown at the intersection of Stuart, Kneeland and Washington streets. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The Kensington apartments and Millenium Place condominiums, behind, tower over Chinatown at the intersection of Stuart, Kneeland and Washington streets. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

BOSTON — Boston’s Chinatown was built on wasteland — tidal flats and landfill.

Over the decades, cheap rents made the neighborhood an attractive place for waves of immigrants — Irish, Italians and Jews. At one time the area was even called Syriatown.

But today, the neighborhood of low-rise buildings is in high demand. New luxury apartment buildings are driving up property values, and driving out longtime residents. They’re being displaced by a new wave of immigrants — wealthy entrepreneurs, from China.

‘Soon There Will Be No More Chinatown’

A pair of giant imperial stone lions guard Chinatown’s Beach Street entrance. The Chinese characters on the ceremonial gate translate to: “All under Heaven for the common good.”

The gate was erected in 1982, right next to land that was taken by the state for the common good — construction of the Massachusetts Turnpike and Central Artery decades earlier.

Karen Chen is too young to remember, but says you can still see the damage that was done.

The paifang at Chinatown’s Beach Street entrance, at sunrise (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The paifang at Chinatown’s Beach Street entrance, at sunrise (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“This building over there that says ‘Welcome to Chinatown,’ this building used to be twice as big,” she said. “But when they built the Expressway they chopped it in half. Urban renewal, right? Classic.”

Chen, the organizing director of the Chinese Progressive Association, says the roadway construction cut through the heart of Chinatown, displacing 300 families.

Boston’s Chinatown is the third-largest Chinatown in the nation. But the Chinese population has been steadily decreasing. Residents are moving to towns like nearby Malden, where the Chinese population has tripled, and Quincy, where it’s quadrupled.

Many, like Baoen Qiu, who lives in Randolph, regularly return to Chinatown to shop.

“I really want to move to Chinatown,” she said through Chen’s translation while at Happy Family Food Market on Hudson Street. “I live really far right now, so I would really love to move to Chinatown if I can.”

Right now, Qiu works at a restaurant. “I don’t get paid a lot,” she said. “For the amount of money I make, I won’t be able to afford to live in Chinatown.”

According to Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development, the average annual income for a family in Chinatown is only about $14,000. That’s less than any other Boston neighborhood.

As the social and cultural center for the region’s Chinese community, the pull of Chinatown is powerful.

Lisa Yu lives in Medford, but she’s a regular customer at Great BBQ on Hudson Street.

"We need to have a Chinatown where there are Chinese people who live here," said community activist Karen Chen. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“We need to have a Chinatown where there are Chinese people who live here,” said community activist Karen Chen. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“The Chinatown no more cheap house, because they build new building around in here,” she said. “Soon there will be no more Chinatown in here because they’re building a lot of expensive [residences].”

Cheap rents are a thing of the past in Chinatown. Over the last decade, construction of high-rise, high-end residential buildings along the periphery of the neighborhood has dramatically driven up property values and the cost of apartments.

“A lot of people are actually doubled up,” Chen said. “If it’s a two-bedroom unit, it could be two families, instead of one family. And you know the rents around here. It used to be, I would say, a range from $700-900 for like a one-bedroom. But now, if you talk about luxury towers, right, a one-bedroom could be like $3,000.”

Luxury Urbanism, And Affordable Housing Demand

Chinatown lies in the shadow of the new luxury tower Millennium Place, where a one-bedroom condo goes for $600,000 and a three-bedroom penthouse over $3 million.

Marketing consultant Nicole Yonke showed off the amenities at Millennium Place.

There’s the exclusive wine bar, garden and resident-only screening room. The tower has its own social network, La Vie, where you can sign up for special events featuring celebrity speakers. Millennium calls this luxury urbanism.

“You’re now in the relaxation room,” Yonke said as she continued her tour, “where guests will wait for their therapists for their facial or massage, and we also have a yoga room here.”

Millennium Place just opened, and nearly all of the condos have been sold.

Anthony Pangaro says that Millennium Place is a great place to live. He’s a principal with the company that developed the building and two other luxury high rises near Chinatown.

“We’re also proud to be neighbors here,” he said. “We enjoy a terrific relationship with Chinatown, we have built affordable housing in Chinatown, and we welcome more.”

In Boston developers have to build some affordable housing to get their projects approved, or contribute money for affordable housing elsewhere.

But because incomes in Chinatown are so low, many residents can’t even afford affordable housing. Using the city’s formula, a family of four would need to make $67,000 a year to qualify for affordable housing. That’s about five times the average income in Chinatown, according Sheila Dillon, Boston’s director of neighborhood development.

“There’s a lot of pressure in Chinatown for affordable housing,” she said. “It’s a neighborhood in Boston that has one of the lowest-income populations. And it’s a very built environment. So while we’ve had a lot of affordable housing as a percentage in Chinatown, there’s not a lot of places to build affordable housing in Chinatown. So it’s a problem; it’s a challenge.”

Right now, Chinatown has more affordable housing, by percentage, than any other Boston neighborhood. But it’s also the densest neighborhood in the city, and with that many needy people, there’s a huge demand for more affordable housing. For example, Tai Tung Village, one of Chinatown’s largest housing projects, has an 18-year waiting list.

Wealth Created In China Is Returning To Boston

Along with affordable housing is the need for better-paying jobs, says community activist Chen. Developers are required to set aside half their construction jobs for local residents, but Chen says those short-term jobs are no replacement for long-term employment.

“For example in the Millenium building they should think about having a Chinese subcontractor to do the cleaning work because that’s a way people can get some good-paying, living-wage jobs,” she said.

There used to be lots of jobs in Chinatown; it was a center for textile manufacturing. But the industry, and its factories, have long gone overseas. Onetime area resident Lisa Yu witnessed the change.

“It’s very hard to find a job,” she said. “No more factory in here, you know? They move out, go to Vietnam, go to Hong Kong, go to Japan, go to China. No jobs in America.”

Those jobs that went overseas aren’t coming back, but the wealth that was created in Chinese factories is now returning to Boston. Chinese nouveau riche are investing their money in luxury real estate here in Chinatown.

“They have a lot of cash — a lot, a lot. So in other words, they don’t know where to spend,” said Patty Chen.

But Patty Chen knows. Her company, located in Wellesley, advises wealthy Chinese clients on how to get visas and move to Boston. She tells them to buy a home in an upscale suburb and then invest in luxury apartments downtown.

“They not only bought one, they bought two, three, four,” she said. “They can call their friends in China and say, ‘Hey, I have all the condos in the center of Boston. Whenever you go, you don’t need transportation. You can walk to everywhere. So convenient! Fresh air, safe foods, clean water. Boston is unique.’ ”

Boston developers are aggressively marketing to the new Chinese investors.

The websites for the luxury buildings are in Mandarin and Cantonese, and in their showrooms are small guardian lion statues, like the big ones protecting the Chinatown gate.

Developer Pangaro says that a quarter of the sales in his building are to international investors — the Chinese attracted to Boston’s high-quality schools and universities.

“We are seeing a number of international buyers, people who are sending their children here,” he said, “and they’re buying because they want a safe place where people can keep an eye on their kids for them.”

Boston’s Chinatown is undergoing a historic transformation. Over the last decade, as the percentage of Chinese living there has continued to decline, the white population has doubled. Small shops catering to Asian customers are closing and moving out. Compared to other Chinatowns in the nation, Boston’s has the largest percentage of chain stores.

“That’s why we’re fighting, to stabilize Chinatown,” Karen Chen said. “We need to have a Chinatown where there are Chinese people who live here. Because you know in [Washington] D.C., if you look at their Chinatown, it’s really sad because there are no Chinese people there. And there’s a lot of nice buildings, but Chinese people don’t live there. What we’re trying to do is preserve that.”

The challenge for Boston’s Chinatown is preserving its cultural presence while building a sustainable future. But the forces of progress are putting pressure on this once-undesirable neighborhood, and longtime residents wonder: is there a place for them?

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on wbur.org.
  • johnakeith

    All of the new residential housing was built on undeveloped land or on land used for commercial purposes. How does that affect the price of housing for anyone else? And, unless I missed it, why wasn’t Parcel 24 mentioned at all? It will increase the amount of housing (affordable) in Chinatown by 50%.

    • TooHonest23

      If there are million dollar condos next door, that’s going to drive up housing prices–whether it was built on undeveloped land or commercial land is irrelevant.
      In regards to Parcel C, only 40% of units will be affordable (only 145 units will be affordable while 217 are market-rate). Unfortunately, as the article pointed out, most families in Chinatown do not have the income to cover “affordable” housing at Parcel C.
      It is all too easy for people who come from relatively middle class privileged backgrounds/lifestyles to not understand the difficulties that many members of the community have to deal with each day. Kudos to Samara and Bruce for raising awareness on real issues in our community that have been pushed aside for decades.

  • Liberalism is Nonsense

    Natural selection applies to cultures in the sense that those cultures best able to compete and adapt are those that survive and thrive.

  • tiddle

    Well, it’s not necessarily true that the chinatown won’t have chinese living there anymore. It’s just that, with the current trend, the wealthy chinese are going to displace the very low-income chinese in the chinatown.

    Is that a good or bad thing? It’s definitely a bad thing for the displaced who can’t afford the rising costs, be it cost of living or housing; just ask those in NYC (for example). But is it a good thing for the area? It’s hard to say. The “culture” that people generally talk about isn’t necessarily the low-income housing project inside chinatown; the “culture” that people experience is the food, restaurants, and grocery stores.

    • Nimrod0

      Would you like the grassroots/family style, affordable food and groceries that people have come to enjoy, or the upscale/chain style urban experience that’s uniform across the globe, but with a touch of ethnic cliché?

      • tiddle

        To be honest, the chinese restaurants (even the dim sum) in the boston chinatown are not that good. If you’re looking for really good and different variety if chinese cuisines, you should either go to new york or toronto. So, I don’t go to chinatown that often. Parking is a pain. If you want chinese grocery, you could easily go to, say, super88 in brighton which also has a food court with some decent food (the vietnamese pho there is great, the huinan spicy dishes are really good). Bottomline is, if you’re just looking for chinese food, chinatown is not the only game in town, and mostly not the best ones anyways.

        • randomchar

          I disagree with that strongly. I can also find good places in/around Boston’s Chinatown that are worth the trip. NYC’s Chinatown in Manhattan is larger, but quite weak on food. Have you actually been there in recent years? You can find better Chinese in Midtown. If I wanted Chinese in NYC, I’d be en-route to Queens probably. Toronto is still great, though (hard to beat Spadina).

          The issue with Boston’s Chinatown is that it has been evaporating for two decades. Every year, there’s less and less Chinese immigrants as the rents go up. I can still find good restaurants there, but there’s less and less options period: still quality, but not quantity. NYC’s Chinatown feels like the opposite: still quantity, but not much high quality.

          But in general, Chinatowns are on the decline. Even SF, which still has a thriving Chinatown, has seen a huge exodus of sitdown dim sum. There’s a huge shift of high-quality Chinese cuisine to peripheral neighborhoods and suburbs in a lot of cities. I really don’t know how you counteract this: working-class immigrants tend to move into cheaper neighborhoods. Chinatowns in many major cities are central and no longer cheap. Even if you put in affordable housing, it’s not like you can reserve it for Chinese people- the below-market units will get snapped up immediately.

          • tiddle

            Consider a simple fact that there’s only two real dim-sum restaurants (Hei Lum Moon and China Pearl) in Boston chinatown, it says volume. There used to be one next to the chinatown gate, but it closed more than 15 years ago. I have hoped Chiu Chow City would provide some much-needed choice, but it folded too.

            The chinese immigrant population in MA should not be small, but most of those (like myself) who move further out from the city never really come back to the city much, even the restaurants can’t thrive as it used to. Parking is a pain; the streets somehow feel dirty and messy.

            I go to NYC quite often (just came back two weeks ago). Not all of those are good, of course, and not all dishes are good. But if you know what to order in which place, you’ll have much more choices than boston’s chinatown.

            In the bygone days, chinese immigrants (legal and illegal alike) congregate in chinatown because they are mostly poor and uneducated. The newer migrants are much more well-off, and the subsequent generations who move up the economic ladder, all move away from chinatown; if only to avoid the stigma that comes with it.

            The dilemma is as old as gentrification. Do you want to hold onto older notion of a mostly poor neighborhood for nostalgia sake, or do you move on to revitalize and upgrade the neighborhood to maintain its attraction to newer clientele? Can the two coexist, with the limited resources of land, as in the case of boston chinatown? It’s the same kind of tug-of-war in other neighborhoods and cities, not just in boston chinatown.

            Our fixation on the food scene of different chinatowns is really just a sideshow.

Most Popular