Tour of Chinatown – Zoe Hunt

Story Map


Boston Common, one of the most iconic Boston landmarks, is just a mere 5-minute walk from the heart of Chinatown. For residents of Chinatown, spaces like the Boston Common have never quite felt usable. Settling in neighborhoods later coined “Chinatowns”, Chinese immigrants relied on each other to make life in America easier. Having space where one can feel like they belong is an important thing not just for immigrants, but humans as a whole. The Boston Common is not one of these spaces. Surrounded by wealth and high rises, the park can loom in intimidation with its significance and prestige. Often overlooked and mistreated by the city of Boston, Chinatown residents tend to stick to their neighborhood, finding comfort in the loud, vibrant space.

Walking between the two sites offers a perspective into the massive economic gap that, unfortunately, also leads to a racial gap. As one heads over to Chinatown from the park, the streets quite literally transform into disarray as the number of Asian pedestrians increases. This idea of a racialized landscape is not new. Throughout the past semester, its been made clear that evident attempts by government laws and policies have more often than not succeeded in segregating minorities. They were also what caused the birth of some of the first Chinatowns. 

Just like the struggles that Boston’s Chinatown has faced throughout the years, the racist treatment of Asians in the United States tends to be forgotten. Chinatowns across the country were created because of this racism. The rise of anti-Chinese hatred in America resulted in state-sanctioned violence. Just like in the Color of Law, when Richard Rothstein describes the attacks against African Americans looking to assimilate in American life and make a good living, attacks against Chinese immigrants went unnoticed and unprosecuted (Rothstein, 2018). They fled east and sought safety in numbers, creating some of the first Chinatowns throughout the country (Goyette, 2014). Government Acts and policies ensured that Chinatown residents would be unable to move anywhere else. After the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, it became increasingly difficult for Chinese immigrants to move anywhere outside of Chinatown, also very simmilar to Rothstein's mention of Blacks being unable to leave the segregated neighborhoods they were forced into. The Act itself was created to ban Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens and to limit the number of immigrants who continued to enter the US, out of fears that they could not assimilate to American life and remained too connected to their Chinese heritage. The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943. This only furthered increased the gap between Asian Americans and spaces such as the Boston Common, a space that seemed unreachable due to the perceived notion that Chinese immigrants could not be true Americans. The story of Chinese Americans is all too similar to African Americans, and all other minority groups, who were forced into segregation and denied the opportunity to progress economically and socially. 

Considering that America has made very few if any attempts to undo the racialized landscapes it created, Boston’s Chinatown still faces many struggles to this day. The four historical profiles in the Chinatown Story Map best exemplify these issues. The Rose Kenedy Greenway shows the city’s blatant indifference to the community, destroying housing and commercial buildings for a highway. Boston’s attempt to rectify this situation was to create a park dedicated to Chinatown, though its creation symbolized the city’s tendency to undermine the neighborhood’s cultural significance and needs of its residents.  Ping-On Alley further showed this idea of Boston’s ignorance, highlighting the city’s attempt to invalidate Chinatown’s history and suppressing its importance. The plot of land known as Parcel C sheds a light on the community’s struggle to remain in control of its land. Time and time again, countless amounts of land have been lost to institutions, high rises, and the city of Boston. The inability of a community to claim a right to land that should be theirs is extremely similar to Laura Barraclough’s essay on the South central farmers (Barraclough, 2009). The Farmers had used land in Los Angeles to provide for their families, but it was taken away by the city. All over the country, minorities are at risk of losing the land they should have a claim to. Years later and the battle to keep their land is still ongoing. Amazingly, with all of the hardships they’ve faced, the residents of Chinatown have continued to push back on these efforts to change the neighborhood. From protesting against the city to supporting immigrant workers, the Chinese Progressive Association has remained a fierce leader, unafraid to challenge those who attempt to undermine Chinatown. Though many worry about the future of Chinatown, the Chinese Progressive Association gives hope to all those who call it home. 

The lack in attempt to rectify the past racism that exists not only in Boston, but throughout the United States bears a striking resemblance to the Spotlight Series done on racism in the city by the Boston Globe. One part of the series focused on the Seaport, a brand new neighborhood developed by the city. It was the perfect opportunity to create affordable housing and construct a neighborhood without any invisible barriers or racialized landscapes. Except, Boston didn’t do this. The Seaport is now one of Boston’s whitest neighborhoods and has a major disparity in the number of minority business owners in the area (the Spotlight team, 2017). This begs the question; how can Boston even begin to repair the damage of its past actions when it continues to shape landscapes in a racial way to this day?

It’s quite striking to think about the future of Boston’s Chinatown. If it continues to dwindle in size, will it cease to exist? Perhaps the name will still be Chinatown, and a few residents will stay, but without its thriving culture that comes from the vast array of immigrants and Asian Americans, Chinatown will never be the same. That’s what happened to Chinatowns in other cities such as Washington D.C. or Philadelphia. Paul Watanabe, a professor for the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston said that “they’re like Disneyland; its what we call a Chinatown without the Chinese” (Valencia, 2019). Many people view Chinatown as being rich with culture, which is part of its appeal to those wanting to live there. They seem to not realize that by moving to Chinatown, they are inadvertently decreasing the number of native Asians who live there, which in turn lessens the amount of culture in Chinatown. This is an unfortunate byproduct of humans, who tend not to see the invisible barriers that exist in a landscape. The typical trip of a caucasian American to Chinatown occurs to eat a restaurant or experience a change in culture. Whether its the nation’s history of segregation, or the inner workings of Boston’s Chinatown, ignorance tends to be bliss. While walking through Chinatown, a tourist would never be able to realize the struggles and disparities that exist there, only the new bubble tea stand that just opened up. For someone looking to stay in Chinatown, they could be unknowingly contributing to the problem of displacement. In fact, the community’s Asian population dropped from 70 to 58 percent from 2000 to 2017 (Valencia, 2019). Unless these invisible barriers become front-page stories, Chinatown residents will continue to suffer while slowly losing their community. 

This Chinatown is just one of many neighborhoods throughout the United States, where the struggle to maintain both the community’s land and sense of culture has been ongoing for years. Whether it be a transect between Boston Common and Chinatown or the transect between Tufts and Chinatown along Kneeland Street, stark differences between wealth, disparity, power, and resilience can be seen through all the sites in the walking tour. The same ideas found in the transects that separate parts of the emerald necklace with Boston neighborhoods can be found in the transects that separate Chinatown from most parts of the city. Though it is obvious that the residents of Chinatown seek comfort in each other, one can’t help but wonder if this is, in fact, a by-product of racialized landscapes. Policies forced Asian Americans to live in tight-quartered Chinatowns based off of the racist ideas that they were not actually Americans. Had this not happened, I think it would be safe to say that many more residents of Chinatown could be found at Boston Common in today’s day in age. In order to correct these injustices, full rights of the land need to be given to Chinatown, as well as stricter regulations on required affordable housing. Boston should acknowledge the importance of the neighborhood and give it the respect that other historical districts have. Even still, this is not enough. Chinatown residents don’t just need rights, they also need to feel like they belong. Though the right steps to achieve this are unknown, the City of Boston just needs to do something. The longer it takes to support this community, the more it will change, perhaps someday becoming unrecognizable. 



Barraclough, Laura. “South Central Farmers and Shadow Hills Homeowners: Land Use Policy and Relational Racialization in Los Angeles.”, The Professional Geographer, 2009, pages 164-186. 

Goyette, Braden. “How Racism Created America's Chinatowns.” HuffPost. HuffPost, May 22, 2019.

Richard Rothstein, The Color Of Law, New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, 2018, page 14. 

Valencia, Milton J., "Boston's Chinatown is poised on a precipice", the Boston Globe, 2019.

“A Brand New Boston, Even Whiter Than The Old”, The Boston Globe, 2017.