The History of Chinatown

 The large paifang gate to Chinatown, Boston.  Photo: Julia Sarocco

The large paifang gate to Chinatown, Boston.

Photo: Julia Sarocco

      Boston’s Chinatown is one of the largest Chinatowns in the U.S. It was first established in the late 1800s as a place for impoverished Chinese immigrants who were very much discriminated against.


     Prior to the birth of Chinatown, Syrian, Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants settled in the area. For about sixty years Congress prevented Chinese immigrants from bringing their families with them by reducing their labor migration.


     In the beginning of the 20th century, there was a major immigration raid which led to people collaborating in order to form family associations so that immigrants could find places to live and places to work. During the strike, Chinese workers moved eastward once the transcontinental railroad was complete because they’d heard of jobs in Western Massachusetts. They took the train as far east as they could and ended up in South Station, where they pitched tents in an area called Ping On Alley — the birthplace of Chinatown. Ping On Alley still exists today as a graffiti-filled parking lot. 

     Oxford Place was the first permanent settlement of Chinese immigrants in Boston. Today Oxford Place seems like a messy alley, but it was actually the best place to live back in the 1800s because it was secluded from traffic and children were able to play freely outside. 


    Chinatown was a Combat Zone in the 1960s — awarded as an official Red Light District. It was known for strip clubs, gay bathhouses, prostitution and drug dealing. The area was not safe at the time, with violence, death and substance abuse occurring. This went on until the city pressured the area to clean up and be a safer area in the 1980s. By the 1990s, peace had been restored in Boston’s Chinatown. 


    The paifang gate of the neighborhood was given to Boston’s Chinatown as a gift from the government of Taiwan in 1982. On either side of the gate is a foo lion, also known as guardian lions. The gate has two different sayings engraved on it, one of them being “Tian Xia Wei Gong,” meaning “everything under the sky is for the people” and the other being “Li Yi Lian Chi” which is a proverb stating that every good person will know manner, loyalty, honesty and shame.

 A welcome into the Chinatown neighborhood.  Photo: Julia Sarocco

A welcome into the Chinatown neighborhood.

Photo: Julia Sarocco


    Unfortunately, today Chinatown’s population is growing but Chinatown itself is shrinking. Property values have been rising dramatically, causing an overwhelming percentage of residents to be forced out of their homes when they can no longer afford to live there. Gentrification has been ruining the precious culture which Chinatown has to share. Meanwhile the city of Boston supposedly promises to preserve Chinatown by saving things like the historic row houses. The Chinatown community is truly trying their best, with very well-organized organizations like the Asian Community Development Corporation and the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. As of 2010, the population of Chinatown was approximately 4,500. Between 2000 and 2010, the white population rose by over 200%.