Jennifer and Jeff from Essex Corner: Two Perspectives on Boston’s Chinatown

By Kaylee Mattoon

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Essex Corner storefront, customers leaving satisfied. Photo: Kaylee Mattoon.

Essex Corner storefront, customers leaving satisfied.

Photo: Kaylee Mattoon.

 

     Essex Corner can be found at 50 Essex Street in Boston’s very own Chinatown. The asian crafts store has been up and running for a grand total of ten years. Coincidentally, Jennifer Cheng has been an employee at Essex Corner for ten years as well. When asked about how she got her job there, she chuckled. “That was a long time ago. I’m pretty sure I just gave the boss a call and he said to come give it a try and that was it!” 

    Although she lives in Quincy, she’s been working in Chinatown long enough to share about its art and culture. She spoke about the bad traffic in the area, including how people like to “double park” and “triple park.” Apparently, you rarely see the police in Chinatown. People come to eat, shop for groceries, and go to the spas or nail salons. “When you come to Chinatown right now, you will see a lot of restaurants, bakeries, and bubble tea.” 

    The crafts store has a wide variety of products, all of which Jennifer calls “Chinese gifts.”  These gifts include Chinese lanterns, basins, posters, incense, jewelry, stamps, candy, — you name it, they probably have it. There’s even a section dedicated to generic Boston t-shirts and hats for the most touristy customers. Winter weather accessories like hats, scarves, gloves and headbands are currently on sale for half-price. Jennifer says their most popular purchased item is their chapstick. Her coworker Jeff X, who has also been working at Essex Corner for all ten years, says people usually tend to buy items with Chinese symbols or lettering on them so that they make sure to embrace the culture. 

    Jeff was the eldest employee working at the time, and although Jennifer provided some useful information regarding Chinatown, older people tend to have more experience and information. Jeff is originally from China, but has lived in the U.S. for over forty years now. He says that Chinatown is getting much smaller as time goes on and that it is already much smaller than it used to be. Gentrification in the area has been causing people to be forced out of their homes. The majority of immigrants who live in Chinatown are making basic livings by working minimal jobs. Because they aren’t doing too much, they aren’t living very affluent lifestyles. Prior to the expulsion that has happened due to the gentrification, living a basic life was not a problem. When Jeff was asked how he felt about this ongoing transformation, he looked disappointed and shrugged. “You know, you have to face reality at some point. The area is starting over and there isn’t much you can do about it.” 

    Something that Jennifer and Jeff disagreed on was how important art is to Chinatown. While Jennifer said no one really cares about the art, Jeff argued that everybody cares. This was an interesting thing to see — two different perspectives from a younger person and an older person, both working in Chinatown. There is something that the two of them agree on though: Essex Corner has not changed much in the ten years that it’s been around, but their customers have. Each year, students from different countries come visit Boston and therefore Boston’s Chinatown. They agree that it’s always interesting to see where students who visit the store are coming from. 

    Jennifer and Jeff are very camera shy and so is the store. When one enters Essex Corner they will immediately see the “Wall of Shame.” This wall is filled with laminated pictures of shoplifters who were caught on camera, accompanied by a sign which states that this store has zero tolerance for shoplifters. Security cameras are placed in multiple locations throughout the asian crafts store. The greatest part of the “Wall of Shame” is that each photographed shoplifter has a date and time printed next to their picture of exactly when they were caught. In addition to this wall, there are signs which tell you not to take any photo or video of the interior of the store. You also may not bring any food or drink into the store. All sales are final, meaning there are no exchanges, returns, or refunds. If you’re only looking to purchase something small, you may want to have some cash on your person, the minimum for credit cards is $10. Aside from these rules, Essex Corner is a great store to buy anyone a Chinese gift. They are open every day of the week from 10am to 7pm and their staff are delightful people to speak with. With an “inexpensive” status and 4 out of 5 stars on Yelp, it’s hard to turn this place down. Whether you’re looking for something specific or nothing in particular, I’m sure you’ll find something that tickles your fancy. There is an abundance of Chinese art and Chinese culture to be marveled at in Essex Corner.