Chinatown_1902The South Cove was built on landfill in the 1840’s for the railroads and row houses. By the 1870’s, the industrial uses had turned the residences into tenements for new immigrants – the Irish, Germans and Jews.

Chinese men began to arrive in Boston in the 1870’s. Driven out of the West by anti-Chinese fervor and excluded from factories and stores, they started laundries in Boston and out-lying industrial towns. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the men could not bring their families and lived in isolation in their laundries. By the 1880’s, Chinatown had formed on Harrison Avenue between Essex and Beach Streets to serve their needs. On Sundays, the laundrymen converged on the area to meet with friends, buy food and supplies and sought solace and diversion through gambling and opium. However, Chinatown was viewed as a threat and a blight on the city and many attempts were made to remove it.

In 1900 the “El” was built down Harrison Ave, and Beach St. The noise and dirt drove out all the residents except the Chinese and garment factories.

City Context:

  • Boston economy booms as New England industrializes
  • Railroads in all directions connect to Boston
  • Downtown Boston expands with retail, theaters, finance, factories and warehouses;
  • 1872 Fire and increasing rent drive garment and leather industries south
  • Streetcars spur growth into near suburbs
  • South Cove deteriorates as immigrants move through

Physical Changes:

  • 1890 – Widening of Harrison Ave. to wipe out Chinatown
  • 1900 – South Station consolidates southern and western railways terminals
  • 1900 – The El built down Harrison Ave and Beach St. lowering property values
  • First phase of new garment buildings

Demographic Changes:

  • Irish immigration slows while Jewish and Italian immigration spikes
  • Political power passes from Yankees to Irish
  • 1882 – Exclusion Act prevents new Chinese immigration
  • Ethnic cleansing drives Chinese to industrializing mid-west and north-east
  • Chinese excluded from all industries and businesses except laundries

Population – 1900:

  • Chinatown – 249
  • Boston – 1,186
  • Mass – 2,968


Before 1870, there were only a handful of Chinese in Boston – tea merchants or servants. They were viewed as curiosities and exotic beings from an ancient fading culture. The servants were brought back by Massachusetts merchants who had prospered with the China Trade – exporting opium, furs, ginseng and ice, and importing tea, silks, porcelains. According to Morison in the “Maritime History of Massachusetts”, John P. Cushing “with only two clerks…did business of millions a year….and returned a wealthy man to his Summer Street mansion and his Belmont estate, attended by a retinue of Chinese servants.”

In 1845, the Chinese Museum on Washington Street recreated a Chinese temple and various rooms outfitted with furniture, paintings, etc. There were cases with exhibits of various artifacts and Chinese musicians in costume. The impetus for the Museum was the opening of China by its defeat in the Opium War. The catalog cites “The zeal and enterprise of individuals have also been awakened. Christian communities are adding to the number of their Missionaries among this nation of idolaters, and merchants are flocking to the shores of China in pursuit of gain.”

Man and Servant Lorenzo Chase 1846-52 Peabody Essex Museum
Lorenzo Chase. Tea merchants. Boston Directory. Brought to Boston in 1848 as a servant on a merchant ship.
The image of the Chinese in Boston was shaped by the Chinese Museum and Ar Showe. China was seen as a highly developed civilization with inexplicable customs and religion that had grown decadent and behind in science and technology. It was seen as open for exploitation and for conversion to Christianity. Thus Boston was unprepared for the influx of the Chinese who had worked on the railroads and mines of the West. These were mainly illiterate peasants from South China who came to escape the hunger and turmoil accompanying the forcible opening of China by the Opium Wars. 
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Ar Showe became a successful tea merchant. He married Louisa Hentz and raised a family in Malden. He was a well-respected member of the community.


On the West Coast and the Mountain States, there were 170,000 Chinese who came during the Gold Rush and the building of the transcontinental railroad. Upon arrival, Chinese workers faced discrimination and hostility.  They were paid less for their labor and were often threatened and suffered physical abuse. At the end of the Gold Rush and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, Chinese in the West successfully started fisheries and farms and worked in factories. But their efforts ran up against the increasing influx of European settlers who viewed the Chinese as competitors for jobs.  The emerging labor movement using virulent anti-Chinese sentiment drove the Chinese out of manufacturing, agriculture, and other jobs. 

Massacre of the Chinese at Rock Springs Harpers Weekly, 1885. Wikicommons.

Organized labor and their political allies passed anti-Chinese legislation in California and other western states. Anti-Chinese violence broke out all over the Pacific coast and the Mountain States driving out the Chinese settlements. This ethnic cleansing resulted in a mass migration of Chinese from the West Coast to the East Coast.

At the height of the anti-Chinese violence in Tacoma in 1885, more than 200 Chinese were forced out of the city. Their homes were looted and burned. Washington Historical Society
At the height of the anti-Chinese violence in Tacoma in 1885, more than 200 Chinese were forced out of the city. Their homes were looted and burned. Washington Historical Society


In 1870, 75 Chinese from the West coast were recruited by the Sampson Shoe Factory in North Adams, Massachusetts, to break the strike by the workers of the St. Crispins Guild – an organized labor movement of shoemakers. The Chinese workers were not only paid less but were more productive. That further inflamed the labor movement and added to the fear that resulted in Congress passing the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which was extended by Congress in 1892, and subsequently every ten years until it was repealed in 1943.

Chinese workers at the Sampson Shoe Factory 1870
Chinese workers at the Sampson Shoe Factory 1870. Athenaeum.

Sampson workshop – 1870 Harpers Weekly NY Public Library
Sampson workshop – 1870 Harpers Weekly NY Public Library

In Boston, Dennis Kearney, the charismatic labor activist from San Francisco, stirred up anti-Chinese sentiments against the newly arrived immigrants.
In Boston, Dennis Kearney, the charismatic labor activist from San Francisco, stirred up anti-Chinese sentiments against the newly arrived immigrants.


While it is not known if any of the Sampson Shoe Factory workers settled in Boston after their contracts were up, more workers continued to migrate to Boston. Excluded from manufacturing and construction jobs, most of the Chinese opened laundries in the rapidly industrializing towns and cities of Massachusetts and New England with Boston as the “hub” of the rail system.

Gong Wing or W. Lee in Milton laundry. 1890s. Suttermeister photo. Milton Historical Society
Gong Wing or W. Lee in Milton laundry. 1890s. Suttermeister photo. Milton Historical Society

Historical Atlas of Massachusetts
1935 map of street railways and railroads in Massachusetts. Historical Atlas of Massachusetts


1931 Laundry Map. Laundries were located along major street-car and rail lines and in industrial towns.
1931 Laundry Map. Laundries were located along major street-car and rail lines and in industrial towns.


A circa 1880 postcard of Harrison Ave in Boston’s Chinatown



By the late 1880s, Chinatown had located on both sides of Harrison Avenue between Essex St. and Beach St. The area had become undesirable because of the many streetcar routes and the manufacturing and warehouse uses generated by the terminus and railroad yards. But that same proliferation of transportation also provided access for the hundreds of Chinese laundrymen scattered throughout the region.

A community base was established with the services and sense of home needed by those who worked hard and lived lonely lives except for Sundays. Because of the Exclusion Act, they were men without their families. There were stores selling groceries and supplies; restaurants serving familiar food; barbers to cut and trim the queues; village associations where letters from home could be picked up and kinsmen to talk to. For entertainment and escape, tongs ran gambling joints and opium dens. Periodic episodes of violence broke out among the tongs over control of illegal activities.

Barber cutting the queue.
Barber cutting the queue.


In 1893, this farm near the north Somerville train station supplied fresh vegetables and food like sausages, cured meats etc. to grocery stores and restaurants in Chinatown. Boston Globe.

Chinese restaurant on Harrison Ave. 1890s. Boston Public Library
Chinese restaurant on Harrison Ave. 1890s.
Boston Public Library.

Bostonians were both fascinated and appalled by Chinatown, torn between support and active hostility. Protestant churches in Boston in their evangelical mission established Sunday Schools to provide English lessons and other aid in their effort to convert the Chinese immigrants. That led to the establishment of a permanent mission on Oxford St. and the founding of the Chinese branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association to provide rooms and services for the single men.

The liberal tradition of the abolitionists and churches defended the rights of the Chinese. One of the critics of the Chinese Exclusion Act was the anti-slavery/anti-imperialist Republican Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts and William Lloyd Garrison Jr. But the strangeness of the new comers in language, appearance, customs and the indulgence of some of them in opium and gambling caused fear in many, including the fear that the young would be corrupted.


Boston Globe 1896
Boston Globe 1896


Boston Globe 1892



Many attempts were made to drive the Chinese out of Boston – the most damaging of these was the widening of Harrison Avenue, then the center of Chinatown. Ostensibly, this project was to improve traffic flow, but the real intent was to force the Chinese to disperse. However, Chinatown emerged in better shape than before – having rebuilt to higher standards and consolidating their presence on Harrison Avenue, Oxford Place and Oxford Street. But the anti-Chinese furor and demands for expulsion continued to grow. In 1903, the murder of Wong Yak Chong, a Hip Sing Tong member by the On Leong Tong gave the police and the immigration officials the excuse to round up and deport unregistered Chinese. The raid took place on the Sunday of the funeral for Wong when hundreds of laundrymen from the Boston region were rounded up and held if they could not produce the proper papers. Two hundred thirty-four were arrested and about 50 were eventually deported.


Boston Globe




The raid was denounced by the clergy and abolitionists at a crowded meeting at Faneuil Hall.

Despite the efforts to drive the Chinese out of Boston, Chinatown slowly grew beyond Harrison Avenue. The opportunity for the Chinese to expand was created by the building of the El along Beach Street and degrading property values. The Irish and Germans who had first settled this area left followed later by Syrians and Greeks.

The Garment Industry, which had grown with the demand for ready-made class, established itself near South Station. This enabled the buyers and salesmen to travel to the major market in New York. With land prices depressed by the El, the industry expanded south of Essex Street and multi-story buildings were built, mostly on the corners to take advantage of natural light. The result was a mix of 19th century row-houses occupied by the Chinese and garment factories in loft buildings. The two worlds coexisted but did not mingle. No Chinese worked in the garment industry until after World War II.




Beach St. under the El. Photo: Bostonian Society
Beach St. under the El. Photo: Bostonian Society


Garment building next to row houses – Beach St.
Garment building next to row houses – Beach St.