Cynthia Yee strides into Eldo Cake House and greets everyone in loud and confident Cantonese. The elderly customers dressed in purple puffer jackets and compressed socks shift to make room for Yee and her guests, as if for a respected family member. The women behind the counter, dressed in classic Eldo green vests, get ready to prepare Yee’s go-to order: nai cha with no sugar. It’s a traditional Hong Kong-style milk tea.
“They call me Missy. You know why they call me Missy?” Yee says, who is a blogger that writes about growing up on 116 Hudson St. in Chinatown. “They are making fun of my name because I am a teacher.”
The Cantonese banter continues. Laughs and playful insults bounce around the cafe as one of the women who work there prepares four aromatic nai chas. Yee calls it the bakery dialogue.
Eldo Cake House has been a staple bakery on Harrison Avenue in Chinatown for around 30 years. Famous for its perfectly sweet and savory char siu buns, deliciously creamy egg custard tarts, and fluffy fruit cakes, it’s a casual bakery with neon lights outside, a stainless steel kitchen lined with clanging pots and pans, and the smell of sweet char siu wafting in the air – a homey place with three square wooden tables along one wall.
But Yee also remembers the small mom-and-pop grocery store that was once in the spot Eldo now occupies, owned by two generations of a Taishanese family.
Chinatown is a 9-block enclave in the middle of Boston, shrouded by high-rise apartment buildings and offices threatening to further encroach on its borders. It’s home to a densely packed food haven, with over 100 related food businesses that were hurt badly by the Covid-19 pandemic and also face racism and xenophobia. Although life is slowly returning to its small alleyway, that’s not nearly enough to keep these businesses afloat. Preserving Chinatown means saving tradition, but a new generation is also stepping up to revitalize this neighborhood.
“It was empty,” Yee says with her hands around a warm nai cha in a small cream paper cup. “These ladies worked every day, but you couldn’t even sit down.” With restrictions to indoor dining, and a lack of outdoor seating on Chinatown’s cramped one-way streets, many businesses saw a huge drop in customers.
Some pockets of the Chinatown Yee remembers remain, though a few are left. Beside the iconic Chinatown Gate are elderly East-Asian men playing chess on the concrete tables. Cantonese, Mandarin, and other dialects mix together in that playful banter. But beside them is a plastic playground, with no children playing on it.
Chinese lanterns in red and gold hang above the chess tables, but in the backdrop is a high-rise apartment building with rent starting at $3,000.
Some restaurants hang up neon signs that create a soft, colorful glow at night. There are faded menus with 100 food items. The smell of smoking woks laced with Chinatown pollution hangs in the air. But beside those “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants are chain stores that only appeal to wandering tourists.
Chinatown is a home, not just a tourist attraction where outsiders get their once-a-month ethnic fix. But Asians now make up less than half of Chinatown’s population.
Despite all the changes, Yee still goes through the extra effort to come to Chinatown during the pandemic. “I made my car a mobile cafe because I didn’t want to stay at home,” Yee says. “So I had to turn the AC on, get my nai cha, and drink in my car. I just couldn’t stay away from my nai cha habit.”
Restrictions on indoor dining weren’t the sole reason Chinatown became a ghost town. Around the country, the number of hate crimes against Asians rose as much as 73 percent last year, according to the FBI. The terms “China virus” and “kung-flu,” perpetuated by former President Donald Trump, entered circulation. Memes targeted East-Asian restaurants, based on rumors of Covid-19 having come from Chinese bat soup.
The FBI recorded 310 hate crimes involving 408 victims in Massachusetts. In the early morning of February, 69-year-old Liem Tran was violently beaten and robbed in the North Quincy Red Line station. Tran still relives that fear and anger everyday. In May, 100 people gathered in Boston Commons for a Stop Asian Hate protest. Former Mayor Kim Janey said at the protest, “From the Chinese Exclusion Act to the internment of Japanese Americans to the sexualization of Asian women in our culture, this latest surge is part of a long dark history,”
The rise in anti-Asian hate is rooted in America’s immigration history. Chinese immigration to Boston began in the early 1870s as Chinese immigrants fled from racial persecution on the West Coast and looked for new opportunities. Some settled in Boston’s Chinatown – known as South Cove at the time. But only bachelor men could immigrate after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first and only law that prohibited people from a specific race and ethnic group from entering the United States.
Despite the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Geary Act of 1892, Boston Chinatown’s population slowly grew, from just 250 residents in 1900 to 800 in 1930. After the exclusion act was repealed in 1943, streams of women and families began to settle there. Parents worked in restaurants, factories, and garment industries while the children roamed freely and played in the street. That’s the Chinatown Yee remembers and loves.
The owner of Eldo Cake House casually walks into the store. It’s 3 p.m. He greets the women in that familiar stern tone of Cantonese. Yee gestures with frantic waving hands for him to sit. The old-timers around the area know him only as Eddie.
Eddie has been the owner of Eldo Cake House for around 20 years. He came to Boston from China in 1973 by himself at 19, working as a waiter, butcher boy and even ran a school for a few months before opening his car shop. Eddie bought Eldo Cake House with some friends as a retirement project.
“When we [first] came, you cannot even have a bakery here.” he says. “Never mind you got dim sum, never mind. You just come in and point with finger, and I want this and this, that’s it.”
The pandemic hurt his business and others, Eddie says.
“Empty, nobody came out,” he says. “But, you know, during that time we still open. Very hard, hard for everybody.”
Eddie remembers the stories of recent rising crime around the area. “Everybody robbing everybody,” he says. The cashier at Eldo Cake House was robbed during the pandemic, and the tip jar was emptied four or five times by thieves.
“Now, it’s getting a little better in the weekend,” he says, “but not in the weekday. A lot of people get used to stay home and work so they don’t come out.” There are far fewer people in the office buildings nearby to come for snacks or lunch.
This has been the fate of many Chinatown businesses post-pandemic. As rent increases and the neighboring Financial District draws closer, the vitality of Chinatown is in the crosshairs. Compared to other busy restaurant areas such as Newbury Street and the North End, where reservations are sometimes required a week or more in advance, Chinatown remains emptier than usual.
“We never been the same,” Eddie says.
But Chinatown has its allies. With more than 80 civic organizations helping fund and offer resources to the Chinatown community, there is still hope for this cultural hub.
One such small organization is The Chinatown Project, co-founded by Aubrey Tang and Billy Chen, which showcases the small voices of Chinatown, from small mom-and-pop shops to second-generation Chinatown kids opening businesses in this new landscape. It uses photography and videography to connect with a broader, younger audience on social media. The Chinatown Projects celebrated its first anniversary this month.
“Seeing the rise of anti-Asian attacks and xenophobia in general in this sort of national reckoning,” Tang says, “me and my partner Billy was just sitting on the dining table and thinking what are ways we can possibly contribute to these communities that have been affected by both these two pandemics – the racism, the disease.” The Chinatown Project was born.
Tang is a 24-year-old graduate student at Dartmouth College, and 28-year-old Chen works as a digital designer in Boston. But their passion for preserving Chinatown stemmed from their childhood experiences.
Chen grew up in Rhode Island, where there wasn’t a Chinatown at all. “[My parents] would bring us over to [Boston’s] Chinatown with our cousins and our large family,” Chen says. “It’s funny because as a kid, you just look at these things, and you’re like it’s just food. It’s not a big deal. You would never think of it as a tradition, or something that is so important to you.”
Tang, too, would visit Chinatown as a kid. “Looking back at it, I wasn’t able to really verbalize it or really put my finger on it,” she says, “but there’s just something so comforting about being in a place among people that look like you, speak similar languages to you, … it just feels right. You feel like you belong here.”
Among their many interviews with business owners, one sticks out to Tang and Chen the most. It was February with Sonny Chan, the owner of Hot Pot Buffet at 70 Beach St.
“He said that the rent prices are just so high, and there’s no people coming in here, ‘I just don’t know if we’re even going to make it to be honest,’” Tang says. “We were kinda trying to pull answers from him, we want that hopeful answer. But in the end we realize this is the reality. They really might not make it until the next month without any other sort of income.”
There is still a sense of resilience and perseverance among Chinatown business owners. Many use the Mandarin phrase, 坚持 (jiān chí), meaning to persevere and persist on.
“It just goes to show that they are still fighting to survive here,” Tang says. “Among all these other things, they are just fighting to even be able to keep their businesses open and continue to support their families. If they don’t have this, what else are they going to do?”
Many of these first-generation business owners did not receive quality educations or learn good English. Cooking became not only an expression of their culture and home, it became a lifeline.
“I think preserving the culture of Chinatown, that’s important to us because we see it in our families, we see it in our food we eat as well, and that’s something we don’t want to see go away,” Chen says.
With a new generation of Asian Americans moving in, preserving Chinatown also includes developing a new pan-Asian and Asian-American culture. Tang has seen a growing number of modern Asian restaurants opening in Chinatown. For example, Brian Moy, a second-generation Chinatown kid, owns popular restaurants Shōjō, BLR, and Ruckus.
“That really goes to show the direction that Chinatown is going in, and how a new generation is starting to take place.” Tang says. “People are changing, our experiences as Asians and Asian Americans are changing … I think it’s necessary for Boston Chinatown in order to bring a new crowd of people in.”
Transformation is coming. But how can change both preserve tradition and integrity, while also developing modern, long-term solutions to keep Chinatown away from hungry business developers? This is the balance that Chinatown is dealing with.
As the nai chas cool and char siu buns are consumed, Yee sits back in her chair and sighs a big sigh.
“If we ever took [Chinatown] out of the American fabric, it’s a big loss,” she says. “It’s the food, it’s the histories; we have a lot to learn about history of Asian-American immigration, the exploitation, the oppression – but the resilience. We survived no matter what.”