Reflections on Chinatown, A Year Later

Last year, I wrote a piece about Boston’s Chinatown. A year ago Chinatown was a ghost town, ransacked by the struggles pandemic living brought and beaten down by the bombardment of Asian hate that swarmed the media and the streets. I remember the crowds of old East Asian men huddled around chess tables under Chinese paper lanterns. I remember Cynthia Yee, a blogger and writer dedicated to depicting life on 116 Hudson Street in Boston’s Chinatown. She would greet everyone in Eldo Cake House like a familiar aunty walking into her nieces and nephews home, shouting brave Cantonese as she ordered egg tarts, char siew buns, and Hong Kong style milk tea. Eldo Cake House, a staple Chinatown bakery for 50 years, sits on 36 Harrison Avenue. The milk tea was wonderfully aromatic and cupped nostalgically with one clammy palm, and in the other a tender char siew bun with an aroma that would fill the small bakery of only three wooden tables. When Cynthia strides into the shop, a flurry of Cantonese choruses out of the ladies behind the counter, wearing their signature forest green aprons. I sat there, right in the heart of Eldo Cake House, with Cynthia Yee a year ago, laughing at the jokes about old misogynistic Asian men, shedding a tear about the deterioration of our culture, rallying over the fight to preserve Chinatown. 

But as I returned to Eldo Cake House just last week, I was met with boarded up windows and a meager laminated for-sale sign taped on its front door. 

Although it’s heartening to see Chinatown crowded once again, full of college students looking for their Asian food fix, or families wandering around to enjoy the nice fall weather, seeing the boarded up windows of Eldo Cake House was a gut punch, and a reminder that this neighborhood is changing. 

Eddie was the bakery owner of Eldo Cake House. He had a stern aura to him, the type molded by decades of heads down hard work. When I spoke with him last year, he recalled struggling with the rising cost of living, particularly in rent where he had to sell half the lease to another store in order to keep costs down. “Very hard, hard for everybody,” he said. 

Eldo Cake House had an unassuming exterior. Below the forest green banner are floor to ceiling windows, where you can look into the various pastries, buns, and fruit cakes. Eldo’s cakes were neatly slathered in crisp white cream, with an array of glistening berries arranged on top in floral and elegant patterns, hinting at the moist yellow sponge cake inside with layers of buttercream. But sweets aren’t all this bakery was known for. Those char siew buns were delicately crisp on the outside but pillowy soft in the middle, the pork marinated in this thickened sweet and savory sauce. We ordered two more. 

The story of disappearing beloved businesses like Eldo Cake House isn’t new, and it won’t stop here either. It goes back to a wave of urban renewal in cities across the country throughout the 1950s and 1970s. Cynthia herself is a victim of urban renewal. In 1962, the Massachusetts Turnpike and I-93 highways reaped a seam in the fabric of Chinatown’s homes and communities. Approximately 1,200 residential units were evicted and forced to scatter, most ended up in the Combat Zone. 

“I was evicted – because of the highway! I ended up in the Combat Zone because I was evicted from Hudson Street,” Cynthia said. “And that was a major trauma. My Indian friend who is a young writer said to me, “Dear Cynthia, how will you ever forgive a highway?” I said, “I don’t think I have.” That’s why I write, that’s my revenge.”

The Combat Zone was an area of Boston’s Chinatown characterized as a chaotic red-light district that flourished in the 1970s until it’s cleanup in the 1990s. “It was the end of my childhood,” Cynthia recalled. 

Cynthia lived in a tenant apartment never graced by sunlight. Neon lights of naked girls and live shows flowed through the trash-laden streets. Constant beats of strip club music reverberated through the walls, pierced by wailing sirens through the night. Every morning the granite steps to their house had to be scrubbed from the Combat pleasure seekers roaming the night before. Her story is only one of many iterations of displacement throughout the years. Chinatown isn’t the same village community Cynthia grew up in. 

Although the neighborhood’s population has increased by 43 percent between 2000 and 2010, the Asian population has decreased over 10 percent, and the white population has doubled. The consistent pushing out of Chinatown’s working-class residents is driven by a rapid rise in housing prices. In Boston specifically, Chinatown saw one of the fastest-growing sales prices in 2017, increasing by $285,000. With an average household of $26,280 for Chinatown working-class families, luxury apartments are simply not an option. Even affordable housing projects are unaffordable, as these projects are based on residents making 80 to 100 percent of Boston’s median income, which is much higher than the average in Chinatown. 

With such forces against Chinatown, gentrification not only changes the neighborhood’s demographic, it also disrupts Chinatown’s cultural history. 

I stood in front of the now boarded up Eldo Cake House. I wondered where Eddie went, whether he finally comfortably retired like he always dreamed of, or his business was driven to the ground like so many other local gems throughout the years. I walked a couple blocks down to buy a dozen egg tarts from Bao Bao Bakery, hoping this one won’t suffer the same fate. 

Cover photo courtesy of wgbh

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