March 17, 2023

Community Spotlight: The Women of Boston's Chinatown

This story first appeared in Main Street America's blog. Find the original version here.

“Back in the day, in the 1800s, and really up until the 1940s, 50s, 60s, it was only men.” Debbie Ho, executive director of Boston’s Chinatown Main Street, knows the history of her district well. As I speak with her, the history of Boston’s Chinatown feels real and tangible—animated by her presence within it. Although the district, like many Chinatowns across the country, was originally founded and populated predominately by men, it’s the stories of the powerful women, like Debbie, who have brought me here today.

“They were stowaways from China, sent by their families to ports in the US to make money to send back home,” says Ho of the men who came to Boston and other American cities in the 19th Century. “This was the norm for many years, well into the 1960s.” The Page Act of 1875 effectively outlawed the immigration of Chinese women to the United States and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned the immigration of all Chinese laborers for over 60 years and prohibited Chinese immigrants from bring their families to the United States. “It was, essentially, American policy that Chinese men not produce natural-born Chinese Americans,” wrote Sarim S. Patel in Archeology.

Aerial view of the Chinatown Gate in Boston, Massachusetts

photo by: Kyle Klein

An aerial view of the Chinatown Gate in Boston.

“Through perseverance, Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans established a community in Boston that provided services and a sense of home,” says Boston National Historical Park. Over time, Chinese American men with citizenship worked to build up their communities. “With their status assured, many Chinese men were able to travel to China to get married and have children who also gained citizenship status and were entitled to emigrate to the United States. This resulted in a slow but steady increase in the number of families in Boston’s Chinatown.”

Despite the growing number of women living in Chinatown, the demographics of the business community remained stubbornly male. It wasn’t until the 1970s that this began to shift. Debbie Ho’s mother was one of these pioneering women. She opened a garment manufacturing factory to capitalize on the rapid growth in the clothing industry at that time. “It was a man’s world back then,” says Ho. “She was shut out of the industry and given very little work.” As one of the few women competing in such a male-dominated industry, and a Chinese American woman at that, Ho’s mother faced significant discrimination. Clothing retailers would tell her they had no work, and she struggled to cobble together enough business to stay afloat. Eventually, she was forced to close her factory.

These difficulties were understood in a different context than the one we are familiar with today. “Discrimination wasn’t part of the worldview at that time,” says Ho. Many Asian Americans felt that the persistent struggle and unfairness they faced was simply the way the world worked in the United States. “It was difficult to identify the discrimination,” says Ho.

Despite this, some women found success with their own businesses in 1970s Chinatown. Ho remembers one friend of her mothers who opened a Chinese restaurant. She faced less discrimination because she wasn’t in a predominately white and male industry. Debbie remembers another friend who opened the first women-owned hair salon in Chinatown. Both women found lasting success.

Performance of the Lion Dance in front of the Chionatown Gate, Boston, Massachusetts

photo by: Chinatown Main Street

A group performing the Lion Dance on Boston's Chinatown Main Street, a member of the National Main Street Program.

“Today, it is normal for Chinese women to come into Chinatown to open businesses,” says Ho. The neighborhood offers a welcoming environment for new immigrants seeking to establish themselves in the city. In Chinatown, they can speak their native language, find familiar foods, and receive specialized cultural support from organizations like Chinatown Main Street. Today, Boston’s Chinatown is a welcoming, diverse neighborhood that embraces new immigrants and female entrepreneurs.

By: Marta Olmos, Communications Coordinator at Main Street America

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