Rekindling relations

Aging immigrant associations seek an infusion of youth

Frank F. Chin, 77, of Boston, demonstrated a prayer to students in a Chinese immersion program in Springfield. Frank F. Chin, 77, of Boston, demonstrated a prayer to students in a Chinese immersion program in Springfield. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / July 20, 2009
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The old men climb a narrow staircase in Chinatown to a room filled with smoky incense, stacks of Chinese-language newspapers, and a shrine holding offerings of wine and cups of tea. For nearly a century the group has offered a gathering place for lonely immigrants, who banded together to help one another make it in America.

The Gee How Oak Tin Association of New England was their family when the US government barred them from bringing relatives from China. It helped them find jobs, rent apartments, and raise children who speak flawless English and go to college.

Now, the organization is looking to those very children for its survival.

Across Massachusetts aging immigrant associations, from Italian to Cuban, Irish to Chinese, are trying to attract younger members, fearing that their history and sacrifices are being forgotten by those who benefited from them most. They are trying to shed their images as stodgy, dark salons for older men and women by forming junior lodges, hosting mixers at chic hotels, and offering college scholarships to attract youngsters.

If that doesn’t work, they’re resorting to guilt.

“You have to know your own culture,’’ complained the president, Man Ho Chan, an electrical engineer. “A lot of kids, they’re all Americanized. Some don’t even know where China is.’’

The associations blossomed in different ethnic enclaves for similar reasons: Immigrants who worked long hours in rough jobs needed help navigating the language and rules of a new land, and contending with harsh discrimination. At the associations, there was a sense of belonging - and mutual aid.

The Sons of Italy sprouted in Boston in 1914, at a time when a New York newspaper referred to Italians as an “inferior’’ people. In 1975, Cuban exiles created the Cuban Cultural Center of Boston to gather in restaurants, homes, or theaters to watch Cuban ballet, listen to music, or talk politics.

In Chinatown, Gee How Oak Tin and more than a dozen other “family associations’’ started to sprout in the early 1920s when the US government was greatly restricting Chinese immigration. Separated from their families, the immigrants formed associations of people with the same surname: Gee How Oak Tin includes the Chans, Chens, Chins, Trans, Woos, and Yuans. Even if they are not related, they treat one another like family.

For years the associations were a comfort - and a source of pride. Immigrants who were waiters, launderers, and cooks had children who became doctors, lawyers, and engineers. As they prospered, the associations evolved into social and charitable groups, holding banquets, trips, and regular meetings - and they still absorb immigrants who are new to the country.

But board members began to notice that mostly older men and women attended the gatherings. Children either didn’t know about them, or weren’t interested.

“My kids say, yeah, yeah, yeah,’’ said Chan. “Their culture is basically computers, Game Boys and things like that.’’

Younger generations say they are unfamiliar with the associations, even though they are active with cultural groups in college. But they say they are curious.

“I’ve always viewed it as sort of an older member association, where they trace their roots and talk about past times,’’ said Susan Chen of Boston, 21, a senior at Stanford University and the daughter of a restaurant cook. “I don’t really know what it does.’’

Worried that the groups would fade, the leaders began to ramp up recruitment of younger members by phone and e-mail.

The Sons of Italy recently expanded “junior lodges,’’ for 10- to-18-year-olds, from Haverhill to Wilmington, Braintree, and Pittsfield; now they are planning one for Billerica, said James DiStefano, Grand Lodge president. The junior lodges, which have 500 members, teach children about Italian culture and history, and raise money for scholarships.

The Ancient Order of Hibernians, a longstanding Irish organization, has a youth group in Lawrence that runs arts and crafts projects and other activities and it is pushing to expand statewide, said Dick Wall, state vice president.

The Cuban Cultural Center of Boston started actively recruiting new members about a month ago, adding 30 people to a membership of about 100, said the new president, Alberto Vasallo Jr., the founder of El Mundo Boston, the Spanish-language newspaper.

Now they are planning a mixer at a Boston hotel, a picnic in August with traditional roast pork, and a Mass in September to celebrate the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba.

“The same needs that we had in 1975, you see here with the young Cubans,’’ said Vasallo. “They want to find each other.’’

Last year, the Gee How Oak Tin Association, which has about 1,600 members in New England, started offering scholarships to attract college students. Others are expanding family associations or forming new ones to attract a younger crowd, said Gilbert Ho, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of New England.

“We’re getting old,’’ said Ho, 51, who formed the Sam Yick Association of New England this year for the Jiang, Lai, and Ho families. “We need new blood.’’

The elders want to pass their stories to the newer generations.

Vasallo, 68, elegant in a shirt, tie, and wire-rimmed glasses, looks like any American businessman. But in 1965 he fled communist Cuba on a boat to Key West with only the clothes he was wearing, to start anew in America.

DiStefano, 62, said his father, an ice deliveryman from Abruzzi, Italy, used to haul blocks of ice on his shoulders up four flights of stairs to waiting refrigerators.

Chan’s father left behind a decent life in Hong Kong to give his children more opportunities than he had as a clerk. He toiled at a restaurant in Chinatown 12 hours a day, six days a week. Now his son is an engineer with a home in suburban Bedford.

“I cry when I think of this,’’ said Chan. “He slaved himself so that we could have a better life.’’

Lazaro López, a 44-year-old Verizon executive whose father used to be a janitor at the telephone company, joined the Cuban Cultural Center recently in hopes that the older members could tell him stories he lost when his father died in 1997.

“I want to know what it was like to live back then in the ‘50s and ‘60s in Cuba,’’ he said wistfully. “I know it was beautiful.’’

Older immigrants, such as DiStefano of the Sons of Italy, which now has 10,000 members in the area, said the detachment will worsen as the generations get older, unless something changes.

“The problem is I see we’re into our second and third and fourth generation of Italians,’’ said DiStefano. “They have lost some of the pride and some of the culture. If we don’t stick around to teach them, they’re going to lose it completely.’’

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at