Every neighborhood needs a cheerleader. Chinatown's advocate requires special pluck and skill -- someone who can grasp the Tao of urban planning, medicinal bark, and roast duck, who views the territory as a rich expanse despite a compact layout.
Boston's tiny Chinatown can look cramped and dreary compared with the sprawl of Asian streets in New York, San Francisco, or even Philadelphia. It takes vision to see growth and possibility, and Bik Ng does. A chef at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and a former program director for the redevelopment agency Chinatown Main Street, the Hong Kong native has had a love affair with the neighborhood since she arrived in this country after high school. She lives in Boston's North End, but is a culinary Fodor's, regularly guiding neophytes along Chinatown's streets for one of her MeinDish Tours.
On a windy but warm Saturday, we begin outside the Chinatown T stop, passing brick offices and locked corrugated metal doors. The first settlers hailed from the West Coast, Ng says. The Chinese immigrants had been brought in to break a shoemakers' strike in Western Massachusetts. Once the factories were back at work, there was no desire to hire the men so they set off for Boston in the 1870s. The Chinese settled not far from Boston's railroad station, camping in alleys and then cramming into tenements. By 1890, folks referred to the area as Chinatown, but it took until the 1940s before Westerners began venturing to local restaurants.
Food is still the big draw. Ng points to one of the red jalopies parked along Beach Street selling tiger shrimp, $28 for 4 pounds. "If you know where to shop, you save money," she chirps.
We duck into Vinh Kan Ginseng Co. on Washington Street, where one side is the neighborhood apothecary. Headache? Can't sleep? Herbalist Eliza Ha measures out a mixture of bark, mushrooms, roots, grasses, even tiny dried seahorses that are then packaged for brewing to make a medicinal tea. A sallow youth with tattoos and multiple piercings is here, complaining of restlessness and insomnia. Ha heaps the ingredients onto brown paper and totals his order on an abacus.
The store, Ng says, thrives because immigrants with visa concerns can trust them. Customers "cannot call a doctor if they're not supposed to be in this country," says Ng, whose grandfather was an herbal doctor. The store also sells Chinese candies and dried sweets, including what Ng calls "salties," preserved plums with hard cores that she gnaws on, savoring their simultaneous salty and sweet tastes.
We head down Beach Street again. At one time, Chinatown ran right up against Boston's famed red-light district, the Combat Zone, giving the area a seedy tinge. Vigorous policing and rapid development pushed out the tarts and now the area is crammed with 6,000 residents, including Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Thai. Storefronts are filled with exotica from overseas. Van's Fabrics is a riot of golds, blues, and purples in dupioni silk and satin. A few doors down, Chin Enterprises on Harrison Avenue sells elegant stoneware and square dinnerware, along with rice cookers that could feed all of Boston. Ng lingers in Cathay Corner, where owner Kay Chin imports woodcarvings of dragons, lacquer chests, and hand-painted vases.
We turn left onto Oxford Street, where Ng points to the small brick plaza that marks the site where the first Chinese settlers built shelters. Nearby, the Sun Sun Co. evokes the tastes of home. A riot of leaves, stems, and tubers with unusual shapes fills the long refrigerated case. The store sells potato-like fuzzy melons, huge Chinese okra, spotted zucchini, delicate Chinese celery, and lotus roots the size of children's arms. In the back, suburban weekend chefs point out fresh conch and spear slices of salmon, still bloody, before they're weighed and packed. Ng settles for some lychees.
We thread our way through the streets that, on this day, are filled with street-fairgoers, and enter one of the area's older restaurants, on Tyler Street. Half the neighborhood appears to have turned up at China Pearl Restaurant for dim sum. Diners sip Pu-Ehr tea and wait for young women with damp foreheads to push stainless-steel carts past their tables, offering steamed dumplings, baked bun with BBQ pork, sauteed eggplant. Ng finishes with fried dough: chewy, sweet, and salty. "Like dessert," she coos.
Fortified, we head back up Tyler and to a narrow street with few businesses. Ng steps into the Chinese American Fine Arts Society to view the offerings of Boston Asian artists. Check Pui Lum hurls paint onto canvases, revealing dreamy forests and churning skies. One painting catches Ng's eye, but at $3,000 she passes it up. The lychees are enough, for now.
Suzanne Sataline can be reached at email@example.com.