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Chinatown Atlas exhibit unveiled at neighborhood reading room

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  February 19, 2013 03:50 PM

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Tunney Lee Chinatown Atlas.jpg

Jeremy C. Fox for

MIT Professor Emeritus Tunney Lee spoke at the unveiling of the Chinatown Atlas display at the Chinatown Lantern Reading Room.

Chinatown community members came together recently to celebrate the long-awaited unveiling of the Boston Chinatown Atlas exhibit, on display at the Chinatown Lantern Reading Room.

The exhibit is a collaboration between local institutions and individuals, including the Chinese Historical Society of New England, the committee for the Chinatown Lantern Educational and Cultural Center, Tunney Lee, Randall Imai, and many MIT alumni and community members.

Community members celebrated its opening on Feb. 15; it will remain open to the public until the closing of the reading room on Feb. 25.

Nancy Eng, executive director of the Chinese Historical Society, said organizers hope to display the exhibit at other sites around Chinatown in the future and are looking for community suggestions for appropriate sites.

Lee, a professor emeritus from MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning who led the effort, said the idea began germinating around 15 years ago, when he returned to Boston after several years in Hong Kong.

Lee worked with Imai and other volunteers to assemble photos from the Chinese Historical Society and maps from the Boston Redevelopment Authority to reconstruct the neighborhood’s growth and development.

Imai, who said he was Lee’s first advisee when Imai was a graduate student 43 years ago, admitted that as an architect he was fascinated by the gradual building, alteration, and rebuilding of the neighborhood.

“My interest in it is the physical changes of the city and the buildings in Chinatown over time,” he said.

Lee, paraphrasing Arnold J. Toynbee, said he wanted to avoid approaching history as “just one damned thing after another” and to examine the macro forces that affected patterns of settlement and community development in Chinatown.

The team split the neighborhood’s history into five broad periods that capture some of the historical, economic, and social forces that brought change:

Chinatown Atlas maps.jpg
Chinatown Atlas
Maps show physical changes in Chinatown.
Beginnings describes the “bachelor society” of early Chinese immigrants — most of them male — who came to the US for work and settled in the South Cove area as earlier waves of Irish, German, and Syrian immigrants had.

Emergence describes the period around the World Wars, when Chinatown saw an increase in families and began to coalesce as a community, with neighborhood organizations forming and restaurants and nightclubs replacing laundries.

Expansion covers the period from World War II into the 1970s, when the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act and institution of new federal legislation allowed more families to immigrate, and the community began to organize to protect its rights.

Consolidation covers the 1970s to 1990s, when more educated immigrants arrived and the local Asian-American population began to spread outside Chinatown while the Combat Zone adult entertainment district grew and then declined.

Strengthening describes the ongoing immigration growth over the past two decades and expansion of Asian-American communities into Quincy and Malden, while skilled and educated workers dispersed to high-tech employers along Route 128.

Lee, 81, personally witnessed many of those major historical forces.

His uncle served in World War II, enlisting as soon as he turned 18, and was among a generation of Chinese-Americans who saw their social status rise through their service to their country and the educational opportunities made possible through the GI Bill, Lee said. A photo of Lee’s uncle in uniform is included in the exhibit.

As an official in the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Massachusetts Division of Capital Planning and Operations, Lee also saw efforts to preserve Chinatown as institutional expansion and commercial development threatened the neighborhood’s identity.

Asked by a community member whether Chinatown would continue to survive and provide a haven to new immigrants as downtown real estate becomes increasingly expensive, Lee said the neighborhood had worked to ensure the availability of affordable housing and would continue to do so.

“Chinatown is here because people fought,” Lee said. “They didn’t have to take the inevitable consequences.”

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