Friday, July 5, 2019

The First Restaurants In Boston's Chinatown (Part 1)

Take a leisurely walk through Chinatown, exploring Harrison Avenue, Beach Street, Tyler Street, Knapp Street, and more. You'll quickly note numerous restaurants, offering a variety of Asian cuisines, although Chinese restaurants predominate. So many delicious options, from Soup Dumplings to Dim Sum, with many restaurants offering excellent value as well.

However, what was the first restaurant in Chinatown?

Chinatown has been around for roughly 140 years, and most sources claim that the first restaurant in the neighborhood was Hong Far Low, though the sources vary as to when it was established. Various sources have suggested dates including 1875, 1879, or even 1890. The problem is that little documentary evidence has been provided to support any of these claims. Instead, the claims have taken on a life on their own, becoming "common knowledge" and then repeated by numerous other sources.

The most evidence, though still scant, was provided in the book, Chinese In Boston 1870-1965, by Wing-kai To and the Chinese Historical Society of New England (2008). Their first piece of evidence was a photo, circa 1916, of a tiled door stop that stated "Hong Far Low Established 1879." The authors thought the tiled door stop might have been created in 1896 during building reconstruction, though it is possible it was created even later. Can we trust the date on this door stop?

Another piece of evidence in the book is a photo of a menu, alleged from the early 1900s, with a photo of Hong Far Low and it states, "This is the first man in Boston who made chop suey in 1879." However, this menu is from The Harley Spiller Chinese Menu Collection, and they indicate the menu is actually circa 1930, so not really from the early 1900s. The Menu lists 6 types of chicken chop suey as well as 13 other types of chop suey, including "Tomato with Beef."

Initially, we should be at least a bit skeptical of this book's evidence as it was provided only by the restaurant itself. They certainly wouldn't be the first restaurant or business to create a myth around themselves, making claims that were actually true. At the very least, we should seek out additional information, which could either support or refute these claims. If the claim is true, then we should expect to find additional supporting evidence through additional research.

I've conducted some of my own research, and it leads me to the conclusion that the Hong Far Low was not established in 1879, and was more likely founded about ten years later, around 1888 or 1889. In addition, if it had actually been founded in 1888 or 1889, then it definitely wasn't the first Chinese restaurant in Chinatown nor the first to serve chop suey. I didn't find a single shred of evidence to support their claim of being around since 1879.

For some context and background, let's start with a historical look at the first Chinese people that came to Massachusetts and the eventual formation of Boston's Chinatown.

The above photograph is from the Boston Daily Globe, August 7, 1902, and the accompanying article alleges that in 1846, Oong Ar-Showe was the first Chinese man to come to Boston. Although I will discuss the life of Ar-Showe shortly, as it is important, he actually wasn't the first to come to Boston. For that, we need to look back to 1840.

The Boston Globe, June 19, 1910, in an article titled, How Ah Soon Came To Boston-The Pilgrim Father of the Chinese, related the tale of Ah Soon, who initially worked as a clerk for a Chinese tea merchant in Hong Kong. One day, in 1840, when he was 17 years old, he was sent to deliver some tea chests to a Yankee ship. The captain of the ship needed a new cabin boy and decided to kidnap Ah Soon. When Ah Soon went below decks with the tea, the captain ordered the ship to set sail. Once Ah Soon realized what was happening, he asked to be returned to shore though the captain came up with an excuse why he couldn't do so, offering Ah Soon the position of cabin boy and ensuring he would be returned to China during their return trip. Ah Soon decided to accept the position, though he had little choice.

In the summer, the ship landed in Boston and Ah Soon disembarked to explore this new city. When the ship departed, Ah Soon remained behind and eventually was hired as an assistant storeman in the warehouse of a merchant who engaged in business with China. Ah Soon faced almost no prejudice in Boston, and was seen more as a curious novelty by the people of Boston. In time, he became wealthy, with a store located at 27 Union Street, and moved to the Maplewood area of Malden.

He eventually married an American woman and they had seven daughters. Since 1843, unlike a number of other states, interracial marriages in Massachusetts were legal. All of Ah Soon's daughters married Americans, as there were no Chinese men available. Sadly, just after their last daughter was married, Ah Soon's wife died, and he travelled back to China, thinking he would remain there. Two years later, he returned to the Boston area, living for another five years at his residence in Malden.

In 1846, six years after the arrival of Ah Soon, Oong Ar-Showe traveled from the Chinese town of Chirmee, located about 60-70 miles from Makowe, and settled in Boston. Though he wasn't the first to come to Boston, he certainly made a significant mark in Boston, more than any other Chinese who might have predated him. There is a possibility that a few other Chinese might have come to Boston after Ah Soon, but before Ar-Showe, but we know nothing about their identities.

When Ar-Showe arrived, he was about 22 years old and spoke only a few words of English. It didn't take him long to be hired by Redding & Co., as a tea salesman. Redding & Co. had a tea shop on Washington Street, and had recently started specializing in tea. They figured that the addition of a Chinese employee might be beneficial to their business. The company also employed a woman, Louisa M. Heuss, to work with Ar-Showe, including helping him to learn English. Ar-Showe also adopted an American name, Charles.

Ar-Showe spent five years working for Redding before taking a job with P.T. Barnum, to accompany him to the World’s Fair as an interpreter for a Chinese family. Ar-Showe spent about 18 months in Europe, before returning to Boston. None of the sources I found gave any reasons why Ar-Showe would choose to leave the tea business and take a job with P.T. Barnum. Did he just want to see more of the world? Had he been made a significant financial offer? Was he bored of the tea industry?

Upon his return, sometime in 1852, Ar-Showe opened a store to sell tea and coffee, located at 21 Union St, between Hanover St and Dock Square. The Boston Post, October 1, 1852, noted the opening, and praised Ar-Showe, stating, “He has had great experience in the tea business in China, and is called the best judge of teas in this country,..” The above advertisement is from the Boston Post, June 9, 1853, and you can see that it describes eight of the teas which are available for sale at his shop. The teas were sold in five-pound bags and could be purchased at his shop or through mail order.

In addition to starting his own business, Ar-Showe decided to marry, and a wedding was held in January 28. His bride was Louisa M. Heuss, the same woman who had been his attendant when he worked for Redding & Co. The Liberator, January 28, 1853, wrote, “Oong Ar-Showe, the well known China tea merchant of Boston, was married at South Boston, on Sunday, to a young German woman. The bridegroom, for some time past, has discarded the Chinese dress, with the exception of the queue, which is kept beneath the collar of his coat, and at first sight, no one would suspect him of being a native of China.”

Ar-Showe and Louisa had a son, also called Ar-Showe though he was christened as Charles in 1854, and they would also later have two daughters. They lived in South Boston for a number of years and then moved to the Maplewood neighborhood in Malden, which is where Ar Soon also lived. Ar-Showe was an excellent businessman, acquiring a significant amount of wealth. He was naturalized as a citizen in 1860, probably the first Chinese ever to do so, and voted in every Presidential and State election afterwards. Unfortunately, his wife died in 1877 or 1878, and Ar-Showe moved back to China for two years. He returned to Malden, staying only a short time, before returning to China permanently. His children remained behind.

The year 1870 would see the first significant influx of Chinese into Massachusetts. The Boston Globe, September 19, 1873, discussed some of the findings of the 1870 census. The city of Boston, with a population of 250,526, didn't have any Chinese. The communities of Brighton, Cambridge, West Roxbury and Charlestown also didn't have any Chinese. Somerville and Brookline each had a single Chinese person listed in their census results. We know there were a handful of Chinese scattered in other communities, such as Chelsea and Malden, but overall, the Chinese were clearly a rarity in most of Massachusetts.

In the far west of the state, the situation was a bit different. On June 15, 1870, 75 Chinese workers, who travelled from San Francisco, arrived in North Adams to work in a shoe factory. C.T. Sampson, the owner of the shoe factory, previously had labor difficulties with his workers, who all belonged to the Knights of St. Crispin, a trade union. The Knights were upset about the arrival of the Chinese, though they still worked at 4-5 other large shoe shops in the town. Within a week or so, the Legislature also tried to enact a law that would void any contracts with the Chinese that were for a term longer than 6 months. Fortunately, the House voted against it so it didn't come to pass.

It cost Sampson nearly $10,000 to hire and transport the 75 Chinese workers, who were mostly 16-22 years old and none had previously worked in shoe making. This group included 72 workers, 2 cooks (who were about 35 years old) and 1 foreman. The foreman was Ah Sing, who took on the name of Charlie, and had been in the U.S. for about 8 years. He was 22 years old, spoke English fluently, could read English, and was a Methodist. Of the other workers, they were divided into three companies, and each company was composed of cousins.

According to their three-year contract, the foreman was to receive $60/month for overseeing 75 men, and 50 cents more for each worker over that total. The cooks and workers was to receive $23/month for the first year, $26/month for the second and third years, and $28/month for any time after the third year. They also received room and board, and were housed at the shoe factory, with their own kitchen.

The Pittsfield Sun, August 11, 1870 reported that Sampson would soon send for 50 more Chinese workers as the initial group was working out so well, except for 4-5 of them who he might send back to San Francisco. By October 1870, Sampson claimed that he had now spent about $30,000 on his Chinese workers but he had already saved money on shoe production. In addition, the Chinese were learning English and had already sent $1600 westward, to pay off their debts, such as their original cost of passage across the Pacific Ocean. However, there is no indication at this point that Sampson followed up on his previous plan to send for 50 more workers.

The Berkshire County Eagle, December 1, 1870, noted how the Chinese workers were attending Sunday School at the shoe factory, which included learning English. Initially, a 12 year old boy, with a primer, showed up at the shoe factory to help teach the Chinese. Since then, other boys, from 12-14 years old, helped with the teaching, and some girls and older men joined them too. The Chinese integrated fairly well in North Adams and even the unions generally left them alone, primarily because the Chinese had willingly come to the shoe factory, and weren't actually slaves who had been forcibly brought there.

In the Pittsfield Sun, August 31, 1871, Sampson proudly stated that the Chinese workers had saved him about $40,000 in the past year and were producing 10% more shoes than the previous workers. And in November, Sampson noted that so far, he only had to send one Chinese worker back to San Francisco. By March 1872, one additional Chinese worker had returned to San Francisco on his own. Unfortunately, in August 1872, a 20 year old Chinese worker died, from rheumatism of the heart, and this was the first worker death. Thirty more Chinese workers came to the shoe factory in November 1872. A second Chinese worker died in February 1873, from pneumonia after two months of being ill.

The original three-year contract with the Chinese workers was set to run out in June 1873 but by the end of May 1873, all but 6 of the workers agreed to extend their contract. Those six workers generally either returned to San Francisco or China. In July 1874, there was a third worker death, from dropsy. By September 1875, there were still 93 Chinese workers at the shoe factory, so we can see that nearly all of the original workers had remained there for over five years, though that apparently changed during the next year.

The Boston Post, June 12, 1876, reported that Sampson only had 85 Chinese workers, which included 40 who had arrived a year ago. So where did approximately 50 Chinese workers go? Some likely returned to San Francisco or China, but at least a few of them may have remained in Massachusetts. The foreman, Charley Sing, was still at the shoe factory, and in October 1876, he was the first Chinaman in the area who was allowed to vote, and he opted for the Republican platform.

By February 1879, a sixth Chinese worker died, from typhoid pneumonia. A year later, in February 1880, there were only about 40-50 Chinese workers still at the shoe factory though several months later, it was noted that all of the Chinese workers would soon be gone. Some of these workers may have moved to other parts of Massachusetts though the newspapers didn't mention whether any of them so relocated.

During the 1870s, other Chinese men came to Massachusetts, including to the Boston area. Around February 1875, the first Chinese laundry, noted as a "California Chinese Laundry," opened at 299 Tremont Street in Boston. It was owned by Wah Lee & Co., a group of four Chinese businessmen. By May 1875, another Chinese laundry, Sum Kee, was opened at 217 Shawmut Avenue. Other soon opened too, and the Boston Globe, August 3, 1875, noted, "The rapid increase of 'California Chinese Laundries' in Boston is noticeable."

At this time, laundry work, which was done by hand, was laborious and time-consuming, so not many whites wanted to do such work. The Chinese were willing to do so, faced little initial competition, and quickly turned it into a wide-spread industry. In China, women generally did the laundry so the Chinese men who came to the U.S. quickly learned how to perform this work. In addition, starting a laundry cost very little, making it attractive to the Chinese who had little starting capital. This situation was common throughout the U.S.

In September 1875, two Chinese laundries opened on Howard Street while there was mention of another Chinese laundry, owned by Wahlee Ah Gewe, at the corner of Blossom and Cambridge Streets. In January 1876, there was reference to a Chinese laundry, owned by Sing Lung and his brothers, under the Newport House at 5 Cambridge Street. In January 1878, there was mention of a Chinese laundry at the corner of Northhampton and Washington streets. And in June 1878, there was mention of another Chinese laundry at the corner of Howard and Bulfinch streets. In comparison, the Boston Globe, August 30, 1877, noted how New York had over 800 Chinese laundries.

Despite the proliferation of Chinese laundries, a "Chinatown" still hadn't formed in the city. The Boston Globe, December 22, 1877, published an article, The Heathen Chinee, and noted that six years ago, there were only about three or four Chinese in Boston but now there were about 150-200 Chinese. The article stated, "One thing Boston lacks which San Francisco has--Chinatown. But how long will it be before there is such a noisome quarter?" That writer definitely wasn't pleased about such an idea.

Two years later, the Boston Globe, March 25, 1879, ran another article titled, John Chinaman. How He Lives And Thrives in the Hub. The article mentioned that there were only about 100 Chinese laundrymen in Boston, and a few other Chinamen, and it was alleged most were just here to earn money so they could eventually return to China. As the laundries were spread across Boston, the Chinese lived in various areas, as they usually lived in the laundry building. There still wasn't a mention of a Boston "Chinatown" or any Chinese restaurants. It also stated that there wasn't a "joss house," or Chinese temple in Boston.

There was a brief follow-up article in the Boston Globe, March 31, 1879, noting that the Chinese laundry trade had fallen off a bit, and that the owners of some of the first laundries had returned to China. The Boston Weekly Globe, September 9, 1879, went into more detail in an article titled, Washee. Washee. How John Chinaman Makes Money in Boston. The Chinese population in Boston was estimated at about 120, who were generally aged from 12-40 years, with an average of 25 years. The youngest one worked at a laundry on Leveret St, and the two oldest, around 40 years old, lived in the South End and East Boston.

About 100 of them were involved in the laundry business, working in 40 different Chinese laundries. These laundries were broken down into 30 in Boston proper, 4 in Charlestown, 3 in East Boston, and 3 in South Boston. Of those in Boston, 18 were in the South End, 10 in the West End, and 2 in the North End. The remaining 20 Chinese were involved in selling fruit, cigars, tobacco, and tea. There were several tea merchants, who had been in the city for a number of years, including Ar Showe on Union St., Ar Chang in the South End on Washington St, across from the Rockland Bank, Wong Ariock at 101 Pleasant St., and James Williams (who dropped his Chinese name) at 264 Hanover St. There was also one Chinese man with a fruit and nut store on Tremont Street.

What could surprise you is that there might not have been any Chinese women living in Boston at this time. In addition, there were only a small number of Chinese woman living in other communities in Massachusetts. We know that Ah Soon had seven daughters, who married Americans, but we don't know where they settled. Ar-Showe also had two daughters and we aren't sure where they settled either, though it is possible they continued to live in Malden.

In addition, we know that one Chinese woman lived in Chelsea. In the late 1850s, Robert S. Ar Foon and his wife came to Massachusetts, where Robert acquired a job as a cook for Josiah Caldwell, a wealthy American who spent Spring in Boston, Summer and Fall in Lenox, and Winter in Cuba. Robert travelled with Caldwell for a number of years. On March 28, 1872, while living in Boston, Robert and his wife had a son, Henry Smith Ar Foon, though a couple months later they moved to Chelsea.

Prior to 1872, Robert had become a naturalized citizen, so Henry was an American citizen by birth, likely the first Chinese to achieve that honor. Robert eventually partnered with Ar Showe, the wealthy tea merchant, and opened a restaurant and ice cream café on Broadway in Chelsea. At some point, these businesses were relocated to Winnisimmet Street, and they also opened a tea shop. These businesses may have closed around 1889.

Another Chinese wife lived in Cambridge with her husband and children. On May 26, 1879, Harvard University signed a contact with Ko Kun Hua to teach Mandarin Chinese at the university. The contract was three years and Ko was to be paid $200 a month. Ko arrived in Cambridge in September, with his wife, a female servant, six children and an interpreter, Chin-Tin-Sing. His Mandarin course was intended for commercial purposes, for those planning to travel for business to China. It was open to undergraduates as well as anyone else who was interested, except for women. Initially, he had a single student, who wasn't even an undergraduate. By August 1880, this student had done so well that he left for China for business. By February 1881, Ko was instructing three students, though by the start of June, he no longer had any students. Unfortunately, In February 1882, he became ill and died from pneumonia.

There are multiple reasons why so few Chinese women came to the U.S. at this time. First, many Chinese men came to the U.S. to make money, with plans to return to China once they had made a sufficient amount. It wasn't cheap to travel across the Pacific and would have been much more expensive for them to travel with their wives. The law would also place barriers upon Chinese women from entering the U.S. The disparity between men and women would last into the 20th century.

The Boston Weekly Globe, September 9, 1879, mentioned that a Chinese Mission, or Sunday School, was established in April 1876 by Miss Henriette Carter of Cambridgeport as part of the Home Missionary Society. Classes are held on Sunday afternoons, for about 2 1/2 hours, in the vestry of the Mount Vernon church on Ashburton Place. The school teaches the Chinese how to read and wrote English, as well as how to be a good Christian, including refraining from gambling, drinking liquor and using opium. In July 1879, there were an average of 24 Chinese students and in August, there was an average of 31.

I'll also note that a Friendly Inn was established at 36 and 38 Harrison Avenue in July 1877. The two buildings were arranged as one house, with the street level containing an office, reading room, and restaurant. The second floor was a site of parlors while the third floor had sleeping rooms. The Inn was a refuge for poor alcoholics, where they could get sober, and idea that was being repeated across the country by women’s temperance groups.

Unfortunately, the facility couldn't raise sufficient money for their expenses, and in July 1879, they had to close one of the two houses, the one with the restaurant. The landlord then rented that building to a liquor saloon. And by October 1879, they had to close the second house as well. This is where Hong Far Low would eventually be located but it continues to make little sense that it would have opened at the very end of 1879, especially as a liquor saloon was just opened at that location.

In 1879, with only about 120 or so Chinese in Boston, spread across the city, would anyone have started a restaurant with such a limited number of potential customers? How could such a restaurant survive with so few patrons? We also have to consider that laundries were generally open 6 or 7 days a week, and only on Sundays might the workers have any free time. Could a restaurant survive when their customer base might only be able to visit one day a week? Unlikely. In addition, as the idea of a "Chinatown" hadn't apparently been solidified yet, it seems logical that a Chinese restaurant wouldn't have been established on Harrison Avenue at this point in time. It doesn't seem that this would have been an opportune time for Hong Far Low, or anyone, to open a Chinese restaurant.

At this point, before progressing further, I should mention a dark aspect of American history, involving abject racism against the Chinese.

In 1868, the Burlingame Treaty was signed between the U.S. and China, expanding commerce between the two countries, as well as establishing liberal immigration policies, allowing Chinese to more easily immigrate to the U.S. Thousands of Chinese then came to the U.S. hoping to earn money which they could send home. Unfortunately, they often faced racism in the U.S., and it only worsened in the coming years. What was supposed to be better relations between the two countries became a system where Chinese laborers were exploited by Americans.

Some Chinese and Japanese women were being brought, sometimes against their will, to the U.S. to work as prostitutes. In 1875, the Page Act was passed, ostensibly to protect these victimized women, but the language of the act actually made it more difficult for any Chinese women to come to the U.S.  This was an obstacle that prevented numerous innocent Chinese women from coming to the U.S., even just to unite with their husband.

In May 1882, President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act which prohibited the entrance into the U.S. of Chinese laborers, skilled and unskilled, for a period of ten years. The Act had some exceptions for merchants, students, teachers, and diplomats. In 1892, the Act would be extended for another ten years by the Geary Act, which also added other strict legal requirement for the Chinese. And then, in 1902, the Act was made permanent until being nullified in 1943 by the Magnuson Act.

These terrible laws adversely affected the Chinese for many, many years and were fueled by pure racial prejudice. This article isn't about all of the harms of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and not the place to go into great detail about them, but I did feel it necessary to mention it as it clearly affected the settlement of Chinese immigrants in Boston.

In the report, The Chinese in Boston, 1970, written by Charles Sullivan and Kathlyn Hatch for the Action For Boston Community Development, there is a table providing statistics for Chinese immigration to the U.S. from 1820-1970. In the period 1881-1890, despite the Chinese Exclusion Act, 64,301 Chinese immigrants still came to the U.S. In the period 1891-1900, this number had dropped significantly, down to 14,799. In the period 1901-1910, the number had risen a bit to 20,605. If it hadn't been for the Chinese Exclusion Act, far more Chinese would have immigrated to the U.S., which would have included uniting families who were separated from each other. This certainly has much relevance to our current situation concerning the immigration crisis.

Now, back to the topic at hand.

During the 1870s and first half of the 1880s, the local Boston newspapers only mentioned Chinese restaurants in regards to San Francisco and New York. For example, the Boston Globe, July 19, 1885, noted that there were only six Chinese restaurants in New York City. "Each is famous for dish or style of cooking. The Delmonico of the number is Yu-ung-Fang-Lau, at 14 Mott Street." If Hong Far Low had existed since 1879, it seems likely the local newspapers would have mentioned it at least once when discussing these other cities with their own Chinese restaurants.

More information refuting the 1879 origin of Hong Far Low is found in the Boston Globe, June 11, 1882. There was a report of a fire, caused by a drunken tenant, at Mrs Osborn’s boarding house, located at 38 ½ Harrison Avenue. This is the eventual address of Hong Far Low and it is clear that their restaurant was not yet located at this address in 1882. And this will support additional newspaper articles, noting that Hong Far Low was mostly likely established no earlier than 1888. The boarding house must have been sold at some point prior to May 1885, when the police arrested a Chinese man, Moy Jim, for operating an opium den at 38 ½ Harrison Ave;

The first mention I found of the use of the term "Chinatown" for a Boston neighborhood was in the Boston Globe, March 13, 1884. There was an article about opium smoking, and how Chinese were leaving New York City, where it was illegal, to journey to Boston which lacked a law against opium smoking. The article mentioned the existence of "Chinatown" in Boston, noting, "The Chinese settlement on Harrison avenue is called by that name. The Chinese there occupy several blocks. They have their own stores, their own gambling houses, and their own opium joints." The article didn't mention any restaurants being in Chinatown at this time.

I found it fascinating that during the early 1880s, Harrison Avenue was also the home to a number of "Clairvoyants," such as Miss Millie, Little Adaline, and Miss Davenport. In early 1880, the Boston Globe started running a column of advertisements for clairvoyants and continued to do so throughout the 1880s. For instance, even in 1890, there were still over 50 ads for clairvoyants in the Boston Globe. In December 1880, it was noted that there were two clairvoyants at 32 Harrison Avenue, and in February 1881, it was mentioned there was a clairvoyant on the first floor and another on the second floor. Even after Chinatown was established as a neighborhood, some of the clairvoyants remained behind, and in March 1887, there were at least five non-Chinese clairvoyants within the area of Chinatown.

This also raises the issue that during the 1880s, Chinatown wasn't exclusively populated by the Chinese. During this period, the newspapers mentioned numerous non-Chinese businesses located on or near Harrison Avenue, where Chinatown was situated. You would find non-Chinese businesses such as hat makers, tailors, printers, apothecaries, and more.

It wouldn't be until an article in the Boston Globe, September 12, 1887, that there was a reference to Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. The article focused on an annual festival by the Chinese Free Masons, noting that the area of Chinatown was, "That short block of buildings on the left side of the street (Harrison avenue) going toward the South-End is owned and inhabited by Chinese, the number finding home and shelter under these roofs being sufficiently large to people a good-sized town." Chinatown had solidified its identity, and it was noted that on Sundays, Chinese from other parts of Boston came to visit Chinatown.

Chinatown included "...laundries, lotteries, gambling room....two or three Chinese restaurants, barber shops, tailor shops, grocery, crockery and fancy goods stores, and many other varieties of stores..." The writer of the article visited two of the restaurants, the first being on the second floor of a building that was next to a barber shop and the second restaurant, a smaller one, was also located on a second floor. The writer enjoyed a meal of "chop soui," rice cakes and boiled chicken. This is the first mention of chop suey in Boston, so we know it existed at least since 1887.

Unfortunately, the writer didn't provide any identifying information about the restaurants, such as their street number, restaurant name, or the name of the proprietor. You might think that Hong Far Low could be one of these unnamed restaurants however later information will cast great doubt on that that possibility. We might actually never learn the names of these first restaurants, so the question of the identity of first restaurant in Chinatown may be unanswerable. Would later newspaper articles provide additional information which might help us answer this question?

The Boston Globe, February 13, 1888, reported on a Chinese New Year's celebration in Chinatown, discussing a number of their customs. It was noted that the Moy Auk music band, a group of five fiddlers and banjo players, was hired to perform at the celebration. Though Moy Auk was only briefly mentioned in the article, he would make his mark on Chinatown over a year later, interestingly enough in the restaurant industry.

There was another article about Chinese New Year in the Boston Globe, January 30, 1889, and it mentioned how Moy Auk and his band came from New York City to play at the celebrations. Based on other information, it appears Moy Auk chose to settle into Chinatown at this time, thinking he might be able to make a living with his band. This article also mentioned two restaurants in Chinatown, located at #26 Harrison and #88 1/2 Harrison Avenue. No names were provided for the restaurant or their owners. These also appear to have been the only two restaurants in Chinatown at this time, and Hong Far Low was not located at either of those addresses. This seems to indicate that Hong Far Low did not yet exist.

Moy Auk finally decided to get involved in food in Chinatown. The Boston Globe, June 11, 1889, reported on a banquet celebration of the Chinese Free Masons, which was held at their hall on 36 Harrison Avenue. The caterer and chief cook of this banquet, for about 500 people, was Moy Auk, who also led the band. It wasn't clear in this article whether Moy Auk actually ran a Chinese restaurant or was more just a caterer.

More information about Moy was provided in the Boston Globe, June 23, 1889. The article, titled Chinese Restaurants, indicated that there were six Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. There had been a "swell" Chinese restaurant at #24 Harrison Avenue, just over the store of the Quong Hing Wah Company, but the restaurant owner was a serious gambler. He lost much too much money and the restaurant had to close. The article then mentioned that the two best Chinese restaurants were  now Moy Auk's at 36 Harrison Avenue and Hong Far Low at 38 1/2 Harrison Avenue. So, Moy had actually started a restaurant and wasn't just a caterer.

This is the first newspaper reference to Hong Far Low I found, and very little information was provided about it, except that it had an English painted sign that could be seen from the street. For how long had Hong Far Low been in business, considering it had a reputation as one of the best in Chinatown? The article doesn't answer that question though we can look through the lens of the other best restaurant, Moy Auk, which featured as the main topic of this newspaper article.

Moy was referred to as the "Delmonico's of the Celestials in this city." At this time, Delmonico's, in Manhattan, was considered one of the finest restaurants in the country so this was very high praise. Moy came to Boston, hoping to be able to play music year round, but learned that wasn't possible so he decided to open a restaurant. The talented Moy was a butcher, meat cook, and pastry chef. His restaurant, which was located beneath the hall of the Free Masons, was where the Chinese celebrities and dignitaries dined, as well as some white men, for a dish of "chop sui."

The article also stated that "Chop siu is Chinese for mixture, and it is a mixture which proved to be excellent eating. It is composed of chickens' and ducks' livers, gizzards and hearts cut into small pieces, fresh pork, celery, asparagus tops, bamboo shoots, and one or two other Chinese vegetables or greens, and dried mushrooms. These are all cut up into convenient pieces for the mouth, some sort of gravy is poured over the mass, which is then put in a spider and fried. While cooking the mixture sends out a very savory odor, and although its appearance on the table is rather against it, it is, nevertheless, very palatable." There isn't any mention that Hong Far Low was the first to bring chop sui to Chinatown, which casts doubt on their claim.

Moy's great culinary fame apparently arose within a time span of less than six months, so it wouldn't be a stretch to believe that Hong Far Low had also been in existence for less than six months. However, Hong Far Low hadn't garnered the same culinary recognition, though it was still seen as one of the best restaurants in Chinatown. If Hong Far Low had been in operation since 1879, you would likely assume that it would have been considered the premiere restaurant in Chinatown in 1889. In addition, the lack of any prior mention in the newspapers of the existence of Hong Far Low  before 1889 casts more doubt on their claim to have been established in 1879.

As a follow-up to this article, the Boston Globe, June 30, 1889, wrote that Moy Auk was very pleased with the write-up review of his restaurant. Moy just wanted to correct one point, that he did not generally keep chickens in the back of the kitchen, except for a single rooster at any time. His chickens, hundreds of them, were raised at his place in Winter Hill.

The Boston Globe, August 21, 1889 described the Chinatown celebrations for the Holiday of the Moon, providing basic information about the festival and its customs. There was a brief mention that Moy Auk, Hong Far Low, and other restaurant keepers did an excellent business during the festivities.

A follow-up article in the Boston Globe, August 29, 1889 wrote how Moy Wah, a laundryman who lived outside of Boston, came to Chinatown for the Holiday of the Moon and won a significant amount of money gambling at fan-tan. So, he decided to throw a banquet to celebrate. He hired Moy Auk, the "Delmonico of Chinatown," to cater the banquet, which would be for 12 people and would cost $12 a plate, quite a significant amount. An American reporter received an invite to this banquet and provided some information on the various dishes that were served.

Unfortunately, Moy's culinary reign, which hadn't even reached one year yet, was soon to end. The Boston Globe, September 10, 1889 reported that "It is the custom in China for merchants who have been successful in business to give a banquet to their customers and friends once a year." Moy Auk held one such banquet on September 9th, and the article wrote, "Moy Auk is recognized throughout New England as the crack celestial chef, and his dishes are greatly prized by the Mongolians, who say that they are prepared with a greater delicacy than those of any other Chinese cook." However, Moy was getting tired of the restaurant, and was awaiting the arrival of his brother who would take over the the restaurant, while Moy traveled the country with his band.

As 1890 began, Moy Auk's restaurant closed. The Boston Globe, January 12, 1890, reported that one of their writers had recently stopped by Moy's and found that it was closed. There was a sign there, written in Chinese, which the writer couldn't translate. He asked around Chinatown and one man told him that Moy was happiest as a musician and had left with his band. Moy's brother never arrived so Moy simply closed the restaurant. A great loss for Chinatown.

In the Boston Globe, March 1, 1891, there was a fascinating article about a banquet at a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown, which was attended by some of the biggest luminaries of Boston, the "cream of society." It was surprising to see so many white people dining at a Chinese restaurant all together. The event was held at a restaurant on the second floor of 29 Harrison Avenue, which was owned by Hand Gane Quoe, who also owned a hotel at the same address. The menu at this banquet was listed in the article, and it included Chow Chop Sui.

A couple years later, the Boston Globe, May 7, 1893, highlighted a number of "Chinatown Moguls. Harrison Avenue's Celestial Magnates, For Whom The Geary Act Has No Terrors. The article began by noting, "There are 1600 unregistered Chinamen in the State of Massachusetts." Later on, in discussing the establishment of Chinatown on Harrison Ave, it stated, "Their colonization of that district dates from 1880." It continued, "The first house to be leased to and occupied by the Chinaman was one on Oxford pl. It was in a wretched state of repair and scarcely fit for human habitation." And currently, there were "...over 1000 Chinamen have their homes and places of business in the neighborhood, and under the governorship of Sam Wah Kee they live the lives of just, orderly, law-abiding citizens."

The article went into detail about the Hong Far Low restaurant, the first time the restaurant had been described in any depth in a newspaper. "A prettily decorated room is the restaurant at No. 38 1/2 Harrison av. It is owned by Hong Far Low, who, although he has resided in America four to five years, speaks no word of English. But for all that, he is a very capable man of business, and a cook of no mean abilities. But Hong is not the chef of his establishment. He employs four men to take care of the culinary department. He himself devotes his time to keeping the books, and also an eye on his six waiters." The article continued, "From 7 o'clock in the morning until 10 at night his doors are open, and during meal hours a motley crowd of Americans and Chinamen gather around the polished, shining ebony tables and partake of the viands, tempting and otherwise, for which his oral menu calls."

What could you eat there? "At Hong Far Low's one may order roast chicken or duck, and when it is served he will find it done to a turn. Or he may call for 'k wusi,' and he will receive a dish of excellent spaghetti, perhaps accompanied with a glass of rice wine, which in color resembles whiskey, and which tastes somewhat like gin." Interestingly, one of the regular customers at Hong Far Low was Moy Auk, who lived at 25 Harrison Avenue, and continued to lead his orchestra, which still traveled across the country.

This article was fascinating for multiple reasons. First, it indicated Hong Far Low came to the U.S. no earlier than 1888, so there is no way he could have opened his restaurant in 1879. And if this was the case, Hong Far Low could not have been the first to bring chop sui to Boston as it already existed here prior to 1888. This article didn't even mention that chop sui was a speciality of Hong Far Low. It was around this time, 1893, that Hong Far Low started to acquire much of its fame, and maybe they decided to create a bit of a myth around their founding.

The Boston Globe, December 16, 1893, described how Hong Far Low hosted a special banquet for a newly married couple, and the event was attended by all the elite of Chinatown as well as a number of prominent whites, including government officials. The menu was provided in the article, which included items such as birds' nest soup, fried lobster, abalone, fried pigeons, and shark's fin. High quality Chinese red wine was also served.

A couple reporters in the Boston Post, December 24, 1893, wrote about their own dinner at Hong Far Low. Their article began, "Have you dined at the Chinese restaurant? No? Then you have not really entered into Boston's Bohemia; you have not experimented to the full in dinnerdom. To dine at the Chinese restaurant is really an experience worth having and it costs--well, it cost two Post reporters last week just $1.25, including a tip to the waiter." They continued, "The distinctive beauty of the Chinese restaurant is its novelty."

The reporters went to Hong Far Low, noting it had two dining rooms, and were given a menu that was written in both Chinese and English. However, the reporters weren't too adventurous, opting for very simple boiled chicken, rice and tea. So much for embracing the novelty of the restaurant. They tried to use chop sticks, though they had some difficulty. After their dinner, they enjoyed some sweetmeats and candies.

There was a brief mention in the Boston Post, October 6, 1894, that Moy Soy, who speaks English fluently, was the proprietor of a Chinese restaurant at 36 ½ Harrison Ave.

The Boston Sunday Post, January 20, 1895, reported that a new Chinese restaurant was almost ready to open. Located at 29 Harrison Avenue, on the second floor, the restaurant was owned by Sin Cheun Low. A skilled chef, recently returned from China, would helm the kitchen, and the restaurant was expected to open in a few days. It was noted that all of the waiters would be fluent in English as the owner wanted to attract more non-Chinese.

More information about this new restaurant was provided in the Boston Sunday Post, September 1, 1895. The owner, Kim Chun Low (note the different spelling from the prior article) welcomed the reporters who commented on the "gold and silver embroidered draperies and pearl inlaid furniture,“ noting the interior decorations had cost over $2000. They stated is was “..by far the most magnificent Chinese restaurant in Boston.”

Numerous Knight Templars, from across the country, came to Boston and checked out Chinatown. The Boston Globe, August 28, 1895, reported on their visit, indicating they well patronized the three Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, including Hong Far Low. The knights enjoyed chop souey but their women generally disliked it. They also generally had difficult with chop sticks, but were provided knives and forks.

As an aside, in 1892, there were about 1000 Chinese men in the Boston area, and 70% of them still worked in the 280 Chinese laundries spread across the city.


The Boston Post, April 5, 1896 had a section of Reliable Merchants, a place for ads for various businesses, and there were two for Chinese restaurants, pictured above. The first was Oriental Restaurant, located at 32 Harrison Avenue. "Everything in Chinese cooking served in the best of style. Imported Teas...After the theater come and try our specialty of Chop Sooy, Boiled Noodle Soup, Chow Mein, Foa Young An." The other, Kin Chun Low (which I've previously mentioned), is stated to be "First-Class Chinese restaurant; "Come and try our best Chop Sooy and all kinds of Chinese eatables."

Both the Boston Globe, March 22, 1897 and Boston Post, March 22, 1897 wrote about a banquet held at Hong Far Low, a send-off for six rich Chinese who were returning to China. It was quite a sumptuous feast, with no expense spared. It was most interesting that the Post referred to Hong Far Low as the Delmonico of Chinatown, a designation once held by Moy Auk in 1889.

The Boston Globe, December 31, 1898, had an advertisement for a Chinese restaurant located at 31 Howard Street and owned by Kaun Heung Lowe & Co. "The very best cuisine in both Chinese and American styles. Chop Sooy a specialty. Open all night." The fact that it was open all night, like other Chinese restaurants, would become an issue about seven months later.

The Boston Globe, July 3, 1899: reported that the police commissioner had ordered that Chinese restaurants could no longer stay open all night. Prior to this order, the restaurants could be open all nights except for Saturday. It was claimed this regulation was simply treating restaurants as it already did hotels, though some claimed this was part of a move to drive the Chinese out of Boston.

The police commissioners were involved in Chinatown once again. The Boston Globe, December 16, 1900, reported on a tour taken by Lieutenant Governor Bates, some police commissioners and other members of the police. They visited Chinatown, first visiting Lock Sen Low, a restaurant at 46 Beach Street. Many of the residents of Chinatown feared a raid when they saw all the police, and any contraband was quickly hidden. The tour continued on to Hong Far Low, where they had a taste of chop suey. The tour continued visiting a few other spots in Chinatown before moving on to the North End.

As the 20th century began, Chinatown would continue to grow, and new restaurants would open. There would be about 15 additional newspaper references to Hong Far Low, from 1903 to 1926, and not a single of those references ever mentioned that the restaurant originated in 1879 or was the first in Boston to offer chop suey.

The question of the identity of the first restaurant in Chinatown will have to remain unanswered for now. The first newspaper mention of restaurants in Chinatown was in September 1887 and chop soui was being served at that time. However, the article failed to provide sufficient information to identify those two or three restaurants. In January 1889, two Chinese restaurants were mentioned, though their names and owners were not provided, but their addresses were given, and neither address is that for Hong Far Low.

The first mention of Hong Far Low isn't until June 1889, though it is possible that the restaurant opened in 1888. None of the documentation supports the claim that the restaurant opened in 1879. As Hong Far Low didn't arrive in the U.S. until at least 1888, there is no way he could have opened his restaurant in 1879. And that would also mean he couldn't have been the first to bring chop suey to Boston as it existed here before 1888. Not a single newspaper article ever mentioned that Hong Far Low was established in 1879. The myth of Hong Far Low may sound interesting, but it doesn't conform to the reality.

I'll leave you with a question, what do you now consider to be the Delmonico of Chinatown?

Check out Part 2 of my Chinatown Restaurant History, covering the years 1901-1920)
Check out Part 3, covering the 1920s.
Check out Part 4, the tale of Ruby Foo.
Check out Part 5, covering 1930-1952

(As of July 18, 2019, I've expanded/revised this article due to additional research. It has nearly doubled in size. I've added more information, especially on the first Chinese that came to Massachusetts, including the shoe makers of North Adams. You'll also find information on Chinese laundries, a Chinese professor at Harvard, the first Chinese man naturalized as a citizen, the first Chinese child born as a citizen, the rarity of Chinese women, and more. You'll also find more pictures, some from old newspapers and some photos from the modern day.)

4 comments:

Suldog said...

Marvelous article, full of interesting tidbits about one of my favorite cuisines. Thank you very much!

Matthew Miller said...

Very interesting! Is the Winter Hill you refer to Somerville? I wonder if that house still stands and if there's a historic marker.

Lilly Ann said...

This is SO beautiful and intricate! Love it, thanks for share.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks for your kind comments! Matthew, I believe it does refer to Somerville, though I doubt the house is marked at all.