Monday, July 22, 2019
The First Restaurants In Boston's Chinatown (Part 2)
It's pleasant to see that one of the first newspaper articles in the 20th century about Chinatown restaurants was especially positive. The Boston Globe, February 10, 1901, published an article with some general information about Chinese businesses from barbers to restaurants. It noted the utter cleanliness of the restaurants, “…the rear of one of the many Chinese restaurants. Everything about the place is neat and clean, as is also the personal attire of the chef. The Chinese are fastidious about the quality of their food, as well as the manner of its preparation.”
There was also reference to some Chinese dishes. “These Chinese chefs are especially clever in compounding that curious dish known as “chop sooy,’ a conglomeration of stewed meats and vegetables.” In addition, the article stated, “’Chow mem’ is another choice dish, and an expensive one, too.” It seems likely that “mem” was a typo or misspelling and that the dish was actually “chow mein.” This was the type of article that would entice people to check out Chinese restaurants.
A number of newspapers during this period would make brief mentions of various Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. For example, there was mention, in March 1901, of a Chinese restaurant, owned by Lock Sen Chin, which was located at the corner of Beach Street and Harrison Avenue.
Fears and concerns about the Chinese continued to manifest themselves. The Boston Post, August 30, 1901, described how hundreds of Chinese were illegally crossing the Canadian border, eventually settling in the Boston area. They were assisted by rich and influential Chinese smugglers, some who lived in Chinatown. The article was concerned that local immigration commissioners were doing little about this matter. Due to the racist Exclusion Act, it was difficult for Chinese to immigrate to the U.S. so some did try to illegally enter the country. However, this influx helped Chinatown grow and the Chinese certainly were hard workers, contributing to the community.
There were some problems with the Chinese restaurants, but they often were caused by white people starting fights. A Chinese restaurant at 31 Howard Street, owned by King Hong Low, was the scene of multiple problems over the course of a couple years. For example, the Boston Globe, September 7, 1901, reported on a fight that almost became a riot. Some white men started a fight and the other guests “stampeded” out. Unfortunately, two women fainted on the stairs out and were trampled, though there wasn’t any notation that their injuries were serious. One white man and two Chinese men were arrested for assault.
The next month, the Boston Daily Globe, October 31, 1901, reported on another almost riot at this same Chinese restaurant, with the article noting all of the trouble at this place in the recent past. This time, some Italians, who ate at the restaurant, tried to bring their dishes outside and the Chinese insisted they pay for the dishes. The Italians refused and a fight began, with almost fifty people involved in the fracas, wrecking the restaurant and there was plenty of blood spilled. Twenty women hid in a rear room during the battle. In the end, only one Italian and one Chinese man were arrested. An additional person, a bartender at a local saloon, was later arrested for stealing $30 from the restaurant during the riot.
The police explained a main reason for the trouble at this specific location. When the saloons closed at 11pm, people would then gravitate to the Chinese restaurant which was still open. The police also noted the area is frequented by “women of the street” and that the Howard Street gangs were also known to dine there.
The Boston Post, January 24, 1902, related the story of how an assistant constable from Chelsea, entered the Howard Street restaurant, claiming to actually be the Chief of the Chelsea police. He nearly caused another riot, as he complained about the food, the actions of the employees, and even insulted the appearance of the Chinese. He angered the Chinese who demanded to see his authority, and it was at that point that he finally backed down. He fled from the restaurant, and eluded capture by the police.
As there still were so few Chinese women in Chinatown, a number of Chinese men married American woman. Domestic life wasn’t always blissful. The Boston Post, August 27, 1902, interviewed Mrs. Loo Sun, the American wife of a Chinese tailor at 27 Harrison Avenue about her recent domestic abuse. Her husband had choked her, and was later arrested, convicted for assault and fined $10. Mrs. Loo Sun planned on leaving her husband and had some derogatory comments about Chinatown, stating, “A girl had better be shot before she ever comes to live down here...There are about 30 white girls in this vicinity living with Chinese husbands and we are all sick and tired of the life.”
In December 1902, there was a new Chinese restaurant, Hawm Fah Low & Co., located at 777 Washington St.
There was trouble at the famed Hong Far Low in August 1903. The Boston Globe, August 10, 1903, reported that two boys met up with two girls at the restaurant, and it appeared that they hadn’t known each other for long. The boys were upset they couldn’t get hard liquor so they began to break furniture. They had to be physically thrown out by the Chinese and the fight continued on outside. A crowd formed and when the police arrived, they couldn’t easily get through, so one officer fired his weapon twice into the air. The two boys successfully fled the scene but the girls didn’t, though it appears they weren’t arrested.
In December 1903, there was a brief mention of an unnamed Chinese restaurant at 46 ½ Harrison Avenue. And in April 1904, there was also a brief mention of an unnamed Chinese restaurant at 46 Beach Street.
More trouble at another Chinese restaurant, fulfilling some of the worst fears of the opponents of the Chinese. The Boston Globe, January 23, 1904, printed a horrifying article about the alleged abduction, imprisonment and abuse suffered by two young women. Two 22 year old girls, from Nova Scotia, had been in Boston for only about seven months and decided to dine in Chinatown one evening. They met Chin Tye, a Chinese man who lived at 20 Oxford Street with his American wife, Emma. Tye invited them back to his house to meet his wife and the girls decided to go.
However, once at the house, they claimed that they were stripped, given wrappers and Chinese slippers to wear, and locked into a room. They weren’t permitted to leave the house. They remained there for several months, where they “entertained” a number of Chinese men. Eventually, they somehow got word to a police officer who rescued them, and Tye and his wife were arrested. On January 28, the charges of abduction and imprisonment were dismissed against the couple, and they were instead tried on the charge of "keeping a house of ill-fame." They were convicted and sentenced to six months.
The Boston Globe, May 22, 1904, wrote about the passing of Old John Sing, also known as “The Sage” and “Old John,” who worked, for the last ten years, as the “custodian of the temple of curious in the establishment of Hong Far Low & Co.” Sing, who was 65 years old when he died, came to the U.S. when he was a young boy, and settled in Chelsea where he eventually opened a fruit store. When he was 23 years old, he married an African American woman and moved to Charlestown. The article stated he “was the first Chinese to embark in general business.” Sing was survived by his wife and their three children, Oscar age 19, Rose age 21, and Maude age 23.
It appears that Hong Far Low, at 36 ½ Harrison, lacked a liquor license as the Boston Globe, July 20, 1908, reported a raid by the police at the restaurant. The police seized 53 bottles of beer, 2 gallons of gin, a pint of whiskey, and 3/8th of a gallon of mixed liquor.
In the Boston Sunday Post, February 20, 1910, Representative Donovan explained some of the rationale behind his bill. “This proposed statue, says Mr. Donovan, is to keep girls out of Chinatown, and away from that centre of degradation.” He continued, “It is really a study to watch how the Chinamen trap these girls.” He then went into detail how women who went to Chinese restaurants were groomed and spoiled by the restaurant owners, slowly enticing them until they eventually led them into an opium den, convincing them to partake of that drug.
As written, this bill would even have prevented a Chinese woman from entering a Chinese restaurant with her Chinese husband, father or other male relative. Fortunately, Attorney General Malone, in April 1910, gave his opinion that the bill was unconstitutional. Thus, on April 22, the Houses rejected the bill but the matter wasn’t finished.
After the rejection, a persistent Representative Donovan asked for the bill to be reconsidered. He claimed that the Attorney General opinion wasn’t absolute and that the bill would be constitutional if Chinese restaurants were found to be more “injurious to the public morals” than any other class of restaurants. Donovan claimed to have evidence to show this was the case. Fortunately, his motion to reconsider was also defeated.
Massachusetts wasn’t the only state to attempt to restrict women from entering Chinese restaurants. The Pittsburgh Press, September 12, 1910, reported on a proposed ordinance which would close Chinese restaurants as midnight, but also would prohibit all women from going to Chinese restaurants, whether accompanied by a man or not. Mrs. Stella C. Masters, a leader in Pennsylvania’s temperance movement, claimed to have amassed plenty of evidence of the moral dangers from Chinse restaurants. “I have had even young men and women describe to me sights and sounds and incidents in these places, which, if published, would chill the blood of the right-minded citizen.”
There was plenty of people opposed to the ordinance, including Captain of Detectives William Elmore who stated, “We never have any trouble with these restaurants. The Chinese give us less trouble than any other class.” Surprisingly, the Pittsburgh City Council passed the ordinance but the Mayor quickly vetoed the bill, claiming it was unreasonable and discriminatory.
Though you would have thought the matter was settled in Boston, it was resurrected in January 1911 when Representative William L.V. Newton of South Boston tried to bring the bill forward once again. In February, Newton claimed that a lawyer had tried to bribe him with $150 last year to oppose this bill. There was some House discussion of the bill, and Henry Cunningham, who wrote the bill, said the idea behind the bill was to suppress crime. In March, the House decided to ask the Massachusetts Supreme Court to rule on constitutionality of the proposed bill.
Some evidence which would lend support for the bill came from a doctor at the Massachusetts General Hospital. In the Boston Globe, March 6, 1911, there was an article about a speech given by Dr. William F. Boos to the annual public meeting of the Watch and Ward Society. He stated that, “More than 10 percent of the doctors of the United States, as well as many of their wives and many trained nurses, are addicted to the use of morphine, and numbers of Boston young women who patronize Chinese restaurants because of a taste for chop suey and other characteristic Chinese dishes end by becoming confirmed opium smokers in Chinese dives in the rear of Harrison av.”
In the end, the Massachusetts Supreme Court was unanimous in their decision that this bill was unconstitutional, and this finally ended the pursuit of this bill. Well, almost.
The Boston Globe, June 17, 1911, reported on how three men tried to steal cups from the Red Dragon restaurant at 9 ½ Harrison Avenue. The Chinese tried to get the cups back, but the thieves brandished a gun so they backed off. The police were able to arrest two of the three thieves.
Numerous newspapers during September and October 1911, presented some intriguing new information related to the alleged first restaurant in Chinatown. Was this finally the answer that I've been seeking? Or would it only provide additional questions?
Jang Po, a leading businessman in Chinatown, was returning to China, with about $500,000 he had earned during his career. It was alleged that he opened the first Chinese restaurant in Boston in 1879, and served chop suey. He allegedly began with a modest restaurant and a few years later, moved to “more pretentious quarters.” In the fall of 1911, his restaurant occupied nearly a block. He also owned a grocery store and curio shop. It was also stated that his wife and children lived in Canton, China, and that he had only seen them once in the last 38 years.
Curiously, in all of the articles at this time, not a single one of them ever mentioned the name or address of Jang Po’s restaurant. Why was that the case? Did Jang Po own Hong Far Low, or a different restaurant? Such a strange omission and there weren’t any clues as to why they omitted that information. In fact, the articles were very vague about Jang Po's history, which tends to raise a red flag in my mind. What was the source for these newspapers articles? Did they only speak to Jang Po, or did someone else provide them the basic information?
In addition, which made me even more skeptical, I couldn’t find any prior mention of Jang Po in any of the newspaper archives or websites I searched. He just seemed to suddenly appear in a number of newspapers in September and October 1911, despite allegedly being in Boston for thirty-eight years. Why didn't anyone write about him prior to 1911? This information certainly didn't provide me any answers, only additional questions.
In February 1912, there is a brief mention of the Empire Restaurant Company of 34 Beach Street.
Leprosy fears! The Boston Globe, March 8, 1913, and Fitchburg Sentinel, March 8, 1913, reported that Wong Quang, a waiter at a Chinese restaurant on Oxford Street, was recently diagnosed with leprosy. Wong had been in the U.S. for eight years, and one of those years in Boston. It was unknown how he acquired the disease and health officials were examining the other restaurant workers, as well as those close to Wong, to ensure no one else had leprosy. Wong was to be sent to the leper colony on Penikese Island, off the southern coast of Massachusetts. In the end, no one else was found to have leprosy.
Representative Donovan returned, and he was still angry about the Chinese! The Boston Globe, April 6, 1913, wrote about a town meeting held for a number of Boston wards. Representative John Donovan, of Ward 7, complained about the growth of the Chinatown neighborhood, alleging that landlords were pushing out poor people so they could rent to the Chinese, who were willing to pay twice what the prior residents had been paying. Donovan also wanted to know why there were so many Chinese in Boston despite the Exclusion Act. In addition, he tried to push his restaurant bill again, to prohibit unaccompanied women from entering Chinese restaurants, and wanted another law to prevent the Chinese from carrying firearms. Fortunately, Donovan was largely ignored and his bill remained dead.
Though Donovan was largely ignored, a new report, House 2281, Report of the Commission for the Investigation of the White Slave Traffic, So Called (February 1914) raised concerns about the dangers of some Chinese restaurants. The report stated, “Some of the restaurants conducted by Chinamen in various cities in Massachusetts are favorite resorts of professional prostitutes and their pimps and customers. Certain white prostitutes solicit exclusively in Chinese restaurants, and cater only to Chinese patrons. Many of these are quite young women.” It also noted that, “These restaurants are also the meeting places of young white men and immoral young girls who have not yet become commercial prostitutes.” In addition, the report states, “Private booths in these restaurants are curtained, and couples may enter and draw the curtains together, with the understanding that the waiter is not to open the curtains until he is told to do so by the occupants. Young girls often become intoxicated in these places. Some Chinese restaurants have rooms upstairs which they rent to couples for immoral purposes.”
However, these warnings about Chinese restaurants were only a small part of the larger report, which also indicated numerous other places, from dance halls to lodging houses, where prostitution occurred. Thus, Chinese restaurants weren’t much different from many other establishments at this time. It wasn’t even a harm that primarily occurred at Chinese restaurants. It was more just a small element in the larger scheme of rampant prostitution in Boston during this period. However, that wouldn't stop some opponents from trying to use the information against Chinese restaurants.
The Boston Daily Globe, March 26, 1915, noted that The Bun Fong Low Co. Chinese restaurant, located at 32 Harrison Ave, was under new management by The Sun Far Low Co.
The restaurant appealed the issue and later that month tried to compel the licensing board to issue them a license. They stated they had just taken on a ten-year lease and had spent $35,000 in alterations. It is unclear what happened to their prior license, and why a new license wasn’t granted, though the restaurant alleged racial discrimination.
Second, another Chinese restaurants was sued for engaging in racial discrimination. The Boston Post, October 24, 1916, published an article about what might be the first damage suit against a Chinese restaurant for racial discrimination ever tried in Municipal Civil Court. The four plaintiffs were Norman Raynor, his wife Susan Raynor, Bernard Thomas, and Evelyn Gray. On Labor Day, they had attended the theater and afterwards went to Chinatown for dinner. At the Eagle Restaurant Company, 32 Harrison Avenue, they were told that “colored persons” weren’t allowed in their establishment. The plaintiffs sued the defendants for $110 each and the Court ruled in their favor, though the award was only $25 each.
A brief article in the Boston Post, December 14, 1916, noted that the Pekin, a new Chinese restaurant just opened, and it was located at the corner of Washington Street and Beach Street.
And another new one! The Boston Globe, April 3, 1919, mention that The Siwoo, a new Chinese restaurant would open that day. Located at 22 & 24 Harrison Avenue, the restaurant, under the management of Paul G. Mahr, occupied an entire four-story building and was “elaborately furnished in luxurious Oriental style.”
The years from 1901-1920 saw expansion for Chinatown and its restaurants, though there were obstacles. With perseverance, they did their best to overcome these challenges and attempted to attract more non-Chinese to their restaurants, especially by offering more American cuisine, from turkey dinners to roast beef. Some of the restaurants were also trying to out do each other in their size and grandeur.
What would Chinatown become in the years from 1921 to 1950s? There will be future articles exploring this period.
Check out Part 1, covering the 19th century.
Check out Part 3, covering the 1920s.
Check out Part 4, the tale of Ruby Foo.
Check out Part 5, covering 1930-1952