--The New England Magazine, v.28 (March to August 1903), China in New England by Herbert Heywood
Take a leisurely walk through Boston's 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, including a number of regional spots, predominate. So many delicious options, from Soup Dumplings to Dim Sum, Banh Mi to Ramen, with many restaurants offering excellent value as well.
However, what was the first restaurant in Chinatown? This question intrigued me so I conducted an initial online search to try to determine the answer.
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's possible it was created even later. Can we trust the date on this door stop?
Another piece of evidence offered in this 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 it wasn't 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 weren't 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.
Last year, I engaged in my own research into this question, leading to my initial five-part series on Chinatown and its restaurants. Since then, I've conducted additional research, leading me to expand and revise this series, but, my ultimate conclusion hasn't changed. I believe the evidence indicates 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.
Though the focus of this series is on Chinatown restaurants, I've included additional historical information for background, context and more completeness. The more we understand about the historical context and background of Chinatown, the better we can understand its restaurants. Initially, I'll start with a historical look at the first Chinese that came to Massachusetts and the eventual formation of Boston's Chinatown.
The British East India Company began importing tea from China in the latter half of the 17th century, though initially it was expensive. Over the course of about thirty years, the price dropped until eventually it was cheap enough for everyone, spreading tea consumption throughout the country. In addition, as the 18th century began, the East India Company had garnered a monopoly in the British Empire of trading with China.
Tea was introduced into the American colonies during the mid-17th century. Around 1650, Peter Stuyvesant, the director-general of New Amsterdam (which would become New York), introduced tea to the colony, where it became extremely popular. By the end of the century, it’s said that more tea was being drunk there than in England. During the 18th century, tea spread throughout the colonies, becoming common for all social classes, and by the middle of the century, the average colonist was consuming at least one cup of tea per day.
In general, the colonies had to purchase tea from British traders, though sometimes they bought from smugglers. And during the early 1770s, with tensions with Britain increasing, it’s said that about 75%-95% of the tea drank by colonists was smuggled into the country. Even with the Boston Tea Party and similar protests, colonists continued to drink plenty of tea, simply obtaining it elsewhere than from the British.
After the Revolutionary War, when the U.S. was no longer part of the British Empire, they were finally able to begin their own trade with China, generally selling sea otter pelts, silver, ginseng, furs, sandalwood, sea cucumbers, cotton fabric, and other items for various Chinese goods. American ships sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn on their way to China. U.S. received silks, porcelain, furniture, and hundreds of thousands of tons of tea.
According to When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail, by Eric Jay Dolin, “The China trade was critical to the growth and success of the new nation. It bolstered America’s emerging economy, enabling Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Salem, Providence, and other ports to thrive after the ravages of the war. In doing so it helped create the nation’s first millionaires, instilled confidence in Americans in their ability to compete on the world’s stage, and spurred an explosion in shipbuilding that led to the construction of the ultimate sailing vessels—the graceful and exceedingly fast clipper ships.”
Some statistics on this China trade were provided by The Trouble with Tea by Jane T. Merritt (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). “All told, between 1784 and 1790, forty-one American maritime ventures exchanged goods in Canton markets; some ships, such as the Empress of China, made several voyages. Over the next decade (1791–1800) another 166 American vessels sailed directly to China.” As for the tea trade, Merritt wrote, “Into the 1790s, tea made up at least half of the cargo value for most American ships trading in China.” In addition, “Whereas Samuel Wharton had reckoned that Americans drank 2 pounds of tea annually in the 1770s, a typical family of the 1790s might purchase and drink 4 to 5 pounds each year.”
On September 30, 1787, Captain Robert Gray, financed by Boston merchants, sailed the Colombia Redidiva out of Boston on a trading voyage to China, first stopping in the Pacific Northwest to obtain some trade goods, such as otter pelts. The ship returned on August 9, 1790, and then left for a second voyage on September 28, 1790, reaching China in 1792 and returning to Boston in July 1793. One of the seaman on this second journey was John Boit, from Boston, who was only 15 years old and the 5th officer aboard the ship. He kept a detailed log of the voyage, of which a copy survived, providing lots of valuable information about the journey.
A year after Boit returned to Boston, when he was 19 years old, he was made the Captain of his own ship, the Union. The ship, with a crew of 22, set sail on August 1, 1794, headed to the Northwest and then onto China. After a successful journey, the ship returned to Boston in July 1796. Apparently while in China, Boit hired a Chinese servant, called Chou, who was about 15 or 16 years old, and took him back to Boston with him. It’s likely Chou lived with Boit, especially considering they were only in Boston for about a month before departing on another voyage.
Chou would thus be the first known Chinese person to live in Boston. Around this time, other Boston captains may have also hired Chinese servants, and brought them to Boston, but if so, we lack documentation. Such servants likely lived with their their employers, especially if they only spent a short time in Boston before sailing off on a new journey.
Boit was given the command of another ship, the Snow George, which departed in August 1796 to the “Isle of France,” aka Mauritius, which is located about 500-600 miles east of Madagascar. Chou accompanied Boit on this voyage. The ship arrived in March 1797, and was later sold in May 1797, after which Boit decided to spend some vacation time in Mauritius. According to The Boit Family and their Descendants by Robert Althorp Boit (1915), John Boit wrote, “Took a house on shore, attended by my faithful servant Chou (a Chinese)—kept Bachelor’s hall—and in the gay life that is generally pursued by young men on this island passed a few months away in quite an agreeable though dissipated manner.”
Sounds like Boit enjoyed quite a fun time on Mauritius, and it then appears that he returned to Boston sometime during the summer of 1798, and again, it is very likely that Chou lived with Boit in Boston at that point, especially as it would only be for a short time before tragedy took Chou. On September 11, 1798, Chou fell from the masthead of the ship Mac of Boston, though details of this accident are scant. Boit took an extraordinary step at this point, having Chou interred in the Central Burying Ground in Boston, and erecting a tombstone for him.
The epitaph read, “Here lies interred the body of Chou Mandarien. A native of China. Aged 19 years whose death was occasioned on the 11th Sept. 1798 by a fall from the masthead of the Ship Mac of Boston. This stone is erected to his memory by his affectionate master John Boit, Jr.” Chou is probably the first Chinese person buried in Boston, and you can still visit this cemetery and view his tombstone. In the epitaph, the term “Mandarien” is not intended to be a surname, but simply a term at that time meaning “Chinese.”
Although Boit called himself “master,” it doesn’t seem that Chou was a slave, but it was more a master/servant relationship. Though the burial and tombstone may create the impression that John Boit was an empathetic person, there is a darker side to this story which most sources writing about this matter omit, likely more out of ignorance than intent.
At the time of Chou's death, it appears that Boit was preparing the Mac of Boston to illegally engage in the slave trade, and if Chou had lived, he would have accompanied Boit on this expedition. The Lancaster Intelligencer (PA), September 25, 1799, reported that the Mac of Boston was condemned in the District Court of Maine for a “breach of the laws of the United States against the slave trade.” The ship apparently left Boston in November 1798, two months after the death of Chou, and allegedly was headed to Cape de Verde but Captain Boit had different plans in mind, desirous of going to Africa to purchase slaves. The crew was unaware of his plans until several weeks into the journey. Boit eventually acquired 270 slaves, male and female, and sailed to Havana, Cuba, where he sold the 220 slaves which survived the trip.
The newspaper stated, “The record of these facts, will remain an eternal monument of disgrace to mankind. A savage, who had not abjured both nature and its God, would shrink with horror at this complicated tale of crime and misery. What then shall we say of a Christian, a Bostonian, who accumulates his wealth by this nefarious and infernal traffick.” Unfortunately, I’ve so far been unable to find out what happened with this court case though it doesn't seem likely Boit received any significant punishment as he continued to captain other ships.
For example, The Boit Family and their Descendants by Robert Althorp Boit (1915) noted that Boit was married in August 1799, and “During the first years of marriage, Boit’s wife, Eleanor, lived in Newport while he was at sea; later they moved to Jamaica Plain and then Boston.” In addition, Boit made voyages on the Mount Hope from Newport, Rhode Island, to the East Indies and back in 1801-02 and 1805-6. It seems likely that if he was convicted, any punishment he received was relatively minor.
In the early 19th century, there were some Chinese who, though they didn't live in Boston, passed through the city, generally as part of an exhibition, seen as curiosities. First, on August 16, 1829, the Sachem, captained by Abel Coffin, sailed into Boston Harbor, bearing with it Chang and Eng, eventually known worldwide as the “Siamese twins.” Robert Hunter, a British merchant, was also aboard, working with Coffin, hoping to financially benefit from displaying Chang and Eng to the world.
Though they were born in Thailand, Chang and Eng possessed Chinese ancestry, on both their father and mother's side, and were conjoined twins, bound at the abdomen by a five-inch long section of skin. The Boston Patriot, August 17, 1829, printed, “We have seen and examined this strange freak of nature. It is one of the greatest living curiosities we ever saw.” A number of physicians would also spend time, examining Chang and Eng. Then, Chang and Eng were exhibited at the ruins of the former Exchange Coffee House, which had burned down in 1818.
In Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous with American History by Yunte Huang (Liveright, 2018), it stated, “In the last week of August 1829, thousands of Bostonians, lured by a blizzard of publicity via newspaper reports, advertisements, handbills, and eye-catching posters, stood in long queues outside the tent at the Exchange, eager to get a peek at the curiosity from afar. Each of them would pay a stiff fifty-cent admission fee.” Soon after this display in Boston, Chang and Eng were taken to Providence, Rhode Island.
Another curiosity arrived in the U.S. on October 7, 1834, arriving first in New York City, allegedly the first Chinese woman to arrive in the country. She soon adopted the name of Afong Moy, and was more commonly known as the "Chinese Lady." Afong was put on display in New York City, for an admission of fifty cents, and eventually left the U.S. in 1837, only to return about ten years later. On September 7, 1847, she made an appearance in Boston, for only a 25 cent admission, for several days at the Tremont Temple.
The Boston Post, September 7, 1847, noted that she would “appear in her native costume, composed of the most superb Chinese Embroidery, and will also exhibit her magnificent Worshipping Robe!” In addition, it was mentioned that would would speak in Chinese, sing a Chinese song, and eat with chopsticks. She would also walk across the elevated stage, intended to “display (the extraordinary and peculiar characteristic of the higher classes of her countrywomen) her wonderful little feet.” At this time, the Chinese were still seen primarily as exotic curiosities.
One of the next documented cases of a Chinese actually living in Boston for a time occurred during the 1840s. 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.
We now return to the matter of Oong Ar-Showe. 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?
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.
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.
Commonly, these laundries had three main rooms, including the front room where customers came to drop off and pick up their laundry. A second room would be the residence while the third room would be where all the washing occurred. That stove in the washing room would also be used as their kitchen. Laundry was a laborious job, and the Chinese usually worked six days a week, and sometimes even seven. On Sundays, when they usually didn't work, they might visit and socialize with their friends and family in other parts of the city, such as eventually in Chinatown.
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. According to the Boston Daily Globe, June 18, 1878, there was another Chinese laundry located at the corner of Howard and Bulfinch streets.
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 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.
In comparison, Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants by John Jung (Yin & Yang Press, 2018), mentioned that "The 1870 U. S. Census listed 3,653 launderers and laundresses, as the fourth leading occupation among Chinese following miners, laborers, and domestic servants, but only 66 “restaurant keepers” near the bottom of the list."
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. U.S. law also eventually placed barriers upon Chinese women from entering the U.S. In 1880, the ratio of Chinese men to women was at 21:1, rising to 27:1 in 1890. This large disparity between Chinese men and women would last into the 20th century.
For example, the Boston Sunday Post, March 31, 1901, claimed that her prior name was “Oklahoma Belle,” which she acquired from her time as a bareback rider in the circus. In addition, she was supposed to be a doctor, having graduated from a medical college in Poughkeepsie. She was also now supposedly providing medical care for the Chinese. Much of this wasn't mentioned again in any other newspapers and can't be confirmed, except that a later newspaper specifically stated she never completed any medical studies.
Later, the Boston Globe, May 15, 1906, printed that Bella was an Englishwoman, who came to New York when she was very young. She eventually married a "renegade sailor," a white man and when he died, she moved to Boston. There was no mention that she was a doctor or had even been a bareback rider.
We know that Bella married Yuen Song (also known as Wee Yuen) prior to 1889, and likely during the early 1880s, and they lived at 29 Harrison Avenue, a residence that Bella would remain in throughout her entire life. In the Boston Daily Globe, June 13, 1889, the police stated, during an opium investigation, that “There is one white woman in Chinatown but as she is legally married to a Chinaman, the police could not molest her.” Though Bella isn't mentioned by name, it seems clear that it refers to her. As Bella might have been the only woman in Chinatown at this time, it's not too surprising that she was popular and would receive the designation of Queen of Chinatown, a role she apparently relished greatly.
Six years later, the police finally chose to move against Bella in a new opium investigation. The Boston Daily Globe, May 13, 1895, noted that the police made a raid on her residence, as they had information that it was an alleged opium joint. The police found plenty of opium, pipes and other paraphernalia, was well as four other Chinese men who had been partaking. Yuen and Bella were arrested, though the ultimate disposition was not mentioned. Based on similar cases at this time, they might have been able to pay a small fine to resolve the matter.
Two years later, the Boston Daily Globe, September 13, 1897 referred to Bella as the "queen of Chinatown," which is the first time I've seen that designation mentioned in print, though it became extremely common after this point. For example, the Boston Sunday Post, March 31, 1901, called her the Queen of Chinatown, and noted that she was now married to a second Chinese man, Jim Gong, who was dying of consumption. The article also mentioned that she was an opium smoker.
An article in the Boston Sunday Post, September 13, 1903, discussed that a number of white women had married Chinese men, noting that there were only 14 Chinese women living in Boston. “The police say that these mixed marriages rarely result in trouble. The white woman usually bosses the outfit and is careful to do nothing that would attract the attention of the police. She keeps her husband out of trouble and, as a general rule, is devoted to him.” The article also stated that none of these wives would dare anger or oppose Bella, the Queen of Chinatown.
Bella's residence was raided again, this time for illegal gambling rather than opium. The Boston Post, August 15, 1904, reported that in an adjoining room to Bella’s residence, the police were found "Chinese playing picu." They were arrested for the crime of “gaming on the Lord’s day,” a crime which was enforced numerous times, especially against the Chinese.
In the Boston Globe, August 23, 1905 and Boston Sunday Post, August 27, 1905, there was discussion that Bella Long, the Queen of Chinatown, might marry for the 4th time. Her third husband, Jim Long, also known as Ah Long, who had been a gambler, had died about a month ago. Her new beau appeared to be "Jim the Guide," who did guided tours of Chinatown, and his last name wasn't known by any of the reporters. The Globe article also mentioned that Bella was about 45 years old, still an opium smoker, and that in a racist comment, “She has lived among Chinamen so long that it seems as though her eyes had grown on a slant.”
Unfortunately, like her third husband, Bella was the victim of tuberculosis. According to the Boston Herald, December 23, 1905, the board of health viewed her as a health menace and had her removed to the Long Island Hospital. Bella didn't resist the removal. The newspaper noted, "She has been the Chinamen's acute adviser. She was true blue. She could be trusted. To her they turned when danger threatened and they found themselves at a disadvantage because of their inability to speak English fluently."
The article also mentioned how she mainly remained in her apartment, which was described as "dark, dirty, ill-ventilated and choky with the fumes of opium." As the officers came to take her to the hospital, she became chatty, talking about her life. She claimed to have been smoking opium for about 26 years, having started when she was 17 years old. Her original home was allegedly in Hudson, New York, though she eventually moved to New York City. While in NYC, when she was 17, she and a cousin went to the a theater and later stopped in an opium den. She spent seven weeks in NYC, before returning to Hudson, continuing to smoke opium, and became an addict. The opium sapped her ambitions, including her desire to study medicine.
In New York, she married her first husband, who was lost at sea while racing a yacht from New York to Ireland. Then, while living on Pell Street in NYC, she married a jealous Chinese man, who eventually tried to kill her. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years, though Bella pled for leniency so he only served eighteen months. Once he was released from prison, they moved to Boston, where he died. The article also noted her name was once Bella Hubbell, though it isn't clear if that was her maiden name or her first married name.
Bella also claimed to have been related to the Coffins of Nantucket. In addition, she stated that her father was still living in Jersey City. She claimed to still have wealthy and powerful friends, but she was a slave to the opium pipe and it guided her life. And it is clear that she never married Jim the Guide.
The Boston Herald, May 1, 1906, stated that Bella was dying, and probably only has days remaining. She had been a good patient, and received many Chinese visitors from Boston, some bringing her news, others seeking her advice. The doctors also felt that some of the visitors were bringing her opium, though they tried to deter it. This article also makes it clear that her maiden name was Bella Hubbell.
The Boston Globe, May 15, 1906 reported that Bella had died of consumption. When she arrived in Chinatown, she was young and pretty, and quickly a big hit in that neighborhood. She used to give audiences in her home at 29 Harrison Avenue, often reclining on her couch, smoking opium, though also warning people about the dangers of opium. The Boston Post, May 16, 1906, reported that Bella Long would be buried quietly and was unable to receive a Chinese funeral as her ancestors didn’t lie honored in Chinese graves. What is also interesting to note is that Hong Far Low, a leading restaurant manager, had acted as Bella’s prime minister.
A bit more information about Bella was presented in the Boston Herald, July 16, 1929. The newspaper spoke to a British musician, W.F. Cooper, who claimed to have met Bella back in 1903. He had heard stories that Bella subsisted only on tobacco, about two pounds a day. When he met Bella, she confirmed this story to him. However, he either misunderstood or was intentionally misled, as Bella smoked opium, not tobacco. The article also mentions that after Bella's death, her apartment became a tourist attraction, which cost people 50 cents to visit and view.
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.
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.
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.
During the next twenty-five years, Boston area newspapers reported on Chinese restaurants in San Francisco and other areas, though no Chinese restaurant had yet opened in Boston. Not all of the reporting was positive, and promoted racist allegations that Chinese restaurants served cats, dogs and other animals. One of the earliest such articles, published only five years after the first Chinese restaurant opened in San Francisco, was printed in numerous newspapers across the country. Locally, the New England Farmer, January 7, 1854, reported, “A California paper gives the following as a bill of fare at a Chinese restaurant in that city:--‘Cat Cutlet, 25 cents; Griddled Rats, 6 cents; Dog Soup, 12 cents; Roast Dog, 18 cents; Dog Pie, 6 cents.”
I was unable to find the original source, the California newspaper, which allegedly first printed this information. I later read Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, by Yong Chen, which claimed that this article began as a joke in the Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, January 21, 1854, a magazine printed in Boston. However, first, the New England Farmer article predated the Gleason article. Second, by reading the Gleason reference, there is nothing to indicate it was meant as a joke. In fact, based on the surrounding context, it appeared to be offered as a fact. So, I don't accept Yong Chen's assertion that this was intended to be a joke.
In addition, I have found absolutely no evidence to support these allegations, and similar such accusations have been discredited by others. Even unsubstantiated, these allegations hurt the Chinese, fueling hate and derision, making them seem less than human. They were fueled by racist stereotypes, such as that the Chinese were a dirty people. Obviously such articles deterred non-Chinese Americans from wanting to dine at Chinese restaurants.
Another article, in the Boston Globe, June 6, 1873, continued these wild accusations, noting, “Grasshopper short-cakes and potato-bug pies are plenty in the Chinese restaurants at San Francisco.” The Boston Globe, April 19, 1873, addressed the first Chinese restaurant which had opened in Paris in 1867, noting that “Paris has a genuine Chinese restaurant where cats and dogs are cooked for those who are fond of them.” These types of unfounded allegations would be lodged against Chinese restaurant for many years.
Now, we start to get to the heart of the original question, and whether Hong Far Low was actually the first restaurant, established in 1879, in Boston's Chinatown.
We begin, noting that 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 this was an 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 address is where Hong Far Low would eventually be located but it makes little sense that it would have opened at the very end of 1879, especially as a liquor saloon had just opened at that location.
As an aside, 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 were held on Sunday afternoons, for about 2 1/2 hours, in the vestry of the Mount Vernon church on Ashburton Place. The school taught the Chinese how to read and wrote English, as well as how to be good Christians, including refraining from gambling, drinking liquor and using opium. In July 1879, there were an average of 24 Chinese students and in August, there were an average of 31 students.
We know that in 1879 there were only about 120 or so Chinese in Boston, spread across the city, so why 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 have to realize that laundries, where most of the Chinese worked, 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, as an insufficient number of Chinese had yet to settle in this neighborhood, 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.
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 April 1885, when the police arrested a Chinese man, Moy Jim, for operating an opium den at 38 ½ Harrison Ave.
The Boston Daily Globe, April 14, 1885, reported on a raid at 38 ½ Harrison Ave, noting it had a dirty, red front door. The police went to this location around 1:30am, finding the front door open, and they entered, soon descending to the basement. They found an opium den, and a recent law against opium smoking had recently been passed in Boston. Numerous men were arrested, including many non-Chinese. The proprietor was identified as Moy Jim, age 25, who was described as "tall, dark and ugly." Again, the newspaper didn't mention anything about a restaurant being at that location, which would be curious if Hong Far Low did exist at that time. The police would also make a raid at 110 Harrison Avenue, arresting more non-Chinese, including a several women, for smoking opium.
The evening edition of this same newspaper reported on the court appearances of these defendants. As it was a new law, the judge was willing to be lenient, with those pleading guilty generally fined $10 without costs. Moy Jim, who was also known as John Moy, claimed ignorance of the new law. The judge entered a plea of not guilty for Moy, continuing the matter for three days. The article noted that the new law made it illegal to smoke opium or be "so deeply under the influence of the drug that there can be no doubt of the symptoms," but the latter aspect was extremely difficult to prove. In addition, it wasn't illegal to be present where opium was being smoked if you were not smoking. At his next court appearance, Moy's case was once again continued, this time to May 1, and later continued once again, though I didn't locate the ultimate disposition of his case.
The Boston Daily Globe, September 26, 1885, went into much more detail about the problems with opium in Boston. The newspaper had conducted its own investigation, publicly exposing opium joints at 55 Pleasant Street, owned by Sam Lee, and 38 1/2 Harrison Avenue, owned by Moy Lee. Based on their findings, the Legislature finally passed a law profiting the sale or use of opium for smoking. Since the law passed, there had been few arrests so the Globe decided to conduct a new investigation. The journalists located a few other opium dens in Chinatown, including at 36 1/2 Harrison Avenue and 33 1/2 Howard Street. Another opium den, not run by the Chinese, was found in the West End, at 96 Court Street. And still other opium dens, owned by white people, were found in other parts of the city.
The first mention I found of the use of the term "Chinatown" for a Boston neighborhood was in the Boston Daily 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, though that changed in 1885. 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.
As some background, the Boston Post, February 9, 1891, printed a bit of history on this area. Harrison Avenue, which was originally called Front Street, once extended from Beach Street to South Boston. It was originally referred to Front Street as it was "fronted" on salt water, and acquired its new name in homage to President Harrison. The street was a bit of an oddity as it was so long and straight, compared to most of the other streets in Boston which were short and/or crooked. The section of Harrison Avenue, between Beach and Essex, was originally known as Rainsford Lane, named after Deacon Edward Rainsford.
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 could find non-Chinese businesses such as hat makers, tailors, printers, apothecaries, and more.
Harrison Avenue would eventually undergo a widening, which, in part, was intended to force the Chinese to move out of this neighborhood. Initially, the Boston Globe, September 15, 1885, reported that the Board of Street Commissioners was requested to report to the City Council on the estimated cost of widening Harrison Avenue, from Essex Street to Beach Street. A year later, the Boston Globe, September 24, 1886, mentioned that the Board of Street Commissioners requested $10,250 for the street widening and it was granted. Work began on the widening in January 1887. The Boston Post, May 20, 1887, then reported that the final report showed the total cost of the street widening would be $125,000. I'll discuss more about this project later in this article.
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.
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.
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.
And as an aside, the Boston Daily Globe, June 13, 1889, reported that Hattie Gilman died from opium smoking at 16 Oxford Street last Sunday. The police then raided Chinatown, described as “Chinatown is on the left-hand side of Harrison Avenue between Essex and Beach street.” The police mentioned that four years ago there were many opium dens in Chinatown, and because it was such a significant problem, laws were enacted to counter it. Then they stated that it was no longer a serious problem, and there were very few opium dens in Chinatown, and few of those catered to women. During their raids, they found a few Chinese smoking but no white people.
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.
One of the first tongs which was established in Chinatown, likely around 1890, may have been the Hop Dock Tong, the "United Gains Club." Tongs were secret, sworn Chinese brotherhoods which were claimed to have been formed for a variety of social or business purposes but often engaged in criminal activities. The Chinese term for "tong" literally means "chamber," and can actually be used to refer to many different organizations, including many without any connection to criminal activity.
During the 19th century, maybe only one tong, the Hop Dock Tong, existed in Boston's Chinatown, and its power seemed more limited. There were worries about violence but they didn't seem to come to fruition. However, during the early 20th century, new tongs would assemble and cause trouble, including murder, which I will discuss in detail in my future expansion of Part 2 of this series.
The Boston Globe, July 9, 1892, reported on gambling charges lodged against Goon Dong, of 18 Harrison Avenue, and Chin Gin (also known as "Sport"), of 15 Harrison Avenue. Six other Chinese complained to the police that Goon and Chin were operating gambling dens, and one of those Chinese was Yee Sin, a West End laundryman. Yee and others claimed to have lost money at a fan tan game run by the defendants. Chin alleged that the complaining Chinese are engaging in blackmail, trying to force them to make pay-offs. There is also the allegation that "highbinders" may get involved. Highbinders were said to be the enforcers of Chinese tong society, those who would commonly be hired to kill other Chinese.
More information on this matter was found in the Boston Post, July 22, 1892, which mentioned that the Hop Dock Tong had been around for at least two years, and was run by six men, including Yee Sin, Yee Henmy, Yee Wan, Goon Doy, Yee Jung, and Goon Hoy Yow. The article stated Goon Dong owned a merchandise store at 18 Harrison Avenue, and had been paying the tong $4 a week, basically protection money. The tong then wanted Goon to join them, and he refused the offer. The tong allegedly threatened to get them charged with gambling unless Goon paid them $100, which he again refused. Eventually though, he paid $75 to make the matter go away.
The Boston Globe, February 9, 1891, referenced Chin Gin, aka Sport, noting that he was one of the best known Chinese in Chinatown, partially because he has a Chinese wife, a rarity at the time as there were allegedly only two Chinese women in Boston at that time. Chin also operated a tea store at 15 Harrison Avenue, living on the second floor. However, the Boston Globe, April 5, 1891, stated that Chin was a tailor by profession and his Chinese wife was the only Chinese woman in Boston.
The court case continued and the Boston Globe, July 18, 1892, claimed that Chinatown was divided into two groups, the prosperous merchants and the gamblers and others with little money. It's alleged there are Highbinders in Chinatown, who help to enforce blackmail schemes against the merchants. Chin Gin alleged that some time ago his cousin, who operated a laundry in Dover, New Hampshire, was shot and killed by some connected to the "Highbinder gang." The authorities investigated the matter but were unable to resolve it, and the Chinese settled the matter amidst each other with a monetary payment. The police were fearful that this entire matter could engulf Chinatown in a wave of violence.
Fortunately for Chin Gin, the Boston Globe, July 28, 1892, reported that the gambling charges against him were discharged as the judge didn't believe there was sufficient evidence against him. However, his legal woes weren't over and would eventually become much worse.
The Boston Globe, December 5, 1893, reported that Chin had fled the city, being pursued by U.S. officers. It's alleged that Chin ran an illegal operation, providing fraudulent identification documents to other Chinese, allowing them to avoid immigration restrictions. It was also claimed his tea house was fraudulent, and that he allowed other Chinese to become "partners" of the operation, so other Chinese could be seen as merchants and allowed entry into the U.S. Chin was also accused of leading a smuggling ring, bringing Chinese over the Canadian border. Finally, it was alleged he was wanted for murder in San Francisco, having killed another Chinese over a Chinese woman.
Chin married this woman, named Yum Yum, and she lived with him in Chinatown, being one of only three Chinese women in Boston. However, he eventually took up with a white girl, well known in the theater industry, who lived in an apartment on Essex Street. His wife learned of his affair and threatened to reveal everything about his illegal activities unless he gave up the white girl. He told his wife he would do so, but he didn't follow through. When the local heat on his activities got too intense, Chin and his wife fled Boston.
Chin owes plenty of other Chinese, possibly to a total of $50,000, and the U.S. authorities consider Chin to be "one of the cleverest swindlers and confidence men in the country, and that he has reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars from his unsuspecting countrymen." When the police searched his tea shop, they determined the total contents weren't worth more than about $100, with tea chests filled with old newspapers and cases supposed to be holding silks had sawdust instead.
Strangely, when Chin Gin surfaced in San Francisco, there was no mention of him being wanted for murder in San Francisco, or wanted in Boston for various crimes. Unless the newspaper was referring to a different Chin Gin, who also spent time in Boston, which is a possibility. The San Francisco Call, March 1, 1899, stated that Chin Gin, about 13 years ago, had leased a lodging house with his cousin, Chin Goey, who was also a member of the Hop Sing tong. Shortly thereafter, Chin Gin moved to Boston, returning recently and sought money from Goey from their joint venture. Goey refused to pay him anything, and Gin somehow got the landlord to sign the lease over to solely him.
Goey demanded money from Gin, threatening to have him killed if he didn't pay. Gin had Goey arrested, and even in police custody, Goey continued to loudly threaten the life of Gin. The matter was submitted to the Six Companies, who decided in favor of Gin. The death threat against Gin was supposed to be called off as well.
As an aside, in 1892, there were about 1000 Chinese men residing in the Boston area, and 70% of them worked in the 280 Chinese laundries spread across the city.
A council committee had been previously appointed to investigate the sanitary and general conditions of the Chinese. The committee Chairman stated that, "...Chinatown is practically one great lodging house, where...opium smoking and gambling are indulged in." He continued, "The sanitary conditions are very poor and inadequate for such a large mass of people crowded together." In addition, he emphasized the perils of potential fires, which could consume the entire neighborhood. The chairmen also stated that the city would financially benefit from widening Harrison Avenue, permitting businesses to move into the area which would increase the tax benefits to the city. The widening would also permit the addition of public transit.
In an article titled, "Chinatown Is Doomed," the Boston Daily Globe, July 1, 1893, indicated that a loan bill had been approved, and now awaited only the approval of the mayor, which would allow for the widening of Harrison Avenue. It was said this meant "the extinction of the present Chinatown" though the article was more positive about the Chinese. It continued, "In consequence Chinatown, the scene of many startling innovations, the home of not a few of the city's wealthiest residents, the joy and delight of the light-hearted and harmless celestial is seriously disturbed." The widening could mean the destruction of some of the existing buildings on Harrison Avenue, and it is though many of the Chinese might relocate to Oxford Place. Some think the Harrison buildings might be saved, but others feel the landlords would then raise the rents so the Chinese would be unable to afford to move back.
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.
Back to the proposed widening of Harrison Avenue. The Boston Daily Globe, September 22, 1893, stated there would be a public hearing on the widening project on October 6. The Boston Sunday Globe, October 8, 1893, then reported that a number of people appeared at the hearing, with a number of objections lodged against the project, generally concerned that abutting estates would lose value. Not much else was reported about the hearing. The Boston Post, November 24, 1893, reported that it would cost nearly $300,000 to settle land damages for the proposed widening.
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.
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.
As an aside, there was an arrest of some alleged gambling Chinese in 1894. The Boston Post, February 5, 1894, reported that police arrested twenty Chinese who were playing dominoes at 29 Harrison Avenue. Though the police weren't sure that gambling was occurring, it was considered a violation of the Sabbath. The article mentions that the men were laundrymen and tea merchants.
There were then more gambling issues mentioned in the Boston Post, February 24, 1894. A civil suit, for malicious prosecution and seeking $10,000, had been brought by Goon Doon against Yee Hang, Yee Wan, Goon Doy and Yee Sin. Goon Doon alleged that he been maliciously prosecuted for allegedly owning a gambling resort at 18 Harrison Avenue in July 1892. Plaintiff also alleged that his prior criminal case had been discharged before trial. The defendants denied all the plaintiff's allegations.
Goon Doon also claimed that two weeks before he had been originally arrested, he had been approached by Yee Hang, who wanted him to join the Hop Dock Tong, the "Gain and Obtain Society." The tong was allegedly recently formed, although earlier evidence shows the tong was started around 1890, and every gambler was going to be taxed $3 a month. Goon refused to be a part of the tong. Defendant Yee Sin claimed that he played fan tan at Goon's place on Harrison Avenue.
The trial was continued until Monday, and was reported on in the Boston Globe, February 26, 1894. Yee Hang testified, denying he said anything to Goon about the Hop Dock Tong, but stated he did see Goon operating a fan tan game. At the end of the day, the matter was sent to the jury which made its decision the next day, finding for all of the defendants.
On the Sunday before, there was another gambling raid in Chinatown, and the Fall River Globe, February 26, 1894, reported how 36 Chinese were arrested, at 42 Harrison Avenue, for gambling at fan tan on the Sabbath. 51 more Chinese were arrested in another fan tan raid on May 13, 1894.
The Harrison Avenue widening was set to begin. The Boston Post, April 2, 1894, stated that the Mayor signed the order, in December 1893, to proceed with the project. It was said that the Chinese on Harrison would move to Oxford Street and Oxford Place, at least until the project is completed. The Chinese are upset about plans to oust them, and its had the effect of "banding the colony more firmly together than ever, and they do not propose to be banished or annihilated." Next, the Boston Daily Globe, April 2, 1894, stated that work would finally begin on widening Harrison Avenue on May 1, and it would be completed by June 1. The article also questioned whether this would actually destroy Chinatown or not,
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.”
For more background on Chinatown, the Boston Post, April 7, 1895, stated that most of the Chinese in Boston belong to one of six families, and the three largest include the Moys, Yees and Chins. The families sometimes engage in disputes with each other. In a recent dispute, the Chins brought a suit against the Moys in a case involving gambling. The defendants were Moy Loy, an interpreter, and his cousins, Moy Jung Du and Moy Ni Ding, both merchants. The plaintiffs were members of the Chin family who claimed they bought a lottery ticket from the Moy, which turned out to be a winner, and the Moys refused to pay. In the end, the two Moy merchants were fined $100 and they appealed the matter.
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.
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. During the summer of 1897, there was a small fire at Hong Far Low. The Boston Daily Globe, August 16, 1897, reported that there had been a fire at the restaurant the day before when a lit match came into contact with a pan of oil or fat. Firemen arrived promptly and put out the fire, which only caused about $25 in damage.
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.
In August, 1900, a reporter visited the Joss House in Chinatown, "the Home of Pagan Worship in Boston." The Boston Sunday Post, August 19, 1900, published the article about his explorations, noting that several hundred Chinese live on Harrison Avenue and the adjacent streets. It is a rather lurid article, hints of secret societies and strange religious practices. The reporter claimed he had difficulty finding any Chinese who would take him to the Joss House, though he eventually located and visit it.
Within the article are some intriguing tidbits. For example, the store of S.Y. Tank is considered "one of the most progressive Chinese shops in the city." It doesn't state what kind of store it was though. In addition, there was a "Canton Temple," a temple to Buddha located on the floor above the Hong Far Low restaurant, and you had to reach it through the restaurant.
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.
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 1930-1954
You might also be interested in some related historical posts:
The First Chinese Restaurants Outside Boston (Part 1-Cambridge & Fitchburg)
The First Chinese Restaurants Outside Boston (Part 2-Pittsfield & Malden)
The First Chinese Restaurants Outside Boston (Part 3-Springfield)
The First Chinese Restaurants Outside Boston (Part 4-Fall River)
The First Chinese Restaurants Outside Boston (Part 5-Lowell & Lynn)
The First Chinese Restaurants Outside Boston (Part 6-Quincy)
The First Chinese Restaurants Outside Boston (Part 7-North Adams & Brockton)
Blob Joints: A History of Dim Sum in the U.S.
Origins Of The Chop Suey Sandwich: A New England Invention?
What's A Chop Suey Sundae?
The Origins of American Chop Suey
Origins Of The St. Paul Sandwich: A Missouri Invention?
(As of February 28, 2020, I've expanded/revised this article due to additional research, doubling this article in size. I've added more information, especially on the first Chinese that came to Massachusetts, the first Chinese person buried in Boston, the Queen of Chinatown, the widening of Harrison Avenue, Chinese laundries, the first Tong, some additional population statistics, and more.)