Thursday, January 21, 2021

A Historic Look at Chinese New Year in Boston (1870-1890)

“‘Our annual nuisance’ is the affectionate pet name bestowed by the California papers upon the Chinese New Year festival.
--Boston Daily Globe, February 8, 1873

This year, Chinese New Year starts on Friday, February 12, beginning the Year of the Ox. This is an extremely important holiday for the Chinese and there are many customs and rituals associated with this holiday. In the late 20th century, Chinese New Year has also become known as the Spring Festival. The Chinese use a lunar calendar, and the start of their New Year generally ranges each year from January 21 to February 20.

When was Chinese New Year first celebrated in Massachusetts, and more specifically when was it first celebrated in Boston’s Chinatown

I'll begin with a hint for you. This year is the 150th Anniversary of the first public celebration of Chinese New Year in Massachusetts

The first public Chinese New Year celebrations in the U.S. occurred in San Francisco, likely during the early 1850s, though there's a possibility they might have also been held at the end of the 1840s. In Massachusetts, the first local newspaper to reference these celebrations in San Francisco was The Pittsfield Sun, March 31, 1853. It was only a brief mention and didn't describe any of the ways the holiday was celebrated. 

Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, Boston area newspapers published additional articles about Chinese New Year celebrations in San Francisco. One of the most prevalent threads through these articles was the use of fireworks, and the loud noises they caused in the city. For example, the Cape Ann Advertiser, March 4, 1859, discussed the San Francisco Chinese New Year celebrations, noting, “The quantity of fire-crackers already exploded has been immense, and the smell of burnt paper and gunpowder pervades the whole city.”

As for Massachusetts, prior to 1870, there were only a handful of Chinese living in the state and any celebration of Chinese New Year was more personal and individual, making little, if any impression on the non-Chinese. In the 1870 census, Boston, with a population of 250,526, was alleged to have no Chinese. The communities of Brighton, Cambridge, West Roxbury and Charlestown also didn't have any Chinese. Somerville and Brookline each had a single Chinese person listed in their census results. There were a handful of Chinese scattered in other communities, such as Chelsea and Malden, but overall, the Chinese were clearly a rarity in most of Massachusetts.

In June 1870, 75 Chinese workers travelled from San Francisco to North Adams, Massachusetts, to work in a shoe factory owned by C.T. Sampson. This was the first major influx of Chinese into the state. Over the next several years, Sampson hired more Chinese to work at his factory, and nearly all of the workers remained for at least five years.

It would be these Chinese workers who would hold the first significant celebration of Chinese New Year in Massachusetts, during the first holiday they were within the state. Friday, February 19, 1871 was the first day of the Year of the Goat, and the Chinese shoe workers would end up celebrating the holiday for four days.

A couple local newspapers provided only brief mentions of the festivities. The Fall River Daily Evening News, February 20, 1871, stated “The Chinese at North Adams celebrated their New Year, Friday afternoon, with a concert.” The Boston Herald, February 20, 1871, expanded just a little, writing, “The Chinese at North Adams celebrated their new year on Friday afternoon with a grand concert and dinner.”

However, the Springfield Republican, February 20, 1871, provided much more detail. First, Sampson generously gave the workers four days off for their celebrations. Second, the band, which played the concert, had practiced for only two weeks before the event but were said to sound quite professional. The orchestra was composed of seven instruments, including three drums of different sizes, three gongs, and cymbals. Third, the Chinese invited a large number of guests, including clergy, Sunday school teachers, and others who had been kind to them over the past year, to a special dinner. About 200 people were served dinner, which was mostly American dishes cooked by the Chinese workers.

After dinner, once all the guests had departed, the Chinese workers returned to their own mess hall to have their own feast, which probably included primarily Chinese dishes. They also set off some fireworks. “Fire crackers thickly strung on long poles were thrust out of the window and touched off making such a display…”  On Saturday, they had intended to hold a parade, marching through the streets with their band, balloons and lanterns, but it was too rainy and they hoped to reschedule the parade for Monday.

That didn’t happen either. The Springfield Republican, February 21, 1871, noted that the Chinese plans for Monday had fizzled. The article also mentioned that the four days of celebration had been “merely a suggestion of the festival which they celebrate at home, where fifteen days are given to get acquainted with the new year,..”

Some more details of their celebration were provided. It was mentioned that on Saturday evening, the Chinese had consumed a considerable amount of California wine, as well as some other type of unidentified alcohol. On Sunday, the Chinese were excused from attending Sunday school, and instead, they had their first experience on ice, and were said not to be too graceful on the slick surface. They apparently didn't have ice skates, and walked upon the slick surface in their own shoes. Finally, on Monday, they created presents of fruits, flowers, cake, and more, at the different residences of their friends. 

Thus, this first public celebration occurred 150 years ago, making the forthcoming Chinese New Year even more of a historic event.   

In 1872, Chinese New Year began on February 9, ushering in the Year of the Monkey. However, the Chinese workers in North Adams didn’t celebrate to the same extent as they did the prior year. Both the Springfield Republican, February 9, 1872 and The Pittsfield Sun, February 15, 1872, noted that though the workers were given some time off, much of their celebration was simply “…visiting friends, and having pictures made to send home.”

It’s interesting though that these workers had originally planned to have fireworks for this celebration, but they didn’t receive them in time. When the fireworks finally arrived, the Chinese found a holiday to use them. According to the Fall River Daily Evening News, February 29, 1872, “The only celebration of Washington’s birthday at North Adams was carried on by the Chinese shoemakers. In the evening they entertained the shop girls by treating them to refreshments at the shop, and had a display of fireworks which was immense. The crackers were set off in the Chinese manner, several hundred at a time, making a fearful din. The fireworks were ordered for the New Year celebration, but failed to reach them in time for that event.”

In 1873, Chinese New Year began on January 29, ushering in the Year of the Rooster, and once again it was celebrated in a rather sedate manner. The Springfield Republican, January 29, 1873, stated “the shoemakers will celebrate the festival in a quiet way.” In 1874, Chinese New Year began on February 17, ushering in the Year of the Dog, and it seems like it was another quiet celebration. The Pittsfield Sun, February 18, 1874, merely noted that work was suspended at Sampson’s shoe factory on Monday for the holiday.

In 1875, Chinese New Year began on February 6, ushering in the Year of the Pig, and once again, their celebrations were smaller than what occurred in 1871. The Springfield Republican, February 9, 1875, reported that the Chinese workers didn’t celebrate New Year’s as usual, giving only two days to it. It was said that “most of which time they were on the streets in holiday attire, or partaking of those peculiar dishes the composition of which is so much a mystery. No especial form was observable in their exercises, which were few, and, to the uninitiated, uninteresting in the extreme.” There was an explanation given for the lesser celebration, alleging that “these “Americanized Celestials…are fast giving up the traditions and customs of their countrymen and adopting the ideas of our own people.”

In 1876, Chinese New Year began on January 26, ushering in the Year of the Rat, and it seems it was celebrated for only a single day. The Springfield Republican, January 26, 1876, reported that the Chinese workers “… celebrated their New-year’s day, yesterday, with fire-crackers, games and feasting. Tables were spread with fruits, flowers and sweetmeats from China, of some of which they invited their visitors to partake.

In 1877, Chinese New Year began on February 13, ushering in the Year of the Ox, once again had a single day of celebration. The New England Farmer, February 24, 1877, printed that “The Chinamen in Sampson’s shoe shop at North Adams were allowed a full holiday, Monday, 12th, to celebrate the Celestial New Year, and spent the time in playing games, visiting each other and regaling themselves upon the fruits and confections which had been sent to them by their friends in China.” And in 1878, Chinese New Year began on February 2, ushering in the Year of the Tiger, and the celebration by the Chinese workers didn’t even warrant a newspaper mention. It’s important to know though that the number of Chinese workers had been declining over the last couple years, so it seems logical that the celebrations were smaller.

In 1879, Chinese New Year began on January 22, ushering in the Year of the Rabbit, and once again, there was a small celebration. The Springfield Republican, January 24, 1879, noted, “The Chinese celebrated their new year Tuesday, with fire-works and crackers, and hospitably kept open house to all their friends.” The Fall River Daily Herald, March 8, 1879, added, “..they invite their teachers and acquaintances to their apartments, which are beautifully decorated with flowers and Chinese ornaments, and here an elaborate collation is spread, and the time devoted to festivity and mirth.”

In 1880, Chinese New Year began on February 10, ushering in the Year of the Dragon, but this is also the year when all of the Chinese workers left the shoe factory, some moving to different regions of Massachusetts, while others moved to different states, or even back to China. Any celebration this year was very minor.

This year was also notable in New York City, as mentioned by the Fall River Daily Evening News, February 10, 1880, which printed, “The Chinese new year was publicly celebrated for the first time in this city and Brooklyn, yesterday.” So, the North Adams celebrations predated those in New York City. And what about Boston at this time?

As previously mentioned, the 1870 census showed no Chinese living in Boston at that time. However, within the next five years, a number of Chinese would immigrate to Boston, with the first Chinese laundry opening in 1875. By 1877, the Boston Globe, December 22, 1877, stated that there were about 150-200 Chinese, however Chinatown hadn’t been established yet. Most of these people were laundrymen, living in their shops, which were scattered across Boston.

Two years later, an article in the Boston Globe, March 25, 1879, mentioned that there were about 100 Chinese laundrymen in Boston, and a few other Chinese in other occupations. The Boston Weekly Globe, September 9, 1879, also printed that the Chinese population in Boston was estimated at about 120, who were generally aged from 12-40 years, with an average of 25 years. During the 1870s, the local newspapers didn’t discuss any Chinese New Year celebrations in Boston, so it’s likely the celebrations were quiet and more personal. It wouldn’t be until 1881 that Boston newspapers would mention Chinese New Year within the city.

In 1881, Chinese New Year began on January 30, ushering in the Year of the Snake, and the Boston Globe, January 30, 1881, published an article about the celebrations, providing some general information about its practices. “The Chinese new year began yesterday, and will continue for three or four days. The season is one of general festivity among the Celestials. In cities where there is a large Chinese population the festival is observed in a variety of ways.” The article continued, “,…while the new year is beginning, the Chinese quarter, wherever situated, resounds night and day with the most unearthly sounds. Tom-toms, one-string fiddles and a variety of other instruments, elaborately designed to produce most uncelestial strains, are vigorously worked, while fire-crackers recklessly discharged in every spot add to the general din.

It was then mentioned that “The rich Chinamen in San Francisco spread sumptuous feasts and attire themselves in gorgeous garments of many colors. The guests drop in, give the host a peculiar shake of the hand and then partake of the feast.” In addition, it was stated that, “The season is also made an occasion for paying off old debts, those which may be settled with money and, those, too, which John thinks he can best pay with his favorite weapon, a hatchet.”

Near the end of the article, Boston was specifically referenced. “In Boston, where the number of Chinamen is small, no attempt, of course, is made at a celebration of the day, its observance mainly confined to a general “visiting round,” the peculiar hand-shaking, and perhaps a little extra allowance of opium.” This article, which is tinged with racism, doesn’t explain why the Chinese celebrations were more muted beyond the small size of the population. We know that in North Adams, where the Chinese population was even smaller than in Boston, they still were able to hold a public celebration.

However, the North Adams Chinese all lived together, so it was easier to arrange a spectacle. The Chinese in Boston were still spread out across the city, probably making it more difficult to organize any type of larger celebration.

In 1882, Chinese New Year began on February 18, ushering in the Year of the Horse, and celebrations in Boston received only a passing mention. The Boston Journal, February 28, 1882, simply stated that Chinese New Year had been celebrated a week ago by the Chinese laundrymen.

In 1883, Chinese New Year began on February 8, ushering in the Year of the Goat, and a little more detail was provided about local celebrations. The Boston Globe, February 7, 1883, ran an article on Chinese New Year, noting, “New Year’s is the greatest festival on the Chinese calendar, …” The article continued, “Another feature of the New Year’s Eve among the Chinese is the paying of debts and returning borrowed money. This custom, according to tradition, is several thousand years old.” It went on, “If a man cannot pay the entire sum he owes he secures a renewal of the loan for another year.

In addition, it was said that, “But it is only in San Francisco that the celebration is observed on a large scale. In Boston the work about the laundries is not suspended for any length of time. The proprietors of many of our laundries have prepared feasts of Chinese food, and the days is largely spent in visiting about.” So, the celebrations were still more personal, without any significant public display.

In 1884, Chinese New Year began on January 28, ushering in the Year of the Monkey, and the Boston Journal, January 28, 1884, reported that, “Yesterday was Chinese New Year’s Day, and it was quietly observed by the Chinamen of Boston.” It was in 1884, that the earliest reference to a Boston Chinatown occurred. The Boston Daily Globe, March 13, 1884, mentioned the existence of Chinatown. "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." So, despite the creation of this community, this New Year was still quietly celebrated.

The Boston Herald, January 27, 1884, provided some additional details of the celebration. First, the article stated that Gung Ee Far Yoy was Chinese for “happy new year.” And on Chinese New Year, the Chinese “…does not work, but spends the day in making calls upon his fellow-countrymen. At the dwelling of each he finds a small spread, usually consisting of cigars, prepared cocoanut, ginger and other delicacies dear to the Chinese heart, but impossible to describe in the English language.”

In addition, the Boston Globe, January 29, 1884, provided even more details. The article began, “It is, of course, well known to all our readers that the Chinese New Year is the great national festival, held as a high holiday alike by rich and poor. Some of their curious observances at this season are also too well known to need more than a passing mention.” Much of this information was previously provided in articles about the celebration of Chinese New Year in San Francisco, where grand celebrations occurred.

The article mentioned, “All businesses must be closed up at the end of the year and accounts squared. The merchant who has not paid all his debts is not allowed to sell goods until he has done so, and accordingly traders vie with each other as to which shall make the first sales after the new year, as this is a proof of solvency. So important is this first business transaction of the new year considered that the merchant usually goes himself with the parcel to the house of the purchaser, where mutual congratulations are exchanged.”

It then continued, “The last supper of the old year is eaten with regularly prescribed ceremonies, and early on the morning of New Year’s day every member of the household is attired in the best clothes possessed, the house is put in order, refreshments spread out and everything is then in readiness for the ceremony of making and receiving New Year’s calls.” There was then a brief mention the Chinese in Boston were seen on Sunday, “.., dressed in his best clothes with a face more smiling than is his wont, hurrying to pay his respects to his friends.”

In 1885, Chinese New Year began on February 15, ushering in the Year of the Rooster, and it was the first year that the celebration in Chinatown was more of a public event.

Prior to February 15, the Boston Globe, January 24, 1885, ran an article, titled Sooee Sin Far. The Flower Which Blooms for the Chinese New Year, about a plant with a strong connection to Chinese New Year. The Sooee Sun Far, known as the water angel plant, was important and “without it no Chinaman’s New Year season is quite complete.” At great expense, the plant was imported into the U.S. and it could be seen in nearly all of the Chinese laundries and supple shops. It was “a simple flower that has no commercial value” but it reminded the Chinese of home.

The water angel plant; received its name because “of its manner of growth, its appearance, and its miraculous origin.” The article continued, “In China it is found growing in running water, which keeps the bulb and the pebbles to which is attaches itself by its roots perfectly clean.” Commonly, the bulbs were planted about four weeks before Chinese New Year and given plenty of fresh air and sunlight. It was supposed to bloom by Chinese New Year and possessed a cluster of blossoms, “…something like the narcissus in shape and size, but pure waxy white with a crown of gold, and very fragrant…” It was also stated that cuts of the blossom, known as ho-ee-far, were sent “as a choice gift to the friend whom he loves best.”

When Chinese New Year arrived, the Boston Globe, February 14, 1885, discussed some of the festivities, in an article titled Gung He Far Toy. The article begin, noting the start of Chinese New Year, and that the Chinese, “If they were in their own country they would begin today with much pomp and ceremony a celebration that would be kept up for a month.” It continued, “Many are the mysterious rites to be observed, unintelligible to foreign and profane eyes, but to them full of meaning, sentiment and enjoyment.”

More specifically about Chinatown, the article stated, “Here in Boston and its vicinity, although many calls, feasts of Chinese dainties appropriate to the season, congratulations, good wishes and gifts will be exchanged among the Chinamen, yet there will be little done which is peculiar or much different from the celebration of our own New Year’s Day.”

However, for what appears for the first time, the Chinese had sought permission to use fireworks and firecrackers for their celebrations. In San Francisco, Chicago and New York Ciry, firework displays were large and prominent. In Boston though, “A delegation of ‘influential citizens (from the Chinese quarter), and their friend, Major Jones, and even a sympathetic teacher from the Mission school pleaded with the fire commissioners and Mayor in vain,..” They were denied a permission, putting a bit of a damper on their holiday.

The next day, the Boston Globe, February 15, 1885, printed more details about local Chinese New Year celebrations, concentrating on some of the foods consumed. “A very important feature of the Chinese New Year, the celebration of which began yesterday, is the feasting upon dainties peculiar to the season. Everybody makes calls, everybody receives calls, and every Chinese laundry, shop or other establishment of any sort in the city has its ‘sideboard,’ bearing the Chinese equivalent of our New Year’s cake and wine.”

The article continued, “When a caller enters, he is immediately assailed by a shout of “Gung he! Gung he far toy!” The caller responds in kind and is then invited for a very tiny cup of tea. There are polite inquiries about health, business, and more, and then the guest can partake of a variety of refreshments. The writer of the article visited a Chinese supply store on Harrison Avenue, and was able to sample a number of refreshments, some he recognized and others which were completely foreign to him. The writer enjoyed many of the treats, even some that he didn’t recognize.

There was some good news in March, at the end of the Chinese New Year festivities. The Boston Herald, March 10, 1885, reported that yesterday was the last day of the Chinese New and that “In China it is customary to usher in the advent and the departure of the new year season with salvos of fire crackers,…” As I mentioned above, Chinatown was refused a permit to use fireworks to celebrate the start of Chinese New Year. However, near the end of their holiday period, “...having gained the aid and influence of American friends, they succeeded in obtaining the desired permission, and accordingly made arrangements to celebrate the end of the new year holidays,..”

The Chinese set up on the rooftop of Sam Sing’s grocery store at 118 Harrison Avenue. They extended long poles over the side of the building, and attached long ropes to the poles, reaching to the street. At 2pm, on the last day of their celebrations, Sam and his assistants appeared with a large amount of firecrackers. They attached some to the ropes, as many as 40 bunches at a time, and then ignited the bunches, quickly pulling the ropes up to the end of the poles. Then, they would replace each rope and do it all over again. Some firecrackers were also just dropped off the roof. The fireworks display continued for two hours, taking an occasional pause to allow horse-pulled cars to pass.

A detail of police officers were on hand to keep order while there were firemen present to ensure no fires went out of control. Fortunately, there weren’t any problems in either regard. The total cost of the fireworks was $1400 (worth about $37,500 in today’s dollars). The Chinese obviously went all out for this display. After the fireworks, the Chinese adjourned to the second story of the grocery store where a lavish banquet took place. And later that night, the Chinese played a variety of games while a Chinese orchestra played.

In 1886, Chinese New Year began on February 4, ushering in the Year of the Dog, and there wasn’t any mention of fireworks this year. The Boston Herald, February 3, 1886, noted that “In China the celebration occupies three days, but in this country circumstances will not permit of its extension to that period, and, therefore, the first day is made the gala one.” Then, the Boston Herald, February 9, 1886, mentioned that “Sam Sing, the popular Chinese grocer, gave a New Year’s party and supper at his home, No. 118 Harrison avenue, last evening, to some 20 invited…” American friends. A regular Chinese dinner was served to the guests. It seemed to be a more sedate celebration, but bringing in non-Chinese to celebrate.

A reporter for the Boston Globe, reported on February 4, 1886, that he was invited to a Chinese New Year celebration. His first stop was at a Chinese laundry, where all the men present were dressed in fancy costumes. A musician sang and played some type of Chinese instrument, which the reporter found quite enjoyable. A Chinese feast was then held in a dining room in the laundry. He drank an unknown red spirit, which had a very piquant flavor, and which the Chinese said is similar to whiskey. Other liquors were also served during the feast. The reporter didn’t like all of the food that was served. For example, he tried a dish that was allegedly rice flavored with candy, but what he said tasted like “sweetened tobacco.”

In 1887, Chinese New Year began on January 24, ushering in the Year of the Pig, and there wasn’t much written about the celebrations. The Boston Herald, January 23, 1887, reported that, “The Chinese of Boston will celebrate the event more in accordance with the habit of those at home than ever before.” Part of this included, “In addition to visiting countrymen from adjacent towns, there will be present numerous friends from New York and western cities; a number will even be present from San Francisco.” Two days were being set aside for the celebrations.

In 1888, Chinese New Year began on February 12, ushering in the Year of the Rat, and the Boston Globe, February 13, 1888, mentioned that Chinatown had been in a furor for two days, celebrating Chinese New Year. The article stated that “...will account for all of the unseeming noises which disturb the habitual tranquility of the Chinese quarter.” Chinese music could be heard from various buildings in Chinatown and the famed Moy Auk band had been engaged to play in Boston for this event. It was also noted, that “Of course there cannot be such great public demonstrations in the Hub as in New York and San Francisco, where there are hundreds of Celestials,..” However, it was also noted that what Boston’s Chinatown lacked in numbers, they made up in enthusiasm, stating, “...eating, drinking and making merry are the three things in order for the entire week.”

In 1889, Chinese New Year began on January 31, ushering in the Year of the Ox, and fireworks were mentioned once again. The Boston Herald, January 30, 1889, printed that “Chinatown, located on Harrison avenue, between Essex and Beach streets, was a blaze of light this morning, the occasion being the ushering of the Chinese new year, which began at 1a.m. Under permission of Capt. Harry Dawson of station 4 a faint attempt at a fireworks display was made and numerous side feasts indulged in, preparatory to the more extensive demonstrations which are to follow.”

Several months later, an intriguing article appeared discussing one of the customs of Chinese New Year, the use of the water angel plant. The Boston Globe, June 9, 1889, reported that. “Another superstition which is almost universal among my countrymen is the belief that the hooll sin fah will bring good luck to them. The hooll sin fah is a slender lily-like plant which grows from a bulb closely resembling an onion and in the early spring some of them may be seen in almost every laundryman’s window, where the bulbs are embedded about one-third in clean pebbles placed in a bowl. No soil whatever is required for the growing of the plant, but dozens of tiny roots force themselves down between the pebbles and into the water with which the Chinaman has about half covered the pebbles. The hooll sin fah takes about 30 days to come to its maturity, and during this time the water on the pebbles must be changed every day. When full grown the plant consists of half a dozen or more bright green stalks, with blossoms which somewhat resembles the narcissus in shape, but they are of a pure waxy whiteness, with a small golden crown in the centre. The plant, the name of which signifies water angel, is thought by the Chinese to have had a miraculous origin, from the fact that it is found growing in the clear water of running brooks where it apparently lives without sustenance.”

And as for its importance. “The flowers of the water angel are very fragrant, and are almost reverenced by the Chinese, for a towering Hooee Sin Fah is esteemed the choicest gift that one Chinaman can give to another.

In 1890, Chinese New Year began on January 20, ushering in the Year of the Tiger, and the Boston Globe, January 20, 1890, noted “The Chinese colony in Boston is larger this year than ever before, and consequently the rejoicing will be on a much large scale, for it must be known that the celebration of the Chinese new year is not over with in a day, but is kept up among the middle class of people for a week, and some of the wealthy ones, both in American and in the Celestial land, keep up their merrymaking for a full month, winding up with a grand festival at the Feast of Lanterns, a holiday fixed upon as the termination of all new year’s festivities.”

The article continued, mentioning that anyone who visited Chinatown yesterday would have heard the “…beating of gongs, blowing of horns, scraping on ear-splitting Chinese fiddles, picking on odd looking banjos, and late at night not a few firecrackers were exploded in celebration of the coming of the New Year.” These larger, more public celebrations would continue in the years to come. 

The first public celebration of Chinese New Year in Massachusetts occurred in 1871, in North Adams, and the first large, public celebration in Boston's Chinatown took place in 1885. The celebrations were no where as large as they would have been in China, but the local Chinese communities were also much smaller. The local Chinese generously invited some non-Chinese friends to celebrate Chinese New Year with them. The main complaints voiced by non-Chinese about the celebrations were the loud noise they sometimes generated, primarily from fireworks and Chinese music. There weren't any complaints about excessive drinking or crime, and Americans had no problem with loud fireworks on their own holiday, the 4th of July.

Gong hei fat choy! Happy Chinese New Year and hopefully the Year of the Ox brings you health, prosperity, and much happiness.

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