Outside the brick row houses on Tyler Street in Boston’s Chinatown, we gathered to support YenChi Chen an hour before his court appearance on Valentine’s Day morning. Chen owns “A Salon,” where he has been cutting hair in Chinatown for seven years. Chen provides valuable services for working class Chinese immigrant clientele who come to Chen for his lower prices—and speak little to no English.
His landlords, Haiying Ji and Xinsheng Zhu of Weston, MA purchased the Chinatown row house building, where his salon operates, for $3 million after it was assessed at $1.8 million. They rented out the four residential units of the row house as Airbnbs, displacing working class families. After Chen’s landlords tried to raise his rent from $1,700 to $3,800 a month, they took him to court over an insurance coverage technicality. In December, they demanded he leave immediately and pay $68,000 for the remainder of his lease through 2022.
“Once [new immigrants] receive the eviction notice, they tend to move out because they don’t want to cause trouble,” Chen addressed his supporters through an interpreter, Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) Executive Director Karen Chen. “Neither can they afford the time to fight the eviction… But me, I had to fight to stay because it’s my livelihood. That’s what brings food to the table.”
“Once [new immigrants] receive the eviction notice, they tend to move out because they don’t want to cause trouble…Neither can they afford the time to fight the eviction… But me, I had to fight to stay because it’s my livelihood. That’s what brings food to the table.”
Chen’s case is not unique. The fight against gentrification in Chinatown is stacked against those who even can fight, in a community where the median Asian household income in 2009 was $13,057, putting Asians in Chinatown at the highest poverty rate of any racial group in Boston. Chen’s English-speaking Chinese landlords came from one of the wealthiest towns in the country and own multiple properties throughout the Greater Boston area. They could afford to take Chen to court. Chen’s landlords knew exactly how to exploit his lack of English language proficiency through a court system structurally designed to favor them.
I was on Tyler Street in the crowd with residents, organizers, community members, press, and other Tufts students. Chen’s former neighbor Pei Ying Yu (whose story of eviction from Hudson Street was featured in a recent Buzzfeed article) offered her words of support. Boston City Councilor Ed Flynn, who helped push AirBnB ordinances in the city, also gave words of support. Chen was escorted to the courthouse by CPA organizers and the crowd dispersed.
We walked to the Edward Brooke Courthouse in Boston to pack the hearing room in front of a grumpy old White judge presiding over the day’s cases. He definitely did not want to be there—but we did. After two hours of liability claims, traffic violations, tax cases, we reached a recess.
“Is everyone who’s still here, here for what everyone else is here for?” the court clerk asked.
Chen, flanked by his legal team, sat in the front row in a tweed blazer and a purple necktie. From my seat toward the front of the courtroom, I craned my neck back to see Chen’s side completely packed with CPA organizers, community members, and students. Yes, the Asians were here.
From my seat toward the front of the courtroom, I craned my neck back to see Chen’s side completely packed with CPA organizers, community members, and students. Yes, the Asians were here.
But after waiting for two hours, we learned that a Toishanese interpreter for Chen was not available; the case would have to be heard the next week.
After all the organizing, all the crowdfunded legal fees—after Chen had to close his shop on a Thursday, losing a day’s income—the whole process would have to be repeated the next Wednesday. We filed out of the courtroom and headed back to campus for classes.
A number of people in that courtroom could have translated for Chen; however, the court system requires a court-vetted interpreter. Organizing a support group for Chen took tremendous labor and momentum from the community, and it would be even more difficult to replicate that support the following week on short notice.
Nevertheless, the week following up to the rescheduled hearing, community members amped up the pressure, sending emails to the landlords and even visiting to the landlord’s optometry office to deliver letters of support for Chen.
And the pressure worked! The following Wednesday, we visited the courthouse again, where Chen’s legal team told us that they had reached a preliminary agreement with landlords; the landlord would drop the case against Chen. The community’s fight against mass displacement, however, does not end here. It continues from a legacy of resistance.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the San Francisco State University and Berkeley student strikes, out of which the Asian American political identity as we remember (or structurally forget) it was born, we, as Asian American college students, need to reconsider the debts we owe to the resistance of our predecessors. The legacy of that struggle and birth of radical consciousness lives right here on the East Coast—if we can nurture it in each other. In college, this means creating radically compassionate and sustainable communities inside and outside the classroom.
For Asian American college students, who live in contradiction as the invisible yet, at times, highly visible “minority” on our campuses, we need to use our visibility in ways that support each other. At a moment when headline-grabbing neoconservative Asian minorities—like the WeChat activists who shut down data disaggregation legislation in Massachusetts, and are fighting against affirmative action (or what they’ve been led to believe is affirmative action)—are today’s predominant forms of “Asian American Representation” in the current political realm, we need to reclaim our visibility at the courthouse, and in the communities that sustain us. And we need to do that in ways that honor the political commitments made by our predecessors.
The early Asian American Movement was a struggle for and with the working class, for the disenfranchised in the host communities of college campuses, for Third World Liberation here and abroad. Student organizers at SFSU and Berkeley—and in Asian American cities across the country— in the 60s and 70s created “Serve the People” programs that provided social services for residents in working class ethnic enclaves and defended affordable housing against developers. They demanded a Third World education from their colleges accessible to Third World people.
In Boston, Asian American action is part of a long legacy of resistance. During the mid-1970s busing crisis, when racial animus against Boston Chinese and other communities of color reached violent proportions, Chinese American women organized against the city (and often, against their husbands) for measures that would ensure the safety of their children. In the 1990s, Boston-area college students showed up in the fight against garage development at “Parcel C” in Chinatown. I have strong hope that our group of students who brought each other to Courtroom C to support Chen, in coordination with CPA organizers, can be a part of that. And I know that the strong feelings I held in that courtroom came from learning and being a part of that history.
Gentrification is nothing new. Forced displacement has affected communities of color for centuries; yet, the ways which educational institutions and luxury developers have rapidly destroyed communities like Boston’s Chinatown have become more advanced. In Boston Chinatown, where Tufts Medical owns a third of the land and has never committed any resources to providing affordable housing to its impoverished Chinese immigrant community, we need more students to show up for the small business owners, residents, and workers who are most vulnerable to displacement by landlords, AirBnB, luxury developers, and non-profit university entities. By doing so, we bear witness to the injustices perpetrated by the institutions of rupture that continue to tear apart Asian American communities across the country.
For more information about Chinatowns on the East Coast, click here.