Friday, December 5, 2008

Chinatown Overview

By Stephanie Rubenstein

Chinese Community Flourishes in the Park

By Stephanie Rubenstein

CHINATOWN – Raymond Cho pushed one of his green Chinese chess pieces forward, as his opponent gazed at the board, contemplating his next move. They sat beside other players, each engrossed in their own games, while other onlookers shouted tips.

As his opponent made his move, Cho exclaimed, “I just lost my piece! I can’t believe it!”

He was just one of the many players that gathered in the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Chinatown, an open public area built for the community, which faced high construction levels throughout the Big Dig.

The group of about 20 Chinese men gather together in what is now the park, as part of their tradition, which began after the space opened nearly a year ago.

“We come here whenever we get a chance,” Cho, 58, said. “It’s a great thing to have this park, so people can play games, relax and spend time together.”

A stack of chairs and tables sits in a corner of the park, always ready for them to assemble for the game. Cho said he and his fellow players were glad to have an open area in the community where they could gather.

Chinatown community members remember the previous constant state of construction in the area, saying they are glad to have something in place of dirt piles and parking lots.

“This place was always under construction,” said Inna Smolensky, 44, from Brighton. “It used to be very dirty, but this park is a great thing that they have created. I always see the men gather here to play checkers and it’s nice to have a space for the people.”

Many people come to the area from surrounding businesses to eat lunch, and take a break.

“It’s always great to have more public spaces,” said Felix Poon, 25, from Springfield. “Most people want to have a nicer city. There’s a lack of open space, especially in Chinatown, so it’s great to have a place where people can do line dancing during the Chinese New Year.”

The park surrounding the large Chinatown gate is filled with benches, a playground, open space and greenery. There are bamboo plants growing in the green spaces, with red steel beam Chinese-style structures surrounding them all around.

“Having an open area is a nice for a meeting place, and a good idea for the city,” said Sue Chen, from Newton.

She was walking through the area and the park with her husband, Mark, which she said they come by every once in a while.

“This park is really a great idea for the community,” Mark said.

More Cafes across Boston Start to Offer 'Bubble Tea'

By Stephanie Rubenstein

CHINATOWN – Tapioca pearls shot up through the straw, as Jennifer Hsu drank her bright green bubble tea with a friend in a cafe. The two freshmen at Boston University poured over their calculus homework and entered endless numbers into a calculator, sipping on a familiar drink from their native Taiwan.

"It reminds me of home," Hsu, 18, said. "This is my first two months away from home, and it's like a reminder."

Although Hsu said she drinks the tea because of its familiarity, her friend Jessica Kao, 19, said she drinks tea out of habit.

"Back home, I drink [bubble tea] everyday," Kao said. "Since I drank it a lot at home, it seems natural for me to drink it [in Boston]."

As more cafés begin to offer the neon-colored teas on their menus, the Taiwanese drink is becoming more popular and readily available to customers throughout Boston.

"More and more people are staring to drink bubble tea," said Moon Vuont, 25, who works at Dong Khanah Restaurant. "At first, many people do not know what it is, but they try it and then they keep coming back for more."

Many Bostonians have traveled to Chinatown for the drink, where posters of the colorful teas with boba, tapioca pearls, are hung on nearly every restaurant and café window in the neighborhood. The drink is called bubble tea, because when the tea is mixed with the tapioca pearls, it looks like bubbles.

"More Americans are starting to come in because they are seeing people on the street holding [bubble tea], and they want to try something new," said Vanessa Tang, 40, the barista at Rainbow Café.

The local spot has been offering bubble tea on their menu for the past 20 years, when the café was first opened. But they have recently been receiving more customers asking for the tea, Tang said, especially during the summer when people wanted to cool down from the heat.

"I grew up with bubble tea when I was in Taiwan," said Ruby Chou, owner of Black Ruby's Tea and Coffee. "But it used to be a dessert."

Chou said she always dreamed of opening her own café, where she would be able to serve the drink. After moving to the United States to continue her studies, Chou began to work on her idea. Ten years later, she opened the store.

Black Ruby's opened last year in Boston, where Chou said the drink has become popular among students in the area.

"I even got a phone call at 11:30 p.m., after I closed the store," she said. "The girl [on the phone] was asking if I was still open.
She was dying for bubble tea and had called every café in the online directory until she found me."

A Changing Lot, New Affordable Housing in Chinatown

By Stephanie Rubenstein

CHINATOWN -- For over 40 years, the community stared at an empty lot with a 20-foot cement wall, which blocked the noise of cars that sped by behind it.

A once residential block in the Chinatown community had been paved over and transformed into a highway ramp, displacing 300 residents from a community already pressured by a lack of affordable housing.

The empty lot, Parcel 24, is now being developed into a housing complex, featuring 325 units of which half are planned to be affordable.

“The community wanted to return it into a residential block of Chinatown,” said Janelle Chan, real estate project manager at the Asian Community Development Center (ACDC). “They saw it as an opportunity to bring back the neighborhood and rallied around it. They demanded that the site be returned for a nominal rate, and developed around a vision for what they wanted, which included affordability.”

The project gained roots in 2002 after the completion of the Big Dig. It is currently in the permit phase of construction, and the developers hope to break ground late 2009 – early 2010, completing the complex by 2011 or 2012.

The Chinatown community is increasingly threatened by gentrification, said Dharmena Downey, chief operating officer for the ACDC, where the average wage is $14,000 a year.

“[Chinatown] is referred to as the last ethnic enclave in the city of Boston,” she said. “The character is increasingly threatened by gentrification and there is a huge pressure on the community.”

Parcel 24, once developed, will double the home ownership in Chinatown, Chan said, adding that the number speaks both about the low ownership in Chinatown and the size of the housing project.

“There is some affordable housing, but its not enough, as more immigrants are come into the city,” said Gilbert Ho, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. “I don’t think [residents] are threatened [by gentrification], but the city of Boston will relax its policies and requirements a little…it would help developers to focus more on developing.”

The development agency has been working with the community throughout the stages of planning, involving them in design choices and business meetings.

“Having this socioeconomic mix in the community is very important,” Chan said. “Chinatown is a gateway for new immigrants. We hope to maintain a level of affordability [in the project], so that people can enjoy the benefits of living in the downtown area.”

Neighborhood Coordinator Denny Ching said he thought there was a good mix of housing in the area, and that the community was not at any risk from gentrification.

“I think Chinatown will always be there,” he said. “In the parts that are changing, it is more in the downtown aspect. Land in the Boston area is so small that any development is not going to be a small project.”

The Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center, a complex for elderly housing, is situated in the heart of Chinatown’s downtown. Ruth Moy, the center’s founder, purchased the former bar and strip club in 1977 and converted it into housing, which opened in 1981.

“[The area] has changed a great deal,” she said. “There are many new private and luxury apartments, but this is affordable housing. We have to work hard to keep things affordable for the community.”

The Golden Age Center currently has 28 housing units, and just received a permit to expand the complex to house 75 units.
“We are trying to expand [housing] where we can,” she said. “Chinatown was here first and this [complex] will still remain affordable

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Local Chinese Markets Thrive in Asian Communities

By Stephanie Rubenstein

CHINATOWN – Haiyun and her son shuffled into Chung Wah Hong Market, a local Chinese grocery store, bracing themselves from the cold wind. They went through shelves of specialty products, from dried squid to ginger root, searching for food for their family dinner.

“I’ve been coming here for 10 years,” said Haiyun Wong, 32, originally from China. “I know the food here, and it’s just more comfortable here.”

As the influx of Asian immigrants to Boston continues to grow as Massachusetts’ second highest immigrant group, many of the neighborhood’s grocery stores and food markets are noticing both new and loyal customers, who come to the specialty stores to buy familiar products.

Immigrants account for 11.7 percent of the state’s population, more than one in 10 residents, according to the 2005 demographics listed on the Office of New Bostonians’ website.

Haiyun’s son Steven said that it made a difference that Chung Wah Hong Market was Chinese owned, and offered products more recognizable to immigrants from Asian countries.

The store has been in the community for over 40 years, where locals have always gone to buy their favorite foods from home, said Gloria Chin, 17, the owner’s daughter.

“It’s a legacy, a tradition,” she said of the store. “People grew up coming here, and even when the prices are not as comparable to other Asian markets, they are still loyal to the store.”

Chin grew up working in the store, and has watched it transform over the years. The store began with only one cash register, and has since expanded to three. Lottery tickets and phone cards are also new products that are offered.

The store also sends Money Grams, which are money orders sent directly to China. The market completes the most transactions to China in the city of Boston, Chin said.

“I like the Money Gram service,” said Saio Ho, 48, who is from China and has lived in the Chinatown community for seven years. “I send money to relatives and friends in China, especially during the Chinese New Year.”

Ho said she continues to shop at the market because it is has Chinese products in a convenient location from her home in the neighborhood.

Unlike the other customers, Benjamin Yang, 63, said he was simply passing by and the location is what drew him into the store. He is originally from China, but said that had no bearing on his shopping at the market.

There are several other popular Chinese groceries in the Chinatown area; with C Mart and See Sun Market both located only blocks away from the center of town.

Lily Yee, 70, runs See Sun Market, which has been in her family for two generations. Her grandfather opened the store more than 55 years ago, in order to establish a business, make money and start a life in a new country.

Locals continue shopping at the store, she said, because of its products and familiarity.

“Chinese people like Chinese food,” Yee said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

ESL Programs Worry about Funding, as Demand for Classes Rises

By Stephanie Rubenstein

CHINATOWN — As the flow of immigrants into Boston increases each year, the English-language programs so essential to helping them get acclimated to their new lives lack the necessary funding to smooth this transition, advocates said.

With worries of the continuation of project funding, due to the economic crisis and recent $1 billion state budget cuts, many organizations said they do not know what the future hold for their language classes.

“Because of the economic downturn, I don’t think anybody knows about the future,” said Cheri Leung, co-director of Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. “We want funding to increase, but it’s not really up to us.”

English for New Bostonians, a program developed by the Office of New Bostonians in 2001, provides funds for two of the center’s introductory classes. All of the other classes are funded by the state.

“English as a Second Language classes survived this round of [budget] cuts, but we expect cutting in the future, and we may not be as lucky,” said Fred Bennett, who co-directs the neighborhood center with Leung.

Introductory classes are the most popular, and the center has a waiting list of 280 people. More than 3,500 people in Boston are waiting to enter into ESL classes, according to the Office of New Bostonians website.

‘There’s always a demand for English classes,” said Kerline Tofuri, project manager for English for New Bostonians. “We have about 24 funded programs around Boston and there are still people looking for classes.”

The office is always looking for funding options, but she said there is not enough money to support all of the different program and levels offered.

With the launch of the program’s third phase on Nov. 13, Tofuri said she hopes to continue sustaining and inviting new programs to apply for grants, allowing them to continue providing classes.

“I hope to meet the goals we have set for ourselves and to continue supporting the programs the way we would love to support them,” she said. “Not only by providing financial support, but also through organizational development training.”

The Asian American Civic Association in Chinatown offers upper-level English classes, which are not easily found elsewhere, said Richard Goldberg, the association’s educational director.

“We did some work in the neighborhood and found there was a gap in services,” he said. “We thought we could fill a good need [by offering the more advanced classes].”

The English classes are geared for different people, but more students are coming in at younger ages and earlier in their arrival to the country, he said.

“The purpose [of the programs] is for students to improve and be able to function and find a job,” said Elenda Kuyun, an ESL instructor for the association. “The [students] are learning and the majority of [them] come here from word of mouth.”

Most of the students are from the Chinatown community or the greater Chinese community in Boston, Goldberg said. However, at the organization’s night classes, he said there is a greater diversity of people coming from Hispanic, Haitian, African and Central Asian backgrounds.

“The demand [for classes] hasn’t let up,” Goldberg said. “I’ve been here 15 years and immigrants keep on coming.”

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Boston-New York Bus Lines Compete with New Dollar Fares

By Stephanie Rubenstein

CHINATOWN – Due to soaring fuel prices and a higher demand for public transportation, bus lines from Boston to New York have seen a rise in customers, according to Fumei Cheung, vice president of operations for Lucky Star bus company.

“The market for people going to New York has increased, so everyone is busy,” Cheung said of all of the bus companies.

Despite the influx of passengers, she added that there is still a level of competition between the five different bus lines that travel between the two cities.

Within the past few months, both Lucky Star and Bolt Bus, a new company, have been promoting new online ticket rates that start at one dollar, drawing in students and budget-conscious travelers.

“I used to take the Chinatown buses, but they went so fast, they were not as clean and my friends had horrible experiences on them,” said Allison Keiley, 26, who often travels between Boston and New York, where she had lived for the past four years.

Keiley made the switch to Bolt Bus, where she paid $20, compared to Fung Wah Chinatown bus company rate of $15, because of the extra legroom, cleanliness and wireless Internet offered throughout the long ride. Fung Wah declined to comment.

Other customers said that the well-known Chinatown connection between the two metropolitan cities was not an important factor and that price was their main concern for choosing bus lines.

“I’ve taken the Chinatown bus many times,” said Andrew Carothers, 23, from New York City. “It’s changed over time and has recently become more reliable. But, I’ll take whatever will get me [to New York] as cheap as possible.”

Fung Wah customer Michael Assatly, 21, from Stoughton, agreed and said that he did not worry about anything, except for going from “point A to point B at a low cost.”