February 8, 2019 by Cynthia Yee

Previously published in the Boston Art Review, Issue 03

I began life on the streets of Boston’s Chinatown, mazes useful for evading enforcers of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  The Act barred Chinese from immigrating, becoming citizens, and intermarrying.  Repealed in 1943, its effects linger.  I am the inheritor, survivor, and product of Exclusion.

After WWII, my Chinese American father returned from fighting in Europe.  The War Brides Act of 1945 opened the way for wives of WWII veterans to immigrate.  My mother traveled from Taishan, China on a steamer to San Francisco, and by train to Boston in 1948.  She settled on Hudson Street in Boston’s Chinatown, as did many newly arriving Taishanese immigrants.  True unitary Chinese American family life took root for the first time in American history.  

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 abated some of the worst effects of racism, and a general multi-racial liberation began.  The Hart-Celler Act of 1965 increased immigration from Asia, expanding the proportion of Chinese in Chinatown.  I grew up against this backdrop.  

My friends and I were American born, coming of age in the 60’s and 70’s, speaking a fluent and unaccented English, educated, and armed with knowledge of two cultures, and we became practitioners of several sorts of social protest.  We met in underused spaces and strategized.  Our grassroots efforts succeeded: we established organizations for after school child care, bilingual/bicultural health care, English language and job training programs, immigrant labor rights, and affordable housing initiatives.

I am a teacher and writer.  I write about Chinatown’s history, patriarchy’s costs, and family life, post Exclusion.  We’ve moved far toward governing our own choices, moving away from the instincts our pioneering parents taught us for staying safe within a patriarchal village system.  In the new context, it worked poorly for women and girls.  I write about the human costs of an economy, dependent on long hours, low pay, and absent fathers.  I write about a people, knocked down, then forced to prove allegiance, over and over.  

I write about thriving, in love, laughter, and joy, despite all this, and the freedom and riches a child of immigrants enjoys in a life at the margins, with its flexible codes and bicultural vision.

My Chinatown stories, some published online by the Asian Community Development Corporation, have traveled through viral networks from Boston to California, and through social justice, arts, and social service organizations that my peers and I helped start in the 70’s and 80’s.  International journalism and anthropology students, as well as urban arts activists, use the stories for research today.

I grew up among family and friends whose life choices were stifled by language, racism, and exclusion.  I write their stories to celebrate them and my emerging freedom.  I renew my acquaintance with the little Chinese American girl who grew among them, and I let loose her transforming self, a hybrid, into the ever evolving landscape called America.


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