Duong (not his real name) is a character to say the least. He is an entrepreneur, and I would have said in the past a "street" entrepreneur but in recent times he has moved above and beyond that. He has a unique perspective when looking at Boston's Chinatown because he spent a lot of time here, but he also spent a lot of time selling various stuff on Canal Street in New York's Chinatown. (Not illegal stuff by the way. Just the sort of not quite legal stuff that policeman would purchase for their little loved ones at home.) So he can compare Boston's Chinatown with New York's. He also had a farm for about 7 years in the south.
If you think about it, his next move should have something to do with politics. He was born in Vietnam so he can't be president (which is probably why he hadn't bothered with politics), but think about it. How many people do you know who know small business, city politics, and then know the ins and outs of farming? He has the personality to get stuff done too. I don't know what kind of stuff but he'd get it done.
I asked him to compare Boston's Chinatown to New York's
"Yo man for what I see everywhere Boston they have it more beautiful like build up already. Only Chinatown still piece a shit. You don't see that shit in New York. Like New York you have a lot of people spend a lot of money, they take a building make it over, brand new, beautiful, but Chinese way. They make it stronger like to make have a Chinatown for 100 years. It's big money.
Now you don't see that shit in Boston. I'm not talking about sell to white people and build up. I mean make it in a Chinese way. White people will build it up look nice but their not going to have no Chow Fahn Lo Mein in that shit... You know?" Duong laughed." They have something more white people style, like sandwich something like that. But New York is different. They make it look nice and in the Chinese Way."
I asked him if he thought Chinatown would be around much longer.
"Man Chinatown gonna be gone in 20 years in Boston if you keep like this." He shook his head. I asked him if he thought any of the changes were good. Like Gentrification vs. say needles and shit on the street. I told him a little bit about my street sweeping project.
"Okay you know you grew up here too. THink back to like early 90's Chinatown was a lot stronger. You don't see no people do drugs on the street in Chinatown. You don't see black people rob old ladies in Chinatown. All you see is more Gu wak Jai (Chinese term for something like a gangster) walking around that's it. But now, I bet you man, if a big white guy or black guy or hispanic guy whatever, don't matter, if they come into Chinatown today and go over to Chinese old lady and give her one hit, one punch right in the face, I bet you man, nobody will say anything. They can get away easy. Just run away no problem. I believe that shit."
This made me think of Yuzhen Li. The woman who pushed her was arrested, but it was because the film crew for the new Ghostbusters were standing right there and witnessed it. In other words. It was outsiders who helped as good Samaritans. Plus, she didn't even try to get away. She just went to work.
"Now I bet you, if you go somewhere, Roxbury, South Boston, Dorchester, whatever, and anyone go there and hit an old black lady hit and old white lady, say someone give them one punch. You think they can run?" Duong laughed. There would be no way anyone could get away because the community would jump to her aid.
"Chinatown used to be strong. Now it's weak."
I thought about what Duong said the other day too. About why Chinatown could be considered weak in this particular way. (In other ways it might be considered stronger) I was buying my vegetables at Jia Ho. Walking in I saw a guy coming out. As I bought my vegetables he came back in. He went in and out in and out about three times. He wasn't Chinese. But that is not suspicious. What is suspicious is how he went in and out so many times without buying anything. I looked at him.
But the woman at the register not only became nervous. She also became nervous of me. I got the feeling she thought somehow we were together and that we were going to do something.
He came out again, and I asked him "Are you looking for somebody?" He shook his head and didn't say a word, but I suspect his English is first rate.
There is a certain kind of "robbery" that I would dare say is specific to Chinatown. The perpetrator is usually non Chinese. Could be Black. Could even be Vietnamese. The point is they are always from outside of Chinatown. But they have knowledge that is insider knowledge essential for the motive of the crime.
When I was in high school are Kung Fu school was broken into. The drums cut and the Lion Heads smashed.
A friend whose family owned a store had trouble with a black guy stealing this type of herbal medicine that was by the door. But you have to know how to cook that to want to steal it.
Crime Watch was started after businesswoman was pushed to the ground and carjacked. She had $10,000 dollars cash on her. But someone had to know that she had that much money on her for her to be a target.
Chinatown is very disconnected. It isn't really one community. There are so many moving parts that even if say, I want to prevent something from happening at the grocery store, even though I am a regular customer and speak Chinese, I will be suspected. I think if the community were closer, she would have asked me in Chinese if I knew that guy etc.
That's how it often happened in the early 90's when I went to the little produce store across from the Kung Fu school. I was more of a regular. The people knew me. That little section of Chinatown which was out of the main part was a little community of it's own. #Chinatown Cafe, the Kung Fu school, May's Cake House, the Pharmacy and Tai Tung. That was a small little community neighborhood within Chinatown that was tight.
As I left to go to my Preschool Kung Fu class I saw the young man walking out over to the Alley where centerfolds was. In retrospect, what I should have done was taken a picture of him with my camera. That's a pretty outsider touristy thing. It isn't aggressive. But it also might make him decide not to do whatever it was he seemed to be trying to build up courage to do.
I assume he didn't do anything anyway. Maybe he wasn't planning anything. Maybe he was completely innocent. But the truth is Chinatown is almost like a target now. Even I, with all my involvement in Chinatown, didn't feel like it was my place to step to question that guy and I got nervous when it seemed like the woman at the register suspected me too.
#Chinatown is looking nicer and it has a strong voter turn out and is often the swing vote in an election. It looks nicer. Is Duong right though? On a street level, on a day to day experience level, is it really all just an illusion?
If you think about it, Chinatown is full of a lot of people who are half in half out. They either have sentiments about it but don't live there. Or they live there, but plan to move soon. It's more like a train station than a real neighborhood in that sense.
Am I wrong?
I hope so.