When one thinks of Chinatowns in the US, New York’s wild and vibrant multi-cultural facet inevitably comes to mind because it’s been so robustly manifested in media the world over. But what about Boston? Thinky digs into the Asian heart of Boston and finds it culturally rich and gastronomically gratifying.
Comparisons of the city to New York by New Yorkers are frequently cavalier – “charming historic place” they will say. Admittedly, the city is more known for its colonial architecture, rich American Revolution legacy, institutions of seriously high learning, old moneyed bluebloods – the Boston Brahmins, and undying devotion to the Red Sox, than it is for multiculturalism. But few American cities have an ethnic heritage and diversity that can rival Boston.
There are over 140 languages spoken by its residents from over 80 different countries, Hispanics and Asians are the fastest growing minorities in the city, and it is home to the third largest Chinatown in the United States. Beantown’s hodgepodge melange of minorities gives it a fresh and dynamic vibe that pairs perfectly with its Old World charm.
Boston city’s sights are easy to explore on foot and by the convenient subway system known as the ‘T’. Boston is eminently walkable – it bills itself as “America’s Walking City,” probably partly because driving here is often a traumatic experience. For sights further afield, take the MBTA Commuter Rail. – Subway and commuter rail information available on www.mbta.com
There’s no better place to get a good dose of the city’s Asian Boston’s vibe than in Chinatown. Boston’s Chinatown is the third largest in the country after New York and San Francisco. Chinese immigrant workers first came to New England in the late 1800s and by the turn of the nineteenth century, the city’s Chinese community was fully established. The area is jammed with restaurants, bakeries, food markets, gift shops and Chinese dispensaries.
The famous Chinatown buses plying the routes between New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. no longer operate from Chinatown in Boston but from the nearby South Station depot. For about US$15 one-way from Boston to New York, these bus services, also known as ‘dragon bus’, are a cheap and popular way to travel, despite occasional unfortunate incidents involving wheels rolling off, sparks, flames and even a bus that turned turtle. The Fung Wah bus company sells T-shirts for especially enthusiastic fans who do not mind all that. – www.fungwahbus.com
Boston has many fine museums but the Museum of Fine Arts is the grandest of them all. It is the largest museum in New England and one of the five largest in the country. The West Wing addition to the Classical-style building was designed by I.M. Pei in 1981. The outstanding Asian Collection is said to be the most extensive under one roof in the Western world.
The collection encompasses important Japanese, Chinese, and Indian painting and sculpture; Japanese prints and metalwork; Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese ceramics; as well as the arts of the Islamic world. The fine Japanese Garden is open from spring through summer, but closed during rainy days because the security guards do not like standing around in crummy weather even though the shrubs don’t mind so much. – www.mfa.org
Kyo-no-Machiya at the Boston Children’s Museum is an authentic two-storey silk merchant’s home from Boston’s sister sister of Kyoto. Step into this graceful house that is over a hundred years old and learn about Japanese family life and customs. – www.bostonchildrensmuseum.org
Dragon boat on the beautiful Charles River. The members of the Dragon Boat Club of Boston are a cheery bunch of enthusiastic peddlers who love the hard sport steeped in history and legend and getting wet and sweaty even in the chilly Boston weather. The club conducts races and practices regularly and welcomes new members year-round. – www.dbcb.org
16 miles north of Boston, in the town of Salem, famous for its 17th century witch hunts, you will find the bewitching Yin Yu Tang (Hall of Plentiful Shelter). It is the first building to be brought from China to be reassembled in the United States. The fine 18th century courtyard house was home to the Huang family of a village in Anhui province until the 1980s when the Peabody Essex Museum acquired it.
The two-story dwelling tells the tale of a family’s journey through wealth, poverty and much political turmoil over a period of eight generations. Well-worn antique furniture, farming tools, threadbare fabrics, Cultural Revolution propaganda posters and a Mao-era loudspeaker evoke the past in a way that glass museum exhibits cannot.
Visiting Yin Yu Tang might make you feel like you are snooping around a neighbour’s house. If your neighbour lived in a late Qing dynasty merchant’s house. The museum limits the number of visitors at a given time and it’s a good idea to order tickets in advance online during weekends. – www.pem.org
DIG IN FOOD GOOD EATS:
There are many substandard Asian restaurants in Boston that serve appaling chow mein and gummy sweet and sour chicken breast, but there are quite a few gems if you know where to go. If you previously didn’t, you will now.
Sichuan Garden tantalises in the way that less bold Sichuan restaurants don’t. The numbing sensation of hua jiao (Sichuan peppercorn) is prevalent in its dishes.
The “water-cooked fish” (shui zhu yu), a coyly misleading name for a fiery dish, is superb even though the version served here has fish fillet slices braised in a spicy gravy, rather than served in the traditional cauldron of oil.
The restaurant has the usual uninspired ‘Chinese American’ menu for lunch. Garner the native Chinese waiters’ respect and stick to the Sichuanese specialties such as Chongqing Fried Chicken and Sliced Belly Pork in Garlic Sauce. – 295 Washington St, Brookline, MA, 02446, (617) 734-1870, www.sichuangarden2.com
In the tony town of Wellesley, television celebrity chef Ming Tsai has been serving delectable East-West cooking in the cheery dining room of Blue Ginger since 1998. Entrees are hard to choose with signature dishes like the sake-miso marinated butterfish, jasmine tea-scented ribs with five-spice BBQ sauce, and garlic black-pepper lobster with lemongrass fried rice on the menu. But save some room for the splendid desserts. – 583 Washington Street, Wellesley, MA 02482, (781) 283-5790, www.ming.com
Have a swishing good dinner at Shabu Village. This Chinese hotpot joint in a quieter part of bustling Coolidge Corner has excellent broth and paper-thin beef as well as excellent Taiwanese dian xin. The Taiwan-born owner, January Checkovich, is friendly and always happy to recommend Taiwanese dian xin dishes to diners who might be more familiar with the ubiquitous Cantonese dim sum. Try the excellent five-spiced beef sandwich and delicately crispy potstickers. – 417 Harvard St., Brookline, MA 02446, (617)-566-0888, www.shabuvillage.com
The bahn mi from Pho Viet, a Vietnamese stall in the food court of an Asian supermarket exemplifies is unfussy and modest fusion food. Nestled in a warm and crusty French baguette is succulent grilled pork with a faint lemongrass fragrance, topped with crunchy julienned carrots, daikon and aromatic cilantro. Eat it spiked with chilli for a meal-on-the-go that will make you weak in the knees. – Pho Viet, 88 Food Connection, 1095 Commonwealth Ave, Allston, (617) 523-8820.
Oishii is a hole-in-the-wall that attracts a devoted following and a shower of awards and accolades. Fresh seafood is partnered with unexpected ingredients such as jalapeno peppers, sweet potato frites and gold flakes to victorious results in all of its innovative sushi creations. Come with zen-like patience for there are only a dozen seats at the bar and one table squashed between the bar and the entrance. – 612 Hammond St, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, (617) 277-7888