Thursday, June 20, 2024

The Chen family at 47 Alpine St., West Cambridge, in 1962. (Photo: Stephen Chen)

A recent report tied to the city’s Our Cambridge Street study found there has been a growing number of people from Asian ethnic groups living in Cambridge since the 1980s, a more pronounced increase than the city’s population as a whole – in fact, nearly doubling in size over the past four decades. The 2019 study found that the highest proportion of foreign-born Cantabrigians immigrated from China. What was life like for Chinese Americans in Cambridge during the mid-20th century, before these demographic shifts? A recently started oral history project by History Cambridge seeks to provide some answers. 

Census records and directories suggest that for much of the past century, there were few Chinese or Chinese Americans in Cambridge. Larry Ho, a retired Harvard University professor who taught and researched in the university’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences for nearly 40 years, said he was one of few Chinese students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he arrived to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the 1950s. While he recalled feeling alone at first, he joined a Chinese American fraternity known as FF, or “Flip-Flap,” after a year. “That helped me a lot, because the older fraternity brothers … were already used to American life.” While numbers varied, there were never more than 20 members of the fraternity while he was studying, Ho said. (More information on the Chinese experience at the school can be found on the website China Comes to MIT.)

Larry Ho. (Photo: Justin Murphy)

Stephen Chen, president of Joyce Chen Foods, mentioned how few Chinese families there were in the area when when he was growing up in Cambridge in the 1950s and ’60s. While flipping through the Greater Boston phone book on one occasion, he “counted seven Chens in the whole book.” While there were not many folks in Cambridge sharing their last name or heritage, Chen said his family embraced how they stood out from others in the community. “We kind of became like ‘Okay, we’re Chinese, so we’re unique in some ways. And we have something that we can offer to Cambridge.’ So that’s what my mother did.” To find out more about the life and accomplishments of Stephen’s mother, Joyce Chen, you can check out her story on the History Cambridge website.

Stephen Chen at the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House in West Cambridge. (Photo: History Cambridge)

Steven Ng, who grew up in Cambridge during the 1970s and ’80s, also spoke about how few Chinese students were in his classes. His mother was involved in an effort to introduce Chinese-language classes into Cambridge Public Schools. He recalled that when his mother was looking to gain support from other Chinese families, “there was quite a bit of an effort to try and find out where are the families. And there weren’t that many.”

Steven Ng at the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House. (Photo: History Cambridge)

History Cambridge has been collaborating with the Chinese American Association of Cambridge on this oral history project. CAAC member Janice Ye has been instrumental in helping coordinate interviews. “It’s an honor and exciting experience to research about Chinese who arrived during Cambridge’s earlier years. As an immigrant myself, I know how difficult it is to survive in a foreign country speaking a different language when coming with almost nothing,” Ye said. “I was amazed to find out Chinese scholars came to Harvard and MIT as early as the mid-19th century. Not only did they survive, they also went out to do great things and made contributions at the worldwide level, like Ieoh Ming Pei and Morris Chang, among others.”

This oral project is ongoing. While there may have only been a small community at the time, we hope to expand and deepen our understanding of what life was like for Chinese American Cantabrigians in the mid-20th century. If you or someone you know is interested in being interviewed or have information to share, reach out at [email protected]. We look forward to hearing from you!

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About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name and a new mission. We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We listen to our community and we live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone. Throughout 2023, we are focusing on the history of Cambridgeport. Make history with us at historycambridge.org.

History Cambridge is a nonprofit organization. Our activities rely on your financial support. If you value articles like this one, give today.


Justin Murphy is a volunteer at History Cambridge.