By Stephen Grigelevich for BCN Blog
May 21, 2021
“I grew up in a world of secrets and transgressions, surrounded by mystery, embraced by hope.” So begins “No Secret,” a work of creative non-fiction by writer, award winning teacher, and Chinatown native Cynthia Yee. Characteristic of her other works, “No Secret” is part coming of age narrative, part historical document. When I sat down with Yee, I had prepared ten questions, and I asked none of them. Instead, I listened as she reflected with conviction and candor. Sometimes measured, sometimes playful, she darted from the personal to the political and back again. “I’m interested in secrets and rule breaking. ‘Cause you know why? Everybody is. Secrets are because of the Exclusion Act. If somebody is trying to attack you, and trying to oppress you, you don’t tell them everything.” This was the first of several instances in which Yee would connect universal human impulses and desires with the political realities of the Boston neighborhood that she called home as a child.
Yee was born and raised in Boston’s Chinatown shortly after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, a policy whose damage she continually emphasizes. “[Chinatown] became a ghetto because of racism and because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. People think Chinatown was formed by a collection of restaurants.” Yee, like many in her generation, was the daughter of a garment worker. Yee shares her mother’s work with us in “If Hudson Street Could Talk,” a self-described valentine to the street of her youth, published online by Boston’s Asian Community Development Corporation:
My mother and my friends’ mothers stayed home stitching piecework, earning 50 cents a shirt, using their own sewing machines and their own electricity. The young brides soon joined them. My father and I helped by flipping collars and cuffs with a sharpened chopstick, folding the shirts, and tying them into neat bundles for the factory owner to pick up. As I grew older, I sewed darts by the hundreds.
In her stories, Yee is a Taishanese girl in a joyful community, where children play publicly and develop an agency and autonomy that she contrasts with restrictive American suburban life. “Neighborliness and play are two words that defined life in Chinatown,” says Yee, who related these qualities of her youth to the idea of dong xi, or understanding. Dong xi reflects an ethic of empathy and respect that Yee puts plainly: “You understand that your grandmother loves pumpkin, so you bring some home.”
caption: Rowhouse on Hudson Street, where Yee lived as a child
Yee does not subscribe to the eternal outsider or victim narrative that the status quo expects to receive. “I try not to center Whiteness,” says Yee. “It’s my story. It isn’t me being the immigrant daughter in a White society, having a White teacher. It’s the story of a girl named Cynthia Yee. And the minor characters are the White teachers and the nuns, and everybody else.” The young Cynthia in Yee’s stories witnesses and interacts with nuns, prostitutes, pimps, and FBI agents, and describes each interaction with a forthrightness that allows us to shed our sensational or romantic attachments. Instead, we see who these characters are through the eyes of a young girl, and what they represent to the larger Chinatown community. In “Duck,” Cynthia watches her father’s confrontation with two White federal agents:
“How do they know what your badge means? They don’t know English. You scared them!” Dad looked angry. “Why are you scaring women? Why?” Young Cynthia reflects gratefully: “Dad spoke English and chased bad men away, snarling F.B.I agents, like he rolled the white drunk who was once breaking into our apartment. Flying super hero, galloping white-hatted cowboy, my fearless, wise, and kind Dad, I loved him.”
Yee connects this tale of a botched police raid to the experiences of Chinatown residents: “That happens. They don’t have your name right, they can’t figure out your Chinese name, so they go to the wrong place, so you could easily get killed.” As a writer, Yee seeks to deliver something palpable to her audience. “What you really have to do is punch them in the gut, and they didn’t see it coming. When they finished your story they go “gasp!” and they didn’t see it coming, and then they have an epiphany.
An award winning teacher in Brookline for over 24 years, and guest lecturer at Emmanuel College, Boston University, and abroad in places like Taipei, Yee has forged a rich network of artists, educators, and activists. Yee began teaching in Chinatown in 1971, where she taught for ten years, a time that saw Boston's enactment of the Bilingual Education Act, as well as its policy of bussing as a response to federal desegregation rulings. It was also during this time that Chinatown’s teachers, influenced by the Civil Rights Era’s struggle for Black liberation, became increasingly politicized, engaging in social protest and founding social service and justice organizations that still support and defend Chinatown today. Now, Yee celebrates her connection with the Pao Arts Center, established in 2017 as Chinatown’s first arts and cultural center, where all four of the Center’s artists in residence have collaborated with Yee in some way. But something is clear in Yee’s exuberance, something that she almost didn’t have to tell me. “The little girl in Hudson Street Chronicles is me still. I’m still the girl who’s curious about crossing borders, and wants to know where the borders are and where the rules are.” In the end, Yee “I am actually really interested in this theme that all rules are negotiable.”
Read Cynthia Yee and follow her collaborations on her blog Hudson Street Chronicles.