Once the skies cleared up, I continued my trek downtown. I was greeted by an elegant, golden-tiled arch. A pair of bronze statutes flanked the sides. Unlike DC’s tiny and rapidly diminishing enclave, Chinatown Boston has established a strong foothold. In existence since the late 19th century, it is now the only surviving Sino-Chinese community in New England.
In the mid 1800’s, the lure of gold and construction of the transcontinental railroad brought the first wave of Chinese immigrants to America. The Chinese were paid lower wages than their counterparts causing the Whites to begin fearing for their jobs resulting in anti-Chinese sentiment. To escape the discrimination, many of the Chinese moved east and their communities became increasingly segregated.
The first Chinese migrated to Boston from San Francisco in 1870 to break up a strike at the Sampson Shoe Factory. Chinatown along Harrison Street was created due to the anti-Chinese movement and the desire to separate the community from the rest of the city.
But today, the opposite is happening. In Chinatowns all across America, gentrification has taken hold and the Whites and Wealthy are steadily moving back in. Since the beginning, the Chinese have weathered a lot of cultural challenges and abuse in America, but thankfully, today, Americans have prudently learned to embrace the heritage and cuisines imported from mainland China.
Such is the case of dim sum. In ancient China, weary travelers trekking the Silk Road to Europe stopped along the way at roadside tea-houses for rest and replenishment. Several hundred years later, restaurants in Hong Kong, adding the freshest ingredients, refined the dishes to a classical culinary art form The delicious recipes were exported to the U.S. when thousands of Chinese immigrated to San Francisco during the Gold Rush of the 1850’s. Now it is a staple in every excursion to Chinatown. Thankfully, there are several high-profile dim sum eateries in Boston. Famished and forlorn, I entered the very first eatery I discovered.
The establishment initially appeared modest from the outside but once inside it opened up into a large banquet room filled with gigantic tables packed with extended multi-generational families. Hei La Moon is a highly-rated sprawling, bi-level banquet hall filled with office workers, tourists to wedding parties. Usually there’s a long wait – today being the holidays, my timing was fortuitous and I was able to secure a seat right away next to an elderly American couple from Rhode Island who journeyed this far just for a bite of shrimp dumpling.
If you’re wishy-washy like me, you’ve come to the right place. The prices of each dish is so reasonable, you can usually afford to order everything that catches the eye. If you don’t like the fluffy steam buns (char siu bao) or the chewy, translucent skin in the shrimp dumpling (har gow), you simply don’t have to take a second bite. You do not need to speak a lick of Chinese. You can just wait for the steamy, hot carts to come to you with ladies yelling out their offerings and point to the dish that you’re eager to try. The server will stamp your sheet, and you’ll be rewarded with bite-sized morsels that do more to tease than to satisfy. During the lunch hour madness, it can be quite a chaotic scene.
It’s better if you’re dining with others so you order a wide variety and have at it. Cheung fun (steamed sheets of filled rice noodles served with sweet soy), steamed pork ribs, chicken feet, tripe, congee with preserved egg, you name it.
But even going solo, the portions are small enough that you can consume lots of dishes before you’re ready to take on your final round of dessert — normally an egg-filled custard that’s both crispy and sweet, washed down generously with miniature cups of boiling hot tea.
The service wasn’t the best and neither was the cleanliness. But you go for dim sum not expecting white linen service. If you’re a dim sum enthusiast, it may not be the best tasting or freshest ingredients you’ve ever had, but if you want dim sum and you’re in Boston, Hei La Moon must be on your bucket list.