When Helen Chin Schlichte and her eight siblings, and numerous extended family members, gathered at her City Square apartment on Christmas Eve, it was the culmination of more than 100 years in the Town coming together in an amazing blend of Chinese and Townie culture that has persevered in Charlestown for three generations.
With great struggle, extremely hard work and dedication to education, the family has preserved traditions brought to America by their parents from a small Chinese village, and incorporated purely Bostonian traditions like Sunday dinner and going to church regularly at St. John’s Church.
Living among the many Irish Catholic Americans in Charlestown, the Chin family has quietly maintained a solid presence in the Town for decades, sometimes spreading out to find success in other places, but always coming back to home – which is Charlestown.
“We’re really Townies,” said Helen during an interview recently. “All nine of us were born and raised here.”
Between Two Worlds
The Christmas Eve tradition with nearly 20 members of the family gathered in City Square says it all about who the Chins are and where they have come from.
“We were all there on Christmas Eve this year to celebrate Christmas with a traditional Chinese dinner at Helen’s apartment,” said Fran Chin, a retired attorney who ran his own firm for years in Boston. “It is a combination. We get take-out and large platters of special foods and we made a more traditional meal that is reserved for special occasions. There is a blend of celebrating Christmas Eve with a traditional Chinese holiday occasion that recognizes winter – the solstice. There is a traditional dumpling soup served then. My (late) mother did that every year.”
David Chin still holds that recipe in hand, and makes sure to cook it on that special occasion each year. For him, living a typical Boston life in Charlestown and also the pull of carrying on Chinese traditions has been a life-long dichotomy. From the time when he was young going to the Harvard School and wanting to do things his American friends did, to now when he continues to preserve the traditional Christmas Eve dumpling dish, he said it has always been living in two worlds.
“Our parents were very traditional Chinese and taught us Chinese values and here we were in the middle of an Irish American neighborhood,” David said. “It was a dichotomy. You were pulled by the Chinese faction and the American faction all the time. We were one of five non-white families in Charlestown and those other four non-white families were also Chinese.”
Settling in Charlestown
When most Townies celebrate their Charlestown pedigree, it usually entails a thrilling journey from Ireland to Boston, but the Chin family goes back more than 100 years in Charlestown and has a different kind of story.
Their story revolved around a Main Street laundry, a sweat-equity vehicle that propelled them to great education and success.
In the very early 1900s, Chin Yin Lok left Toishan village in China and came to Charlestown. Like many Chinese of the time, the only way to make a living was to set up a laundry – which is what he did. In 1918, the family’s father, 15-year-old Edwin Key Seu Chin joined his father in Charlestown. He went to Charlestown schools, and graduated in four years from eighth grade, but his life was about hard work in the laundry.
In 1931, through an arranged marriage, he brought over Chin Fong Toy – who became known as Mary Chin. Edwin and Mary would have nine children in Charlestown as a result of their marriage.
“We have heard that they had a wedding ceremony in Toishan, but my father wasn’t even there,” said Helen. “We were told they had a rooster stand in for him while they conducted the ceremony, and then she went to live with my father’s parents for a while in their home. In 1931, she came to Charlestown…She told us that her job before she was married was to tend to the family’s water buffalo.”
The hand laundry at 34 Main St. was an occupation all nine children were born into, they said.
Fran said having a laundry was one of the few things Chinese families were allowed to do in the old days, and they used it to move up.
“There were no African Americans living in Charlestown when we grew up,” said Fran. “All five of the Chinese families ran Chinese laundries. That’s all we were really permitted to do. It was the occupation open to the Chinese because it was seen as a lower-class thing to do. Nobody really aspired to clean other people’s clothes. We were able to do that and with incredible work my mom was able to raise her family on that.”
Said Helen, “That was the center of the family. My father then bought 45-47 Main St. in the 1940s. Then the BRA and Urban Renewal took that property. My mother wanted to stay in Charlestown so we developed this block on Main Street in 1974. Four of us are still here. The family still comes back a lot.”
That’s likely because they grew close through the bond of tragedy.
A Hard Life, Patriotic Values
When Helen was 15, and the youngest of nine children was only three months old, their father died of liver cancer. It was a striking blow to the family, and they recall many Charlestown families coming to their aid.
Their mother – a very tough, but small woman, who lived to be 103 – was left to raise nine young children on her own.
That meant the children had to work, and instead of being able to play Little League or football like the other Charlestown children, they were expected to do the hard work that it took to run the laundry.
“My mom had a tough love when it came to getting us to meet life goals,” said David. “That’s because of the large challenges she faced raising us alone with my dad gone. She very much understood and preached education, education, education. That was the way to financial security and moving socially – upward mobility.”
Added Fran, “She really believed in the American Dream. In her own way, she was very patriotic. She believed in these American values.”
The jobs were passed on amongst the nine siblings. At the age of 7, they would begin with sweeping and mopping the floor. As they got older, they would shovel coal to heat the drying room. Then they would graduate to washing.
“We passed the jobs down to one another, and I suspect not a lot of our friends and compatriots were doing the kinds of daily things that we were doing,” said Helen.
By the time Fran and his younger brother Phillip came along, he said they had built up the courage to ask – just ask – to play Little League like the other Townie kids.
“My older siblings like Helen paved a path that enabled my younger brother and I to think outside the traditional path the elders had found,” said Fran laughingly. “We could dream at the possibility of playing baseball in Little League. I say dream because we approached my mom about it and she said no, that we were needed in the laundry. So, we didn’t play, but we could dream about it.”
Sunday Dinner and Church
The Chins recalled a very positive upbringing in the Town, not really recalling any discrimination or negative reactions to them.
“That’s really because we grew up with all the kids and went to school with them,” said Helen. “Many people knew my father and he was respected in the Town.”
When their father died, however, their mother took over and pushed them to adopt traditional American values – such as attending church at St. John’s.
That’s where they met the Rev. Wolcott Cutler, a brave figure in the Town that led St. John’s for years.
“The Church became very much a part of our community,” said Fran. “Rev. Cutler was an erudite man who had a very broad, deep Christian value that not only did he believe in, but also he lived by. That led him to be a pacifist during World War II. That stance made him not popular with some, but he believed that. He took us all to the Fellsway and Castle Island. It was part of his broadening our horizons beyond Charlestown. He was a great man and had a great influence on us as we grew up.”
And their mother also insisted on a traditional Bostonian dinner every Saturday and Sunday – figuring out how to cook hot dogs and beans and other American favorites like macaroni and cheese.
“My mother always cooked Chinese food for dinner, but she also insisted on cooking Sunday supper with her own touch,” said David. “She cooked baked beans on Saturday and learned to cook mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese.
“It was really my mother who set the tone,” he continued. “She taught the traditional values and helped us succeed in America under very difficult circumstances. I think that’s to be celebrated.”
Watching Them Succeed
All nine of the Chin children made it through their unique childhoods and found great success, with all but one still living the Boston area.
Helen, Tom, May, Ted, David, Eleanor, Joseph, Fran and Phillip all attended schools like Boston Latin School or Girls Latin School, went on the colleges like Harvard and Northeastern and found professional success in law, academia and even on in the U.S. Marines.
Now there are grandchildren pursuing careers in medicine and other outstanding areas of life. Much of these things their mother was able to see in her lifetime.
The courtrooms in Boston, the halls of Harvard, the fancy non-profit galas and the tension of a surgical suite are all a long way from the laundromat on Main Street, but they were all achieved through three great pieces of motherly advice that all the Chin children and their descendants repeat on Christmas Eve and any other family gathering.
“I can still hear my mother giving us her three pieces of advice,” said Helen.
“Don’t waste time, work a little harder, and save your money,” Helen, David and Fran all said in unison – a smile of contentment coming to all three faces.