Chinatown

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by Giles Li

(The incidents referred to occurred in Boston Chinatown - ed.)

1903
police bring havoc to a Chinatown funeral procession
for another dead chinaman
thru streets that were usually protected
by the superstitions of those who traveled oceans to call them home
pulling themselves onto shore
with the strength just of a belief
that sleeping on streets paved with gold
was enough to buy more life than ever before was afforded them.

1903
police bring havoc
armed with misdirected righteousness and shielded by the long
letter of the law, and the law-abiding
were criminal masterminds momentarily and
once the moment passed
either found themselves packing up
or packed away
chinamen were forced to leave
or chose to leave
but the message was clear:
they were supposed to leave
and still left to realize that
somewhere along the line
someone? bad decision
brought them to this.

1903
hundreds of men forming arrows pointing in opposite directions
fleeing an undefined menace but
the sight of flailing nightsticks
and paddywagons that might tip
over from the force of too many bodies
and not enough air and
not enough space and
not enough time to run back home and grab
the paper that might let them know
you aren? supposed to be

here.
detained in this
temporary holding cell that holds spirits
permanently after release.
the cemetery for the living
where the future doesn? come in a cookie
but in a memory of travel that soon
becomes inescapable
again.

Here I sit, 100 years later,
writing and rewriting this poem that will bring them justice
this poem that will bring them back to life
so they may finally rest peacefully.

This poem that builds new gates to Chinatown
that lock only from the inside,

this poem that will save the world

or at least the part of it that needed to be saved
back then.

Here I sit, 100 years later,
with a cup of tea
a cup that once hung with other trinkets in the same buildings
where hallways once brimmed with fear
from punishment for only living.

Leaves on the bottom that were bought
on the same streets where men once fled
because fleeing was a way of life.

Leaves that somehow still spell the names of streets once populated
by the quickened footsteps of borrowed memories
and dreams only living in brushstrokes.

Leaves that found their origin where
men were once unwillingly returned,

and here I sit drinking tea
writing poetry
knowing I will never have to leave.

I sit,
here, trying to remember where I was a century ago
as this poem was starting to be written
as lives still hung in the balance

Where was I in 1954
when the new highway slid another tentacle through Chinatown
and homes were replaced by asphalt and chain-link fence
and half of the lives were gone
introduced so briefly to the powers of eminent domain

Where was I in 1978
when the construction of affordable housing
for the elderly of Chinatown
was blocked by a medical center.
A medical center that heals the sick,
supports communities and helps the city
but couldn't bring itself to
take its eyes off the dollar and
provide homes for seniors?

Where was I in 1990 when income in Chinatown was the lowest in the city, when half of Chinatown? children and elderly lived in poverty, when Chinatown had more people per acre than any other neighborhood in Boston, and the homeless in the neighborhood still

outnumbered the residents.

Where was I?

The same place I am today, where tentacles and imaginary gates still mean more than lines on maps and I can find myself here drinking tea.

Because Chinatown belongs to its people

wherever they're from.

And we'll always be here to fight anybody who tries to take it away from us again.

© Giles Li