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'Wild And Woolly' Combat Zone Just A Part Of Storied Past In Boston's Chinatown

BOSTON (CBS) – Dim Sum is a Chinese tradition and Brian Moy's family has been serving it at China Pearl, one of the oldest restaurants in Chinatown since he was a boy.

"Dim Sum in Asia, they have small homes so to have gatherings, you go have Dim Sum," he explained.

Today's Chinatown is a place with Chinese culture, in addition to those food traditions; there are Chinese street vendors and people playing games in the park under the Pagoda that welcomes visitors to the neighborhood.

Chinatown features plenty of signature dishes heaped in culture. (WBZ-TV)

Moy remembers a very different neighborhood growing up.

"The only Chinese movie theater in Boston showed the movies from Hong Kong. My mother used to take us there and would always make me look down so I don't see what's going on in the Combat Zone," he explained.

Flashing signs advertising live shows with naked girls, adult book stores and peep shows. That's what Brian's mother didn't want him to see. At night, that seedy corner of the city included prostitution, drug deals and homelessness.

"The Combat Zone, for better or worse, was part of Boston's history," explained former Boston Herald reporter Stephanie Schorow, who wrote a book about the area called, Inside the Combat Zone.

Boston's "Combat Zone" in 1995. (WBZ-TV)

The book traces the history of Boston's red light district from its heyday in the 1970s to the cleanup of the area in the 1990s.

"It was quite a scene," she recalled of those earlier days. "The cops will tell you driving up and down Washington Street, prostitutes would come right up to cars. It was very blatant."

"There was a change in the feel of the neighborhood at night," said Boston Police Deputy Superintendent James Chin.

And he would know, he spent the early days of his career with BPD working the midnight shift in Area A which included Chinatown and the Combat Zone.

"In the 1990s we had a lot of street level drug dealing, a lot of prostitution," he remembered.

In 1991, this neighborhood was the scene of one of the worst murders in Boston's history. Five people were killed inside a social club on Tyler Street, not far from the China Pearl.

The city started cracking down on prostitution, and the VCR eliminated the need for people to go to theaters, so the neighborhood started to change in the 1990s.

But the biggest driver of change in this neighborhood according to Moy, the real estate market.

"Having luxury high rises go up, as a community [we] had to sort of clean up Chinatown," he said.

Chinatown in Boston. (WBZ-TV)

According to Moy the new residents, young professionals, and medical students, changed his business. In addition to the traditional Dim Sum at China Pearl, he now has several smaller residents that cater to a more diverse group of restaurant-goers.

While Brian is glad that the peep shows and the prostitutes are gone, he does worry about the gentrification of the neighborhood.

"It's a big controversy over the last 10 years," he said, expressing concern about being able to hold on to the culture that makes this neighborhood special. He pointed to the struggles of other urban Chinese neighborhoods being forced out into the suburbs.

"Now, Washington, DC's Chinatown is just the Pagoda gate. Symbolically it's themed Chinatown, but there is no Asian businesses there," he said.

According to Moy, the neighborhood has a strong sense of community and is confident it will remain a place steeped in Chinese culture. But most believe the Combat Zone will remain just a slice of Boston history.

"It was an interesting time in Boston," Schorow said. "Things were really wild and woolly and I don't think we are ever going to see that again."

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