High-tech crept into Chinatown and it may soon creep out again

Dozens of Oriental women bend over rows of printed circuit boards, soldering iron in one hand, pliers in the other. They spend their days snapping bug-shaped integrated circuits into the green boards and soldering the pieces in place. It could be a scene in Singapore, Taipei, or Tokyo.

In fact, it is Boston's Chinatown, and these are workers in the Advanced Electronics Inc. factory.

High technology has crept into Boston's Chinatown. Best known to outsiders for its restaurants and colorful festivities during the February New Year celebrations, Chinatown is playing host to a handful of prosperous electronics companies.

City officials welcome the growth of employment by high-technology firms as a partial replacement for the neighborhood's waning garment industry.

``The sewing-machine industry is not on the upswing; high-tech is,'' says Carole Mathieson, the Boston Redevelopment Authority's Chinatown coordinator. ``Besides, Chinatown needs the jobs.''

The garment industry, once the mainstay of Chinatown's industrial base, is dwindling at a brisk rate. By one estimate, the last two years alone have witnessed a loss of 2,000 industry jobs as garment companies have moved out of the neighborhood.

The local restaurant business, though healthy, cannot begin to pick up the slack. So Chinatown's unemployed, many of whom speak little English and possess few marketable skills, have had difficulty finding work.

Enter high-tech. More than 700 workers from Chinatown now assemble electronic paraphernalia within a mile of their neighborhood -- about 10 percent of a community estimated to include between 5,000 and 10,000 people -- and the number is growing.

Stanley Choa, president of Advanced Electronics, started the company in 1976 with four people in an old loft. Today, it employs 400 people, more than 90 percent of them Asian, in three buildings. By 1990, he says, the firm could have as many as 1,000 workers.

Teradyne Inc. started the trend in 1966 when it moved near Chinatown because it was convenient to the homes of the company's top executives as well as to the city's manufacturing workers.

Today, 10 percent of Teradyne's 2,000-strong Boston work force is made up of employees from Chinatown.

The 10-story Wang laboratories factory going up on the edge of Chinatown is scheduled to employ 300 workers in the manufacture of telecommunications equipment by 1987.

Yet within this spurt of activity, many analysts perceive the seeds of its decline. The 5.8-acre parcel off the Massachusetts Turnpike acquired by Wang for its new factory was the last piece of open land in the area. Chinatown's neighborhoods are congested with grimy, antique brick buildings, some of which are decaying former leather and shoe factories that have been tabbed for preservation as historic landmarks.

Demand for commercial space in the nearby financial district has had a spillover effect on Chinatown: As residential condominium and commercial office developers race to transform the old structures into prime space, some rents have quadrupled within the last three years.

``The trend is away from manufacturing,'' observes Daniel Fishbein, director of real estate at Boston's Economic Development Industrial Corporation. Prime commercial space can run as high as $18 to $20 per square foot, he says. ``No manufacturing concern can afford that. The place is being overrun by consulting firms and architect's offices.''

As a result, some high-tech firms are already laying plans to expand elsewhere.

In addition, some observers question whether the glittering promise of high technology will really mean a wider horizon of oportunity for Chinatown's workers. Larger companies such as Advanced Electronics run language and electronics courses and boast of their track record in promoting once-unskilled workers. ``We're here to provide jobs and opportunity,'' insists Mr. Chao.

But the smaller companies usually cannot afford such efforts. As a result, some wonder, as does one City Hall official, whether ``low-tech drudgery is just giving way to high-tech drudgery.''

Many of Chinatown's residents apparently remain unconcerned about such pitfalls. Just down the street from Advanced Electronics, on the other side of the grand ornamental gate welcoming strangers to Chinatown, Danny Woo is bagging groceries at the Asia Supermarket as he has done since arriving from Canton, China, nearly 40 years ago.

``A job's a job here -- the more the better,'' he says. ``That doesn't change.'' -- 30 --

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