D.C.’s miniature Chinatown, perhaps the nation’s smallest, is booming — but as a tourist, shopping and culinary destination, and less as a home for Chinese immigrants

By Steven Knipp, Pacific News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. – May 12, 2005 – For decades, Washington, D.C.’s miniature Chinatown, situated in the heart of the mighty American capital, wallowed in petty crime and urban squalor. Treated with benign neglect by Washington’s disgracefully ill-funded municipal government, the little enclave has long dwelled on the “critical list” of the national capital’s most ignored neighborhoods.

But times are changing. A competent pro-business mayor and a boom in downtown commercial land prices has transformed what is possibly America’s smallest Chinatown into something of a boom town — a change that may in turn threaten the neighborhood’s distinctive Chinese character.

Affluent national retail chains like Starbucks, Ruby Tuesday, TGIF, Anne Taylor and Hooters have elbowed their way into the six square block ward, giving a flashy, plate-glass gloss to the neighborhood.

For China-born Heung Me Ie, 75, who has lived in Chinatown for 15 years and works as a caretaker in the small Kwun Yum Temple, the changes are welcome. “I think the new shops and restaurants are all good,” she says in Cantonese. “Even if they are not Chinese, they make the streets more lively.”

Washington’s Chinatown first emerged as a unique community in 1851. Within a few decades, it became home to more than a hundred Chinese, as the area’s original German immigrants migrated to the suburbs.

Washington’s political worthies have long held mixed feelings about the fledging, semi-foreign community. In 1927, the Washington Star wrote exotically, “Chinatown, that medley of strange sounds, with its deep mystery suggestive of weird images and resplendent beauty, has found in Washington, an abode within the shadow of the Capitol…”

By the early 1930s, the government had drawn up plans to re-develop the already crowded community. But local newspapers still spoke in support, in a manner of speaking, of Chinatown and its residents. “They have not been bad citizens,” one editorial from 1931 intoned. “They have lent picturesqueness to the city scenes; have done business with strangers desiring Eastern merchandise and have refrained from too many murders and too much traffic in opium.”

By the 1960s, what was once deemed picturesque had descended into poverty. Local schools serving Chinatown were third-rate, sidewalks were in disrepair, and petty street crime became common.

In the 1970s, the Washington Convention Center opened on the edge of Chinatown, followed by the MCI Sports Center. Both brought only limited, sporadic business to the neighborhood. Elderly residents who had their apartments demolished to make way for the convention center were fortunately moved into Wah Luck House, the community’s first-ever housing structure specifically built for low-income Chinese.

In the 1980s, an effort was made to emphasize the district’s cultural roots with the building of a colorful 90-foot high Chinese “Friendship Arch.” Aside from marking the gateway to Chinatown, the $1 million structure was meant to be a symbolic link between Washington and Beijing. In fact, it came to be called “the arch of shame.” Engraved on a bronze plaque at its base are the names of Chen Xitong and Marion Barry, former mayors of Beijing and Washington, D.C. After the arch’s construction both men were convicted of felonies; one for embezzling $16 million in government funds, the other for dealing in cocaine.

According to the last census, there are 700 Chinese residents in D.C.’s Chinatown, mostly elderly Cantonese. That’s 100 less than in 1930, and the number is declining. Chinatown’s streets now boast Chinese-language signs, but there are few residents who can actually read them.

As a popular tourist attraction, however, Chinatown still functions well. Every Chinese New Year, thousands of affluent Chinese American families from nearby Maryland and Virginia come to watch the annual parade. And on weekdays, the district’s dozen remaining Chinese restaurants are packed full with hungry office workers.

Among them is the compact Full Kee eatery, famed for its Hong Kong-styled steamed shrimp dumplings and once favored by the then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who would arrive weekly in a squadron of dark-windowed SUVs. He always ordered the same dish: General Tao’s Chicken.

Asked about the recent closure of a Chinese supermarket, Full Kee’s captain, Duong De says, “We heard that that site sold for $7.5 million, so of course it will be hard for another Chinese shop or restaurant to be able to buy it up.” The Saigon-born De has worked in Chinatown for a decade, but lives in nearby Virginia. Fellow Full Kee staffer Chen Pok Zhen, from eastern China, is the only employee out of five on duty who actually lives in Chinatown. He agrees Chinatown is being flooded with new non-Chinese restaurants, but isn’t overly concerned. “They are all quite different. Different types, different prices! So they are not competition with the Chinese restaurants.”

John Lem, director of the nonprofit Chinatown Service, says that most Chinese immigrants he works with don’t live in Chinatown. Even for those that do, Lem says, his job is to “help them assimilate as quickly as possible.”

Washington’s Chinatown and many others once served as havens for new immigrants seeking a place where their traditions still existed. Today’s Chinese immigrants may have different goals: to learn English as soon as possible, find a decent job, save some money, and move to the suburbs — not to walk around adding ambiance to the streets, as some sociologists would have them do.

Today, the majority of Chinese Americans likely choose their neighborhoods the way other Americans do — for affordable housing, high-quality schools, a reasonable commute to work — not because it is the only place they feel at home.


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PNS contributor Steven Knipp is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for the South China Morning Post.  All photos by Steven Knipp.

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