Chinatown Documentary Explores Past, Future Of Changing Neighborhood (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Chinatown Documentary Explores Past, Future Of Changing Neighborhood

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:08
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and as we continue our Global D.C. show we're going to meet a woman…

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:18
…with a decidedly global background. Yi Chen is a filmmaker hailing from Shanghai in Eastern China.

MS. YI CHEN

00:00:24
When I was in China, becoming a filmmaker was an impossible dream for me. I never thought one day I would be making films. But when I came here, I got into American University film program. I was interested in making documentaries.

SHEIR

00:00:38
And Chen has just released her very first documentary. It's called "Chinatown," and it explores the neighborhood we're visiting today, right around 7th and H Streets in Northwest D.C.

CHEN

00:00:49
I've always been interested in Chinese-American history, as an immigrant coming here myself from China. And when I travel, I always love visiting Chinatown. The first Chinatown I ever visited in the United States was the San Francisco Chinatown. I dropped off my bag at the hotel and I didn't even unpack and I headed to the Chinatown.

SHEIR

00:01:11
Chen spent a year shooting her documentary, which follows Chinese residents of D.C.'s Chinatown, as they try to keep their culture alive in the rapidly changing neighborhood, which, by the way, actually started somewhere else. Chinatown first developed on Pennsylvania Avenue NW in the late 1800s. But in 1931, as the Federal Triangle project neared completion, Chinatown moved to where it is now.

SHEIR

00:01:34
And though D.C.'s Chinatown was never as expansive as San Francisco's or New York's, back in the day it did have its share of Chinese groceries, restaurants and residents.

CHEN

00:01:45
But during the '70s and the '80s -- urban renewal and redevelopment plans. And since then the real estate price just skyrocketed in Chinatown and they couldn't afford renting anymore. So they moved out to Wheaton, Rockville and suburbs in Virginia.

SHEIR

00:02:01
So now, Chen says, D.C.'s Chinatown has the largest archway of all the Chinatowns in the United States.

SHEIR

00:02:08
That would be the Friendship Archway, designed by local architect Alfred Liu.

CHEN

00:02:11
But it's one of the smallest Chinatowns in the United States. It's about three blocks and about 400 Chinese immigrants.

SHEIR

00:02:19
And the majority of these immigrants live in a 10-story, 153-unit subsidized apartment complex on the corner of 6th and H...

SHEIR

00:02:28
…known as Wah Luck House.

SHEIR

00:02:34
Yi Chen and I stopped by the federally subsidized building to visit one of the immigrants from her documentary.

MS. JIA TING XU

00:02:40
I'm Jia Ting Xu. English name is Tina. It's for English class and for convenient teacher call me.

SHEIR

00:02:49
Tina's in her 70s and she and her husband have lived in Wah Luck House since 2000. Tina moved from Shanghai to Washington in 1992 and while she appreciates how much safer Chinatown is now, she misses the days when the neighborhood offered a bundle of Chinese restaurants and two Chinese grocery stores. The last one, Da Hua Market, closed in 2005.

CHEN

00:03:10
She said that because there's not a large Chinese population that there's not enough demand to have a Chinese grocery store here. And the residents travel to Falls Church, Va. once a month on a bus to buy groceries, which is very inconvenient for them.

SHEIR

00:03:28
Indeed, the Chinatown Development Corporation provides bus service to Great Wall Supermarket, where Wah Luck House residents can stock up on staples like bok choy, lotus root, bamboo shoots and jellyfish. But with nearly 250 residents, and only 52 bus seats, the wait list is pretty long.

SHEIR

00:03:46
So what do you think is going to happen to Chinatown in the future?

CHEN

00:03:53
She was saying that she hopes the city will pay more attention to Chinatown, to its residents. And she wants to see more Chinese businesses and restaurants in Chinatown.

MR. RAYMOND WONG

00:04:05
The mom and pop shops are the entities that makes a Chinatown, you know, because usually the mom and pop shops are usually the Chinese people or the Asians who run it.

SHEIR

00:04:12
And according to Raymond Wong, another Chinatown resident in Yi Chen's film, we won't be seeing more of those mom and pop shops in D.C.'s Chinatown anytime soon. The way the Hong Kong native sees it, the neighborhood is just going to get more and more corporate.

WONG

00:04:28
And the corporate entities are usually outsiders.

SHEIR

00:04:32
I mean, here you'll see we have a Hooters, but the sign is in Chinese. And we have a Bed, Bath and Beyond, but you see the sign in Chinese.

WONG

00:04:37
Right, right. The sign's in Chinese, but the owner's not Chinese. Employee is not Chinese. And they don't serve Chinese Hooters. I've never been to Hooters. I don't know.

SHEIR

00:04:51
Wong directs the martial-arts program at the Chinatown Community Cultural Center on H Street. The center offers classes in traditional brush painting, crafts, music, and, thanks to Raymond Wong, kung fu and tai chi.

WONG

00:05:02
When I arrived here in the U.S., there was a Chinatown here, but of course you didn't see the office buildings, the convention center, you didn't see any of the tourists here. It was just neighborhood people.

SHEIR

00:05:14
How do you feel about those changes?

WONG

00:05:16
Well it's kind of like a tidal wave coming at you. You just have to try to survive against it. You need some resistance and you need something to hold to. So that's basically what I try to do here at the Chinatown Community Cultural Center.

SHEIR

00:05:34
Yi Chen says that tide is getting harder and harder to resist. Chinatown's Chinese residents only make up 14 percent of the neighborhood's entire population. And that 14 percent, well, the majority are getting up there in years.

CHEN

00:05:47
I fear the authenticity of Chinatown, whether it will still exist in 10, 20 years, beyond the Friendship Archway.

SHEIR

00:05:58
And the signs, like Bed, Bath and Beyond and Starbucks, in Chinese?

CHEN

00:06:01
And the signs in Chinese characters, exactly.

SHEIR

00:06:03
Because what makes a Chinatown authentic, she says, isn't an archway or signs in Chinese. It's the people who've called the neighborhood their home for years and hope to do so for many more to come.

SHEIR

00:06:24
We have more information on Yi Chen's documentary film, "Chinatown," including ways you can check it out, on our website. We also have a link to a plan the District government drew up a few years back, suggesting ways to improve Chinatown's infrastructure and enhance the neighborhood's cultural character. You can find it all on metroconnection.org.
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