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Chinatown Documentary Explores Past, Future Of Changing Neighborhood

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While Washington’s Chinatown still has a handful of Chinese restaurants, longtime residents recall the days when the choices were far more numerous.
Rebecca Sheir
While Washington’s Chinatown still has a handful of Chinese restaurants, longtime residents recall the days when the choices were far more numerous.

Shanghai native Yi Chen says she's always enjoyed film, but back in China, "becoming a filmmaker was an impossible dream for me. I never thought one day I would be making films."

After college, Chen moved to the United States and attended film school at American University. Now, the 32-year-old has just released her very first documentary: Chinatown. The film explores a neighborhood with which Chen has long been fascinated.

"I've always been interested in Chinese-American history, as an immigrant coming here myself," she says. "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."

Chen spent a year shooting her documentary, which follows three Chinese residents of D.C.'s Chinatown, as they try to keep their culture alive in the rapidly changing neighborhood, which actually started 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.

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.

"But during the '70s and the 80s, [there were] urban renewal and redevelopment plans," Chen explains. "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."

Now, Chen says, while D.C.'s Chinatown has the largest archway of all Chinatowns in the United States (the Friendship Archway, designed by local architect Alfred Liu), "it's one of the smallest Chinatowns in the United States. It's about three blocks, and about 400 Chinese immigrants."

Questioning Chinatown's Future

The majority of these immigrants live in Wah Luck House a 10-story, 153-unit subsidized apartment complex on the corner of 6th and H Streets.

Jia Ting Xu, or "Tina" for short, is 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 had a bundle of Chinese restaurants and two Chinese grocery stores. The last one, Da Hua Market, closed in 2005.

"Because there's not a large Chinese population there's not enough demand to have a Chinese grocery store here," Tina explains. "And the residents travel to Falls Church, Va. once a month to buy groceries, which is very inconvenient."

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.

When asked what she thinks Chinatown's future holds, Tina says she "hopes the city will pay more attention to Chinatown, to its residents." She also "wants to see more Chinese businesses and residents in Chinatown."

But Chinese immigrant Raymond Wong says he doesn't expect that to happen any time soon.

"The mom and pop shops are the entities that makes a Chinatown, because usually the mom and pop shops are usually the Chinese people, or the Asians who run it," he says.

The way the Hong Kong native sees it, the neighborhood is just going to get more and more corporate.

"The corporate entities are usually outsiders," he says. Even though many of the national chains have signs in Chinese characters, "the owner's not Chinese. Employees not Chinese. And they don't serve Chinese [products]."

Those who call Chinatown home

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.

"When I arrived here in the U.S., there was a Chinatown here," he says. "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."

Wong compares the growing commercialization to a tidal wave: "You just have to try to survive against it. You need some resistance and you need something to hold on to. So that's basically what I try to do here at the Chinatown Community Cultural Center." But that's the thing, says Yi Chen. Without people, you can't resist.

Chinatown's Chinese residents only make up 14 percent of the neighborhood's entire population. And that 14 percent is getting up there in years.

Which is why she fears whether "the authenticity of Chinatown will still exist in 10, 20 years, beyond the Friendship Archway and the signs in Chinese characters."

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

[Music: "Slow Boat to China" by Klaus Wunderlich from Up, Up and Away]

Photos: Chinatown Documentary

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