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A Decade Later, Still the Last Days of Chinatown

Washington's Chinatown has been dying for longer than some people live. Every few years, someone writes the obituary for the neighborhood. I know: I wrote a cover story for the Post's Sunday magazine in 1995 predicting the demise of the downtown enclave that has been home to Washington's small Chinese community for the better part of a century.

When I wrote that piece, the MCI Center was about to become reality and development pressure was finally starting to hit the city's East End, which had seen little in the way of building since the riots devastated the city in 1968. Chinese immigrants were choosing to settle in Wheaton or Falls Church rather than move into crowded apartments in the District. And the Chinese families that controlled much of the real estate in Chinatown were growing old, weary and ready to sell.

But of course Chinatown still exists. I can't say it thrives, but it's there, with a few culinary gems--especially Full Kee and Chinatown Express--still hanging on, even winning some business from the sports arena and the area's other new attractions.

Last week, one of the neighborhood's old standbys closed. China Doll, where Red Auerbach, John Feinstein, and the old Washington sports guys hang out for their legendary lunches, will be replaced by more upscale development. The Lee family, one of the largest landholders in Chinatown, decided it was time to cash in.

And who can blame them? They hung on through many very lean years, and now the boom had made developers hungry for any patch of land they can grab in that part of town. Even a decade ago, when I spent time with the Lees, they said that the only reason they were staying put was because there were still some emotional bonds between the Washington Chinese community and the old neighborhood. The Wah Luck House, a senior housing complex in the heart of Chinatown, is still there, but otherwise, only a handful of Chinese immigrants still live in the area; most of their old apartment buildings fell to make way for the new condos on 5th and 6th streets NW. And increasingly, the younger generation of Chinese Americans looks toward the suburbs for the institutions that tie them to their roots.

Chinatown won't entirely disappear for many years because its existence is written into city law. Developers have to put Chinese lettering on their buildings and make gestures toward the Chinese community. But these are ever more empty gestures, as the Chinese landowners themselves make the decisive moves to turn Chinatown into a piece of history rather than a living community.

Even 11 years ago, John Fondersmith, then the District's chief planner for the area, told me that the era of a residential Chinatown was already pretty much over. He hoped that Chinatown would develop as a commercial and cultural center, but he realized that developers might have other ideas. "At some point," he said then, "there wouldn't be much purpose to insisting on Chinese characters in the design. At some point, it might not make sense to call it Chinatown."

By Marc Fisher |  June 30, 2006; 11:04 AM ET
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Those Chinese names on businesses are silly - I understand why they did it, but Chinatown has up and left, folks. And a lot of the signs in Chinese are sloppy. Like the characters on the car rental place in the MCI center? Totally ugly. They look like a child made them with electrical tape.

Posted by: h3 | June 30, 2006 11:51 AM

I actually find it somewhat insulting to see the Chinese characters under a "Ruby Tuesday's" or a "Coyote Ugly" or the other chains the invest Chinatown. At that point, I'd rather just see Chinatown move elsewhere than have an empty gesture thrown on its grave. I've been to other Chinatowns around the US and the culture in those Chinatowns is phenomenal.

It's a real shame that there is a significant dearth of metro-accessible and good Chinese food.

Posted by: anon | June 30, 2006 11:52 AM

I've only been on the coastal cities, but with the exception of NYC, it seems most "Chinatown"s have left for the suburbs long ago, although it might not be as drastic as what's happened in DC.

The suburbs is where all the Asian professionals are living, so the shops and stores are mostly following them there. That's where you find real stores with Chinese signs, because they're trying to attract Chinese consumers, as opposed to some pointless artistic look.

Posted by: tallbear | June 30, 2006 12:46 PM

Rockville is Chinatown. Want a good Chinese meal? Go to Rockville. Want a store that sells dried sharks fin? Go to Rockville. Some day DC will get it's very own 99 Ranch Market and my prediction is -- it'll be in Rockville.

Posted by: Paul | June 30, 2006 1:01 PM

"but with the exception of NYC, it seems most "Chinatown"s have left for the suburbs long ago"

Philadelphia has a huge and thriving Chinatown.

Posted by: Jaz | June 30, 2006 2:48 PM

I certainly hope no one buys shark fin based on the decimation of shark populations in southeast asia. Remember, just because a product is packaged legally in a foreign country and passes over the eyes of the customs service doesn't mean you should be eating it under moral or health rules.

Posted by: Don | June 30, 2006 3:29 PM

SFO has two Chinatowns in the city.

But an aside--I was walking in Chinatown with my mother-in-law (from China) and we went past hooters. She saw the Chinese letters and turned to me asking "Why do they call it Owls?"

Guess a literal translation is enough....

Posted by: Andrew | June 30, 2006 3:29 PM

My grandparents before they passed away, lived in Wah-Luck house since the beginning, nearly twenty-five years ago. There are a lot of emotional ties to that building and to Chinatown from the Chinese community. Unfortunately, that is it; most of us Chinese live in the suburbs, and are within miles to Chinese grocery stores or restaurants. Very seldom do I go to D.C. to shop in Chinatown. And it brings sorrow to see what was a great Chinatown diminished to half of block of restaurants and convenience stores.

Posted by: T | June 30, 2006 3:29 PM

How will we know when Chinatown is gone? When Michael Wilbon and the other Post sports writers stop referring to the Verizon Center as "Tony Chaing's Neighborhood." Can't happen soon enough for me.

Posted by: Kalorama Kat | June 30, 2006 3:52 PM

I've heard several times that the original Chinese lettering they did for the Hooters in Chinatown actually translated to something similar to "House of the Devil", and that they had to redo it once someone actually told them what it meant. Don't know if that's really true, but it's a fun story.

Before we cry too much for the old Chinatown, we should remember that it wasn't really that nice, at least in recent memory. Most of the buildings were run down, lots of slum housing, and the streets were filled with crime and litter.

Posted by: Hillman | June 30, 2006 4:50 PM

Very interesting. In NYC, the ethnic neighborhood that's disappearing and maintains only a nominal presence (the San Genarro festival and a few restaurants, mainly patronized by tourists) is Little Italy. The Italians have all assimiliated and don't need an enclave. Chinatown, which is just past Canal Street and hungry for room, is pushing it out.

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