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Chu Moy: From China to Chinatown

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Chu Moy had a feeling something was wrong.

In the chaotic hours after a hijacked plane slammed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, no one in her family had been able to reach her son Ted, a civilian employee in the Defense Department.

Ted, 48, was one of five Moy children. She had seen him only a couple of days earlier, at their regular Sunday night family dinner. Ted lived a few miles from her Silver Spring townhouse, as did the rest of her offspring and nine grandchildren. She was at home when the frantic chain of phone calls began. For hours, the Moy siblings repeatedly called Ted’s wife, Madeline, area hospitals and one another as they tried to find Ted. They were also fielding calls from his colleagues asking whether they had heard from him. By that evening, no one had.

On Sept. 14, Teddington Hamm Moy was officially listed among the presumed dead.

Chu Moy was “deeply hurt,” her son Eddie Moy said.

“She didn’t say much. She was not the type of person who showed off emotions.”

But the pain was obvious. “She agonized over the way he died in such horrendous circumstances,” Eddie Moy recalled.

And it was not her first experience with a sudden, wrenching loss.

Chu Oi Wu was born Oct. 26, 1928, in Canton, China, where she met her future husband, Hamm Hong Moy, just after World War II. Hamm was serving in the U.S. Air Force at the time and was visiting family in a nearby town. He had left Canton a decade earlier to join his father in Alexandria, Va. After graduating from high school in Springfield, Hamm Moy fought in Germany with the U.S. Army and was awarded a Purple Heart. He and Chu married in 1947. He was 22 years old, and she was 18.

Chu Moy followed her husband back to Washington, where her in-laws owned a restaurant on U Street NW. The Chinatown she encountered was centered on the 600 block of H Street NW. The community had resettled there two decades earlier after the building of Federal Triangle forced it from Pennsylvania Avenue, where it had been since the late 1800s. Unlike today’s sterile, post­-Verizon Center canyon of chain stores, Chinatown then had a seamier side. Heroin and gambling kept the Metropolitan Police Department, including the Morals Division, as narcotics cops were called then, busy. A series of police raids through the 1950s netted the likes of Dear Check Quong, a.k.a. Joe Little, and Ernest Newton White, a.k.a. Alcatraz Whitey, and other colorfully named ne’er-do-wells.

Chu and Hamm Moy opened a small grocery near Sixth and G streets NW, where Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority headquarters is now, selling staples such as canned goods and lunch meat. They named it Veterans Food Market. Their clientele consisted of nearby residents and government office workers.

The couple settled in a three-story, three-bedroom rowhouse a block away, above the current site of Chinatown Express. Between 1950 and 1960, the couple had five children: three boys and two girls, all with three-syllable names: Wellington, Teddington, Diana, Eddington and Beatricia. (Hamm Moy thought that three syllables went better with the Moy surname.)

During the 1968 riots, Beatricia Goon remembers, National Guard troops amassed outside the store window. The riots largely bypassed Chinatown, laying waste instead to nearby commercial corridors along Seventh Street NW and H Street NE. The Moys had prepared nonetheless. They sprayed the words “Soul Brother” on the front windows, copying a tactic used by black-owned businesses.

Chinatown soon began emptying out. By the early 1970s, fewer than 500 Chinese lived there, according to news accounts. Those who could afford to left, except for the Moys, who stayed until the early 1980s.

By then, Chu Moy was running the market most of the time, while her husband focused on managing the properties the family owned along H Street NW. But she relied on him a great deal, because her reading, writing and speaking skills in English never caught up to his. That made his death in 1980 of a heart attack even harder to bear. Chu Moy, then 51, immediately found herself in a what Eddie Moy described as “a crash course to learn everything.”

Chu Moy, who had done only light bookkeeping until then, took over management of the family’s properties. She learned to drive and later crisscrossed the country on an epic road trip with her sister. Moy traveled extensively overseas, touring Egypt, Europe and China. “She definitely saw the world,” Beatricia Goon said.

Moy closed Veterans Food Market in 1985 and later followed her children to the suburbs. To keep busy, she made sure to leave the house every day, even if it was only to go to the grocery store or take a walk at the mall. She insisted on the weekly family dinners.

In early 2011, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. An experimental drug kept it in check for a time. Always known for being mindful of her looks — Beatricia recalled her mother’s weekly 90-minute sessions at the beauty salon — Moy donned a wig and went on about her life. She kept driving, assuming the role of designated driver for elderly friends who were no longer able to drive themselves. She finally hung up her keys in early March, just a couple of weeks before she died.

Annys Shin is a Washington Post staff writer.

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