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Wah Luck House maintains culture in dying D.C. Chinatown

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For the residents of Wah Luck House in the District’s Chinatown, a trip to the nearest Chinese market requires a bit of planning.

Once a month, a chartered tour bus pulls up in front of the 153-unit apartment complex at Sixth and H streets NW, and the 56 Chinese immigrants lucky enough to have reserved a seat climb aboard, clutching rolling backpacks. Half an hour later, the bus arrives at the Great Wall Supermarket — 14 miles west in Falls Church.

The Wah Luck residents stock up on the ethnic staples they can’t easily find at their neighborhood Safeway: bok choy, jellyfish, bamboo shoots, dried seaweed, roast duck and sticky rice cakes. They stuff the plastic bags into their backpacks and store them in the bus for the ride home.

The pilgrimage has become a symbolic ritual for the last Chinese residents of Chinatown. Although the neighborhood’s transformation over the past 15 years from an ethnic enclave into a regional night-life hub has brought new residents and tax dollars to the District, it has pushed most of the Chinese population into Maryland and Northern Virginia.

Derided for the past half-decade as “Chinablock,” the city’s Chinatown is increasingly being reduced to “Chinacorner.” The 243 residents of Wah Luck House make up about half of the estimated 400 to 500 Chinese immigrants who remain in the neighborhood. With most elderly and able to speak only Mandarin or Cantonese, the apartment residents lend Chinatown its last bit of authenticity, even if they rarely venture west of Seventh Street, where crowds of teens and tourists gather outside Fuddruckers and Starbucks.

In some ways, the teeming streets and bustling businesses around Chinatown were just what city officials envisioned when they built Verizon Center in 1997. But change came at a high cost: As crime dropped in the once-neglected and dangerous neighborhood and property values rose, Chinese-owned businesses were replaced by national chains.

As dozens of stores and restaurants opened over the past decade, the Da Hua market, the last full-service Chinese grocery, closed in 2005. The Wah Luck residents appreciate the safer streets even as they bemoan the loss of ethnic stores.

“When I first came here, there were 10 Chinese restaurants and two grocery stores, and they carried many things,” said Jing Chun Li, 83, who came from Nanjing in 1997. “Now there’s none. Chinatown has only the name. The reality is not there anymore: just the art and the [Chinese] symbols on the buildings.”

The changes continue: In February, Yeni Wong, a Chinese-American developer with long ties to Chinatown, lost control of the landmark 675 H St. building, which is now vacant, to a group that includes developer Douglas Jemal. Jemal is largely responsible for remaking the 700 block of Seventh Street, across from Verizon Center, which features chains such as Potbelly, Ruby Tuesday and Legal Sea Foods.

Yet the Wah Luck seniors say they are in no hurry to leave. In the insular world they’ve created,they participate in tai chi, music appreciation and English classes at a nearby senior center, attend services at a Chinese church two blocks away, and ride the bus and subway to Smithsonian museums and the Kennedy Center.

“I still like Chinatown; it’s very convenient,” said Jia Ting “Tina” Xu, 69, who emigrated from Shanghai with her husband in 1992 and settled with an aunt in Washington.

Since 2000, they have lived in a one-bedroom, fourth-floor apartment decorated with a Buddhist shrine in one corner and orchids on a narrow, east-facing balcony. Two of their three adult children live in Northern Virginia and one in Maryland.

“My children have saved a room for me in their house, but I rarely go there,” Xu said. “I don’t have a driver’s license, so what would I do?”

Communal atmosphere

Wah Luck was built by the District government in 1982 for Chinese immigrants who were displaced when the city was preparing to build the first convention center several blocks west. The Chinese suburban exodus was underway, and those who moved into Wah Luck House discovered a forgotten, crime-ridden neighborhood.

“I had a very bad impression when I first came here,” recalled Jin Xuan Lee, 74, who left Guangzhou in 1991 after an aunt in Washington sponsored her for a visa. “This was the capital of the United States, and it was so dirty, and people urinated on the streets.”

Through it all, Wah Luck House, a dense, 10-story concrete structure, has maintained an old-world charm.

Residents catch up on current events through Chinese-language newspapers and celebrate special occasions in a community room featuring a bust of Confucius and a plaque inscribed with his Ta Tung philosophy of great harmony.

During the annual lunar new year party in March, the Wong People Kung Fu club, which practices across the street at the Chinatown Community Cultural Center, treated residents to a traditional lion dance. Members of the Wah Luck choir, wearing red V-neck sweaters, performed a popular Chinese folk song called “In a Faraway Place.”

One man sang an ode to Mao Zedong. When white-haired Zhuo Wan Yu, 75, a karaoke showboat who emigrated from Guangxi province in 1982, finished his turn, he pumped his fist and shouted in English, “I’m so happy!” His fellow seniors were less so when he refused to turn over the mike and launched into another song.

This communal atmosphere, along with a bilingual staff, has made Wah Luck House popular. The building, which is a federally subsidized Section 8 housing complex, has a waiting list of more than 100 applicants, according to Aimco, the Denver-based company that owns the property.

Galvanized seniors

Three years ago, the Wah Luck seniors feared they, too, might be moved out of Chinatown. The building’s contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was due to expire, and Aimco advertised Wah Luck House on the market. Aimco fielded several offers, but none matched the company’s sale price, an Aimco spokeswoman said. The HUD contract has been renewed through 2015.

Still, the threat galvanized the residents, said Parag Khandhar, a staff lawyer with the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center who helped them organize the first tenants’ association.

The association worked with the District government’s Office of Planning on a cultural redevelopment plan, aimed at creating an Asian center for international business and bringing Chinese food street vendors. But three years later, none of the plan has been implemented.

“We had many, many meetings, and we made lots of suggestions,” Li said. “Now it seems like there is no more news.”

D.C. Planning Director Harriet Tregoning said the economic slowdown has delayed the plans. But she noted that immigration patterns change: Many Chinese immigrants now come to attend American universities, often in the suburbs, rather than for low-paying jobs in the city.

As for luring Chinese immigrants to Chinatown, Tregoning said: “The way to make it attractive to different groups of people is through cultural and retail opportunities. But the people who come may or may not be Asian.”

Navigating the city’s bureaucracy has been a challenge. This spring, 20 Wah Luck residents rode a shuttle bus to the John A. Wilson Building to testify at a D.C. Council budget hearing.

Three of them had spent days preparing testimony urging the city not to cut funding for senior programs, and they took a front-row seat in the crowded hearing room. But after waiting several hours, they were called to the microphone at the precise moment their translator was in the bathroom.

Unable to understand, they missed their turn.

Back in Chinatown, Tina Xu agreed to have lunch one day at her favorite restaurant: New Big Wong, which serves Cantonese-style cuisine. Sitting down, she greeted a waitress, who also lives at Wah Luck House. The woman’s husband, Yik Li, was recently honored by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) for helping apprehend a man who was fighting with two police officers in Chinatown.

Ordering plates of tender beef and stir-fried green bean leaves, Xu said she only once has sampled a piece of pizza at one of the trendy American establishments nearby.

Sometimes she misses China, but she and her husband stay in the United States because their children and sole grandchild are here. Last month, she spent three nights at her daughter’s home for a birthday celebration, but she is always eager to return to the city.

“D.C. is the center for politics and culture,” she said. “I don’t like anywhere else. I’ve always wanted to stay here.”

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