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.