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Chiseling Away at Chinatown

Traditional Businesses Pulling Out as the D.C. Neighborhood Booms

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2005; Page B01

The ornate Friendship Archway still straddles H Street NW. A steaming bowl of shrimp dumpling soup at Full Kee is still to die for. And the chef still makes noodles by hand in the window of Chinatown Express.

But Washington's Chinatown has been surrounded and flooded by dramatic change. Seventh Street NW has been transformed into a strip of restaurants and trendy stores. The block north of MCI Center is home to the 275,000-square-foot Gallery Place with a 14-screen theater, fashionable shops and a spa. Upscale apartment buildings stand to the north and the east. More are on the way.

Crowds line the sidewalks of H Street NW in Chinatown to watch the New Year's parade, which featured marching bands, fireworks and dragon dances. (Photos Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

The neighborhood has become a boomtown, but there's increasingly less "China" in Chinatown. As the area's Chinese community gathered yesterday for its New Year's celebration and parade, there was a palpable sense that something is being lost, if not by subtraction then by dilution.

"In another few years, you won't see Chinatown," said Thomas Lee, past president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance. "You'll be hard-pressed to find the arch because it will be dwarfed by everything else."

Still, many said Chinatown remains the cultural heart of the area's estimated 100,000 Chinese, and there was no better place yesterday to ring in the Year of the Rooster. Thousands watched the parade of traditional dragon dances and music. Children enjoyed frightening their parents with tiny firecrackers that pop when thrown against the ground.

Two waitresses watched the parade from inside the window of the Hooters restaurant on Seventh Street, dancing to the Ballou Senior High School band and cooing at all the children wrapped up against the cold.

"It's just festive," said one waitress, Shannon Quyen of Woodbridge, who is of Vietnamese descent. But she confided that there was better dragon dancing at a New Year's festival last week in Falls Church.

In some places, parade watchers were 10 deep, holding up digital cameras to snap a shot of the colorful giant paper dragons. James Alexander and Kathy Kearns came from Hyattsville to watch the parade and used the opportunity to munch on a moon cake and a curry chicken bun. "We do like this place," Alexander said.

The parade went south on Seventh Street for a block, past a German cultural center, an Irish bar, a Fuddruckers burger shop and Hooters.

Chain restaurants and bars have replaced many hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants. Their only link to Chinatown is the Chinese characters added to their signs, intended to integrate the CVS, the Starbucks and the Texas barbecue joint into the culture of what used to be.

Chinatown was established in the 1930s, after an urban renewal project forced an earlier Chinese community from the bottom of Capitol Hill.

The new neighborhood grew to encompass the area roughly from Fifth to Ninth streets between G Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW.

Hon Yuen Wong, chairman of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, the parade's sponsor, said most of the area's Chinese now live in Northern Virginia, Rockville, Gaithersburg and elsewhere outside the city. Few in the community had the interest or the means to live in or invest in Chinatown.

"It's tough to make it in Chinatown," Wong said.

For years, Chinatown was a lonely outpost of empty lots and run-down government buildings. The area took off after MCI Center was built.

Wong said the only businesses that can survive the boom are those that own their buildings.

"And quite a few have closed because they cannot resist the temptation for how much they can get for the land," he said.

As for residing in Chinatown, Wong laughed. "A one-bedroom costs $450,000, and not too many young Chinese can afford it," Wong said.

Wong, a doctor in Rockville, said the rapid changes in Chinatown are only natural.

"This is progress," he said. "You've got to go with the flow."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company