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Correction to This Article
This article about Chinatown incorrectly said that the Golden Palace restaurant was torn down to make way for Gallery Place. The restaurant, which was across the street, was displaced by rising rent.

Growth in Chinatown Exposes a Deep Rift

Chinatown Revitalization Council  The upstart group, led by computer consultant Alexander Y. Chi, left, says that under the steering committee's watch, Chinatown has dwindled to
Chinatown Revitalization Council The upstart group, led by computer consultant Alexander Y. Chi, left, says that under the steering committee's watch, Chinatown has dwindled to "Chinablock." The organization supported the developer's plan. (Photos By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 13, 2007

There is a dividing line in Chinatown -- a narrow, inconspicuous alley that twists its way between Massachusetts Avenue NW and I Street.

The District's recent decision to close it to make way for an office building complex estimated to cost $206 million has exposed a festering animosity between two influential Asian civic groups and launched a battle over the future of Chinatown.

In a community that rarely airs its disagreements publicly, the clash escalated until D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) intervened.

"This alley closing and what came with it was a symptom of a deep-rooted and long-standing conflict," said Gray, who has presided over four mediation sessions with the two groups.

On one side is the 25-year-old Chinatown Steering Committee, led by Chinatown's unofficial mayor, 82-year-old Duane Wang, and powerful restaurateur Tony Cheng. On the other is the month-old Chinatown Revitalization Council, led by 54-year-old computer consultant Alexander Y. Chi.

Both sides want Chinatown to blossom. But the upstart revitalization council says that under the steering committee's watch, Chinatown has dwindled to "Chinablock" -- H Street between Sixth and Seventh streets. And there's not much Chinese about that anymore, the critics say, other than the ornate phoenix and dragon archway on H Street and Cheng's Mongolian barbecue restaurant.

Chi said the lack of vision has stifled the growth of the area as a destination point with uniquely Chinese attractions like other Chinatowns across the country. New office buildings, trendy restaurants and chain stores have overshadowed the family-owned Chinese shops, he said.

One of the block's most famous restaurants, Golden Palace, was torn down to make way for Gallery Place. The block's newest eatery is Vapiano. It will serve pizza.

Cheng, 58, said his critics are just upset that government officials have long viewed him and Wang as Chinatown's leaders. "A lot of people are jealous because of all we have, because of all we do," he said, sitting in his restaurant's dining room, across from a circular tank filled with crabs.

And Chi is breaking one of the most important tenets of Chinese culture, Cheng said. "He doesn't respect older people. Duane Wang is 82 years old," he said. "You may have smarts, but you are not smarter than him."

Wang said his group has made Chinatown safer and made it look more Chinese by pushing through lampposts, sidewalk bricks emblazoned with the Chinese zodiac and a requirement for Chinese lettering on the signs of all stores. Wang and Cheng say they need more support from the city to force developers to go beyond those small architectural touches.

Gray worries that without a major push to unite the civic groups, efforts to preserve Chinatown's heritage could stall for years.


CONTINUED     1           >

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