The Shrinking of Chinatown

By Stephen Lowman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2009

On Sunday afternoon, a five-story-high firecracker will be illuminated in the District's Chinatown. In a tradition going back 2,000 years, a firecracker is set off on the Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year, in the hope that the pops, cracks and bangs will repel evil spirits and thereby bring good fortune.

About 40,000 spectators are expected at the festivities commemorating the start of the year 4047 on the Chinese calendar, with a parade featuring dragon and lion dances, marching bands and floats. Although the Lunar New Year began Monday, the District has had the celebration on the first Sunday of the Chinese New Year for four decades.

But even the most earsplitting fireworks are unlikely to ward off Chinatown's identity problems.

Since Verizon Center opened in 1997, luxury condos, wine bars and upscale bowling alleys have blossomed. Today, the nine-square-block section of downtown, between F and I streets and Fifth and Eighth streets NW, is economically vibrant. But evidence of its Chinese heritage has dimmed.

In September, participants in the first meeting of a group trying to formulate a strategy for Chinatown cultural development were asked to identify "threats" to the neighborhood. They cited displacement by yuppies and the erosion of Chinese culture as chain restaurants and retailers have moved in. The often-heard joke is that Chinatown has become Chinablock.

Members of the strategy group, which was created by the District's offices of Planning and of Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, want to have a finished blueprint by June.

Establishing Chinatown as a center of Asian activity in the Washington region is the ultimate goal. The strategy group is considering a number of suggestions.

Proposals include increasing the number of Asian cultural events, creating an Asian American museum, using government enticements to encourage small Asian specialty stores and restaurants, recruiting a large Asian retail emporium and turning a nearby park into the symbolic gateway to Chinatown.

"This is just the beginning of a long journey," said Alex Chi, chairman of the Chinatown Revitalization Council. "We have to recognize the reality that there are many, many obstacles ahead of us."

One area that will be addressed by the cultural development strategy is the financial predicament of small, Asian-owned businesses. Many have been jeopardized in the past decade by rising rents and the temptation to sell property to cash in high values in the neighborhood.

"People think about how to keep it more culturally Chinese, but we are losing," said Richard Li, 34. He has worked at Eat First restaurant for seven years as a "bartender, waiter and busboy, when it is busy."

Glowing reviews from local and national publications hang in the entrance. Two framed pictures of John Travolta posing at his table offer a celebrity endorsement. The restaurant serves popular dishes such as lo mein and orange chicken, as well as more unusual offerings such as cold shredded jelly fish and sour cabbage with pig's intestine.

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