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  Chinatown's Hoop Dreams

By David Montgomery
Sunday, November 30, 1997; Page W32
The Washington Post Magazine

From the front stoop of his 100-year-old red brick row house, Shi-Hua Wu can look two blocks down Sixth Street NW and see the enormous tan flank of the MCI Center, a building designed for games he doesn't understand.

"It's good for restaurants and good for businesses and good for employment," says the Chinese herb doctor in English accented with Mandarin. "On the other hand, maybe too many people will come. Maybe in the future I will have to move out."

A hint of ambivalence floats on the Chinatown air these days, like one of the stray kitchen aromas that entice visitors into this small, struggling community. The few who still live in the neighborhood, and those who work there, crave new vitality, but there are also concerns that the area could be overwhelmed -- by traffic, by rising rents, by 20,000 people a night lured by love of American sports and entertainment. Retirees who live quiet lives in a subsidized apartment building debate the effects of the arena frequently. Business owners are generally bullish, but worry about parking. The new wave of unsentimental young merchants along Seventh Street foresees chaos, but welcomes it.

Wu, 61, was a professor of Chinese and Western medicine in his native Xian before coming to America 11 years ago. Two blocks from the sports palace boasting the latest entertainment technology, his row house is where he now practices acupuncture amid fragrances of asparagus root, wolfberry, and other herbs and powders.

Acupuncture and arena dreams: Chinatown is defined by jarring juxtaposition.

Consider the neighborhood's crossroads, H and Seventh streets, beneath the landmark arch of ornate gold, green, blue and red. Occupying the four corners are the Metro station, a CVS drugstore, a Starbucks and a Shoe World. Nothing remarkable there, except the facades have been festooned with Chinese characters, so that Starbucks becomes "Gourmet Coffee Room" to those in the know. An Irish pub, complete with appropriate Chinese translation, is coming two doors up from Starbucks. Next door is the new branch of Adams National Bank, which hired an architect to apply the ancient principles of feng shui to determine the most propitious colors and layout for the interior. Beside the bank is the Capital Q Texan Barbecue, opening in December, with a cowboy on the door and Chinese characters spelling "Texas State Fire Bakery." Radiating out from there are the 20 or so Chinese restaurants, the tiny shop with the whole roasted ducks strung up in the window, the market with fresh produce labeled in Chinese only, the second-floor walk-ups inhabited by recent immigrants who work in the restaurants.

And that's pretty much Chinatown. The better restaurants, some would argue, are in the suburbs. Certainly, that's where the safer neighborhoods are, and the sense of progress.

Over the past year, however, as the arena has taken shape, several restaurants and bars have opened in the surrounding blocks, which is why Yeni Wong, owner of the Golden Palace restaurant and landlord of the Starbucks corner, pronounces herself pleased with the infusion of American culture. After years of stagnation in Chinatown, perhaps she will benefit from the nightly crowds. But tempering that hope is the news that the owner of the building her restaurant is located in wants to triple her rent.

Rents, in fact, have been rising sharply across Chinatown, leading to concern among proprietors of traditional Chinese shops and markets that they will be driven out of business if they don't find a way to appeal to the average basketball or hockey fan.

"When the MCI Center opens, a lot of small Chinese businesses will close," says Janet Hu, co-owner of the Wah Shing Kung-Fu gift shop.

But Eric Huang, another gift shop owner, says he isn't worried. Forty-two years old, Huang represents the new generation of Chinese American entrepreneur: a master's degree in business administration, a home in the suburbs, a belief that Chinatown is about to blossom. Adaptation is the key, he says. If his gift shop fails, he'll try something else, but the version of Chinatown that includes the MCI Center is where he wants to be. "Five years ago, Chinatown was old and poor," he says. Now, with the advent of a Seattle-based coffee shop, an Irish pub, Texas barbecue and an American sports palace, "Chinatown is becoming beautiful."

David Montgomery is a Post Metro reporter.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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