Only a few years ago, Chinatown was threatened by the wrecker's ball. Many people within the Chinese community itself, as well as government officials, thought it would be taken apart, piece-by-piece, to make way for the hotels and businesses spawned by the creation of the D.C. Convention Center. It seemed inevitable that Chinatown would become a ghost town.
But now a walk through the streets of Chinatown puts most of those old fears to rest. More Chinese restaurants have sprung up along the main streets. Chinese businesses are doing better than they ever have. Nowhere can you find a person who admits he opposed the idea of a convention center at his back door. Now, merchants are making more money than they ever have before and most everyone is happy. hinatown proper, bounded by Fifth and Eighth and G and I streets NW, is an up-and-coming commercial center. But it wasn't always. Surrounding construction evokes memories of 1936, when Chinatown was uprooted from its original Capitol Hill site to its present location to make room for government office buildings.
The fears that this might happen again, coupled with the fact that there is now no place left in Washington to relocate, caused more than a few Chinatown residents to protest the convention center plans.
The Rev. Man-king Tso, pastor of the Chinese Community Church, was one of the first to publicly voice support for the center. Yet even he had reservations.
"I thought that having a convention center near Chinatown hopefully would draw more business to the Chinese community," he said. "But the major issue was how we were going to deal with the people being dislocated. . . . So, we started a process of negotiating with the government to see if it could help the Chinese community build a housing project in Chinatown."
The government conceded to two demands from the Chinese community. First, the original proposed location of the convention center, between Eighth and 10th and H streets to New York Avenue NW, was pushed back one block further outside Chinatown, to Ninth and 11th streets, so that fewer persons would be displaced. Second, funds were allocated for the building of a 152-unit rent-subsidized apartment complex, the Wah Luck House, to accommodate Chinatown residents who wanted to remain in the area. Along with the deal, the displaced were given at least the market value of their homes in compensation, along with moving expenses.
But one fear remained: Chinatown was a gold mine of prime property and still could disappear when private companies came with their millions searching for land to buy near the Convention Center. But few Chinese gave up their land for the millions that were offered.
"I think you can put it this way," said Nelson Lee, owner of the Golden Palace restaurant. "At the early stages when everything was just starting, developers thought Chinatown would be gone. But the Chinese did not give up the land. Actually, they have bought more land now than they used to have."
Chinatown's population has nearly doubled since 1970, from about 600 to slightly less than 1,000 today, the Rev. Tso said.
Nelson Lee has been in Chinatown for the past 12 years. He originally had a small restaurant on Seventh Street NW, between G and H, next door to where the Golden Palace is now. But when rumors of a convention center and the money it could bring to the area began circulating in the mid-'70s, Lee saw a golden opportunity. In 1976, he and his partner bought a place next door that is twice the size of their original restaurant. Lee now cracks a wide grin whenever anyone asks him about business: "It's very, very good."
Chinese have stepped into the roles of planners and construction engineers for their small enclave, tightening their hold on their community.
A group of Chinese businessmen, called the North Gallery Place Associates, made a bid in March on a 99-year lease for a piece of Metro property on H Street between Sixth and Seventh. If Metro accepts the bid, which was the only one made on the property, the group plans to build an Oriental-style arcade and hotel to be called the Far East Trade Center. The group is now negotiating with the Hong Kong Far East Hotel Chain for a 500-room hotel.
Another project, not Chinese-subsidized but which may also bring Chinatown more profits, is Gallery Place at Fifth and G streets NW, next to the Gallery Place North Metro stop. A 750-room hotel and government office complex is planned.
Leo Lee, owner of Lee International Travel, at 606 H St. NW, is looking forward to this project. Lee Travel is the only travel agency in Chinatown, so he hopes the projected building will bring it additional business.
"I can think of eight other pieces of land that were bought in the past couple of years by Chinese," said Hamilton Lee, a Chinatown lawyer.
The small businesses in Chinatown all say they're flourishing since the opening of the Convention Center. Alice Wang, owner of Wang's Company, a variety store at Seventh and H streets NW, said business improves when there is a large show at the center.
"Business now is not too bad; last year it wasn't very good," Wang said. "When the convention center has a large show, there are more people around and business picks up a little."
The Kow Loon restaurant, situated since 1974 at 11th and H streets NW, is one of the businesses that was displaced by Convention Center construction. Kow Loon owner Douglas Toy was lucky to find a new space in the heart of Chinatown on Seventh Street NW. He moved the restaurant there six months ago and agrees with other restaurant owners that the center has helped his business thrive. But several other businesses, such as the Nan King Cafe, formerly on New York Avenue NW and now at 1503 Ninth Street NW, were unable to relocate in as central an area, and now find themselves out of the way of potential Convention Center business.
The China Doll, at 627 H St. NW, is the oldest restaurant in Chinatown. Davis Lee, its owner, said, "Business picks up every day."
Hamilton Moy is a lawyer for the China Boy Deli, a new restaurant at 817 Sixth St. NW that opened in April. He currently is working on several other projected Chinatown openings.
"I think the Convention Center has given additional business to Chinatown merchants. I can say that within the next several months three new restaurants will open."
These new restaurants are only a part of Chinatown's business boom since the center was planned. Since last November, three other restaurants and a gift shop have opened in the heart of Chinatown.
But Chinatown is not just a growing business center. A walk around the lobby of Wah Luck House at Sixth and H streets NW shows an outsider how much community spirit exists among the Chinese in Chinatown. Few of the residents speak English. Many speak different Chinese dialects; it is not unusual for a Wah Luck resident from south China--who speaks Cantonese--to be unable to communicate with someone from north China, where Mandarin is spoken. But even so, for these Chinese, the feeling of being in a familiar place is important.
"Those who do not speak much English may find Chinatown is the only place to live because it is convenient," the Rev. Tso said.
The government-subsidized Wah Luck House has an extensive waiting list. According to Dr. Toon Lee, a lifelong Chinatown resident, Wah Luck is "the best low-cost housing in this area."
The Chinese Community Church at 1011 L St. NW is a good example of the strong cultural ties that bind the Chinese from the suburbs with the smaller community within Chinatown itself.
"We have members coming all the way from Gaithersburg, Fairfax, Great Falls and Columbia. They drive more than 20 miles to come here every Sunday. It is never an obstacle for them," the Rev. Tso said. As a matter of fact, only about 5 percent of the 375 adult members come from Chinatown.
"Even though they have moved out, they still want to come back because emotionally, culturally, religiously, spiritually, and ethnically--they have some kind of attachment," he said. "It's small, but it's still the center of the Chinese community."
Chinatown's crime rate has decreased considerably. In the area bounded by Sixth to Ninth and G to K streets NW (this includes Chinatown plus two blocks), crime statistics comparing January and February of 1982 with January and February of 1983 show a 46.4 percent decrease. Instances of theft have dropped 60 percent.
"The Chinese are law-abiding citizens. They know how to obey the law. They are taught respect of the elderly. They respect the police and know how to be good to society. There isn't much of a crime problem," Hamilton Moy said. "When an area is secluded, that's when it attracts crime. People can get away easier. When a place is busy, there is less crime because the people can't get away."
Fay Ng, manager of the Chinatown Deli, is chairman of the Chinatown Safety Committee, which now has five members and is looking for more support. He hopes to cut down crime even further.
But one fear that may still become a reality for Chinatown is that a builder trying to buy up land in the area will offer more money this time than the small businessmen can refuse.
However, this fear may soon be relieved. In March 1982, the Joint Committee on Landmarks designated certain areas of downtown as historic sites. Portions of Chinatown were included. If the State Preservation Officer accepts the designation, these areas will be protected from demolition, alteration, or any new construction. A decision is expected this summer.