When twelve-year-old Stephanie Fu of Bethesda and her family go to Chinatown this Sunday, it won't be jus t the ususal Sunday lunch and shopping trip. Instead, Stephanie will help teach what she knows about Chinese culture at the "East Meets West" family day at the National Museum of American Art. The free, no-tickets-required event Sunday will include a shadow puppet show, performances by folk song and folk dance groups, and instruction in such traditional Chinese crafts as calligraphy, silk and paper flower-making, paper lantern-making and kite-making.
Since the museum is only a block from Chinatown, families who attend the event will be able to shuttle back and forth to catch the parade that will usher in the year of the rooster. At about 3:30 part of the parade will come to the museum. After dancing through Chinatown, the Wah Shing Kung Fu School will do a lion dance on the museum steps.
"We have to remember to get some lettuce to feed the lion," said assistant curator Margery Gordon, who, in additon to taking care of such exotic details, planned the day and found the artists and craftspeople to make it happen. She found many of them through the Potomac Chinese School, an institution set up by local Chinese-Americans to teach their children to read and write Chinese. Many of the sutdents at the school have also joined Chinese choirs, dance troupes and art classes.
"We were nine mothers of girls and we decided that it would be nice if they learned Chinese dancing," said Carol Chen of Potomac. "So we hired a teacher, and the class meets every Saturday. It's taught in Chinese, and I the girls really learn more Chinese this way. It's not just the dancing -- they really feel they're part of their culture."
Stephanie Fu will dance a Feather Fan Dance and a Ribbon Dance with the troupe. She will also teach paper-folding.
"It's like origami -- the Japanese sort of copied from the Chinese," said Stephanie. When she's not dancing and teaching, Stephanie's favorite thing to do in Chinatown is to visit the shops -- "the gift shops that have things for kids, things that look pretty and different."
These shops, such as Wang's at the corner of Seventh and H streets, also appealed to my own, non-Chinese children on a Sunday tour of Chinatown. Washington's Chinatown, though only about two blocks long, is a fun place for a weekend outing even if it's not Chinese New Year. After all, in place where the telephone booths are pagodas, something exotic is almost sure to happen.
"This is nothing compared to San Francisco," said a Chinese-American woman watching two paper-mache headed liins with long silken trains dance to the beat of gongs and drums on the sidewalk in front of the Szechuan Restaurant.
Maybe not, but as a waiter from the restaurant, which was staging the dance for a private party, lit a string of firecrackers, the resulting racket was as much excitement as we could take. The lion dance, a teacher from the Jow Ga Kung Fu School explained, is part of kung fu. Most of the participants were non-Chinese students of the school.
The Szechuan, where we had planned to eat, was closed because of the private party, so we retreated to the China Doll on H Street for dim sum. Dim sum are dumplings and hors d'oeuvres that many of the restaurants in Chinatown serve for lunch on weekends. Some, such as the Golden Palace on Seventh Street, wheel the choices around on carts. Kids enjoy pointing to what they want, but they don't always like it when they get it. We always get an order of steamed rice for our kids so they can fill up on rice with nourishing -- and free -- soy sauce poured on top. The China Doll had a menu instead of carts, but the balloons they gave the kids made up for the lack of carts.
Across the street, at Chinatown Tropicals, it was feeding time for the piranhas and one of the clerks was throwing some live goldfish in their tank.
"We give then these so they don't eat each other," he shrugged as he saw the children's eyes getting wider and wider.
"Oh, the poor little fish!" said my four-year-old as a goldfish quickly got gobbled up. Another fish, the red tiger oscar, has a built-in defense mechanism, we found. A fake red eye on its tail fools bigger fish into chomping off its tail instead of its head.
I had told each child she could spend a dollar in Chinatown, which would have bought four goldfish each. But, either because of the piranha incident or because of previous unfortunate experiences with goldfish, they chose to look further.
At Wangs, we admired the dried squid hanging from hooks, but the kids were more attracted to the yellow rock sugar, the feather fans and the Chinese dolls. Then they founded what they really wanted -- canvas kung fu scandals. After trying on several pair they found their size, and I found myself out $4.50 per child instead of a dollar.
When I opened one of the fortune cookies we bought to take home, the extra expenditure seemed legitimate. "Children," said my fortune, "are an investment in the future."