In one of four small classrooms on the second floor of the Chinese Community Church, Bach Hong Lam, an 11-year-old Vietnamese refugee, throws his arms up triumphantly each time he gives a correct answer on a spelling test.
Several blocks away, on the first floor of Calvary Baptist Church, the students are older, but the thrill of accomplishment, which can be seen on the face of 33-year-old Lai Seung Tam as she tries out her newly learned English on a visitor, is the same.
Both classrooms serve Washington's Chinatown, where the question is not how the neighborhood should grow and develop but whether it can survive at all. The two churches, through their schools as well as community programs, are attempting to ease the burdens of an older generation spending its last years there while also helping more recent immigrants to adjust.
"At other Chinatowns across the country, community service activities are carried out by social service agencies other than churches," says Evelyn Lee, who has visited other American Chinese communities as a social science analyst for the federal Department of Health and Human Services' Alcohol, Drug, and Mental Health Administration. "Here these two churches do most of that work."
Chinatown, bounded roughly by Fifth, Ninth, G and I streets NW, is one of the last frontiers for developers in the District of Columbia, and new projects such as the city's convention center, now under construction, have displaced hundreds of its residents. Further accelerating the community's physical as well as cultural dismemberment is the perception of many Chinese that a move to the suburbs is a move upward. As a result, the majority of the area's Chinese population lives in small communities in Virginia and Maryland.
Meanwhile, many older residents remain behind because they simply have nowhere else to go or are afraid of abandoning familiar faces and traditions. They are joined in the old community by destitute newcomers from Hong Kong and Indochina who, for financial, language and cultural reasons, cannot yet move to more comfortable neighborhoods.
The Chinese Community Church is trying not only to help those who have chosen to live in Chinatown but also to draw back --at least on Sundays -- more than 200 Chinese who have moved to the suburbs. Located at 10th and L streets NW, the red-brick church is about five blocks from the heart of Chinatown, a small collection of dust-layered row houses and family shops.
Calvary Baptist, which concentrates on assisting Chinatown residents, stretches along Eighth and H streets NW, yards away from the creaky walk-ups where 70- and 80-year-old Chinese rent tiny $55-a-month rooms.
In both churches, recent immigrants are learning the language and customs they need to cope in America and, many hope, to leave the unsafe inner-city streets, narrow hallways and steamy kitchens of Chinatown behind them.
Bach is one of 39 children who spend every weekday morning trying to improve their English in Chinese Community's summer "language enrichment program."
"We are trying to teach them the total English that they cannot get in the public schools," says Pearl Wei, who, like the other two instructors, teaches in the public schools during the academic year. "We teach them to develop eye contact when they talk. You know how Chinese kids are -- they don't look at you. We also swing from English to Chinese when conducting classes , so as to give them a better idea of themselves."
Lai Seung Tam is one of about 15 adults who meet at Calvary Baptist weekday mornings to learn the language of their new land. "Some of them," says Margot Wei, a volunteer instructor, "just got off the boat."
Their ambitions, she says, "are to get better jobs, so they can get benefits like health insurance and vacations, which they cannot get working in the kitchens. And for that they need the language."
The two churches have been serving as way stations for struggling immigrants for decades.
Calvary Baptist began its work with the Chinese in 1889, providing English-language instruction and other services to help the area's estimated 100 immigrant Chinese --then clustered in the "old Chinatown," between Third and Fourth streets near Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Many church members donated time and money to the effort, and through the years the church adopted Chinatown -- old and new -- as its own particular mission. Calvary Baptist even played a key role in the effort to found a Chinese community church.
When Chinese Community opened in the basement of the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church in 1935, Chinatown had already been pushed to its present location by the construction of government buildings. The Rev. C.C. Hung, who retired in 1971 after serving as its minister for 36 years, says the church was founded so local Chinese "would have a place to worship and to help the new immigrants with language problems, obtaining medical care and so on."
Hung, widely respected in Chinatown for his lifetime's work among the people there, traveled across the United States raising funds to build separate quarters for the church. In 1957, in the pelting rain, the cornerstone of the present building was laid.
Today, Chinese Community, through its Chinese Service Center, helps more than 400 Chinese immigrants and Indochinese refugees a year with public assistance applications, housing searches and similar projects. Calvary Baptist provides space and facilities for exercise and nutrition classes held by the University of the District of Columbia and for weekday lunches -- funded by the Urban League -- for Chinatown's elderly. The elderly make up a large proportion of the neighborhood's population.
Chinese Community draws its funding and almost all its volunteer and paid staff from the 300 Chinese in the suburbs who comprise the church's membership. Many are highly successful professionals.
Without this suburban leadership, Chinatown could "very possibly" be without social services, says David Wong, an IBM systems engineering manager who is chairman of the church board. "Many of the people in Chinatown don't have the talents and the wherewithal to lead the church. And many are not dedicated enough Christians to go into a service orientation."
The trip to the city for many of the Chinese who attend the bilingual Sunday service at Chinese Community is a way of maintaining ties with Chinatown. Jack Lee, an engineering technician, and his wife Evelyn have continued to attend services regularly since moving to Hyattsville 13 years ago.
"We are so used to going down there," says Evelyn. "I was baptized there. We used to live in Washington. We are so used to going to the church. We just don't feel like going anywhere else."
Almost all of Calvary Baptist's 1,000 members also live in the suburbs, but there are only 13 Chinese among them, and the church makes no effort to attract suburban Chinese.
And while the Rev. Man-king Tso, Chinese Community's pastor, plans to put greater stress on the spiritual work at his church, the Rev. Harry Ng, an associate minister at Calvary Baptist, says his church "does not expect people Chinatown residents to become members of the church. All we expect is to brighten up their lives."
Like its adult English classes, Calvary Baptist's educational and recreational programs for Chinatown's children can play a large role in the ability of poor immigrant families to eventually move out of lower-class neighborhoods to better ones by providing the young with the tools they will need to break the cycle of poverty, church officials say.
Because of the youth programs, some Chinese mothers, who traditionally stay at home, can work outside the home and thus help save enough money for a move to a suburban home.
But, like the members of the Chinese Community congregation, they return when they can to pay their respects to a church that helped them on their way. "We have parents who make a special effort to come down and see me," says Lottie Corbin, who supervises Calvary Baptist's preschool program. "They come back and tell me how their kids are doing."
But for now they need to make do. "For the first few years in this country , it serves a purpose to live in Chinatown," says Ronnie Goon, director of Calvary Baptist's Chinatown Creative Workshop, a cultural program for youths. "And during that time we need to minimize the cultural shock."