To recent immigrant Guo Huang, Chinatown is a dimly lit one-room apartment littered with the toys of three rambunctious children and crammed with the beds and couches where his family of five must sleep -- a way station on the path to a better life he hopes to build for them in the suburbs.
To Sui and Duck Chung Chin, a couple in their 60s, Chinatown is the only home they have known in America and, since 1937, the site of the family business, a little grocery store stocked with noodles, Chinese cabbage called bok toy, and plump ducklings roasted fresh each day.
To architect Alfred Liu, it is the future site of the Far East Trade Center, a gleaming glass structure of offices, restaurants, stores and a hotel -- all part of his dream to eradicate the "old image of the Chinese as laundrymen and restaurant owners."
Geographically just a few deteriorating blocks in the center of old downtown Washington, Chinatown is perhaps more an image in the eye of the beholder than a distinct and real neighborhood.
Bounded roughly by Massachusetts Avenue and Fifth, Ninth and G streets NW, it is home to many things Chinese: about 25 restaurants, a handful of grocery and souvenir shops, traditional family associations and anywhere from 600 to 1,000 Chinese residents, depending upon whom you ask. It is also the site of nondescript parking lots, churches with large black congregations that were synagogues in the days when the neighborhood was German-Jewish, boxy D.C. government buildings, and a smattering of furniture, clothing and hardware stores run for years by people whom the Chinese still call "outsiders."
Chinatown is so tiny that many Washingtonians don't know it exists -- except perhaps on a day like today when the annual Chinese New Year celebration is scheduled to bring a parade of floats and bands, lion dancers and an undulating dragon down its main street. But to the Chinese it is always a place to reaffirm their heritage, a few square blocks that they fiercely protect.
"We are not a big community," said neighborhood leader Bosco Lee. "But we are close-knit. Everybody knows everybody else . . . . We are peaceful people. We don't want to bother anybody. We don't make any news."
At least until recently when Mayor Marion Barry announced plans to erect a large and ornate Chinese-style archway over H Street NW, a $1 million project that would be financed equally by the city and the government of the People's Republic of China.
Some Chinese Americans, many of whom fled their native land when the Communists took over, vehemently protested that it is "a communist arch," as Lee calls it, and that it does not belong in their community. Others, including architect Liu, argued that the arch "has nothing to do with politics" but will serve to lure tourists and businesses, to revitalize the fading neighborhood. Whatever its role will be, the arch suddenly has focused attention on the little enclave in the heart of downtown.
The area was not always the city's Chinatown. Years ago, Chinatown bustled on Pennsylvania Avenue near Capitol Hill. But in the mid-1930s, it was torn down to make way for government buildings, and the Chinese residents and merchants moved en masse to the present location.
Jean Lee, who helps her parents Sui and Duck Chung Chin run their grocery store, Mee Wah Lung Chinese Imports at 608 H St. NW, remembers moving to Washington in 1949 from Hong Kong and growing up with seven brothers and sisters in the three-story house next door, where her parents still live.
Her father, who speaks little English, said, with Lee interpreting, that he can "remember Sundays, when people dressed up and came by the hundreds and hundreds" to go to the Chinese community church near Chinatown and then visit their relatives or dine at one of the many fine restaurants.
Lee's brother, William Chin, said Chinatown in those days "was like Georgetown . . . at 2 or 3 in the morning, people walking in the streets going to restaurants. But in the late '60s all that changed."
The 1968 riots that cut a swath of destruction down Seventh Street NW did not damage the nearby Chinese businesses on H Street, according to Lee, but they nevertheless left their mark. "People got scared and stopped coming," she said.
Meanwhile, the younger generation was moving to the suburbs. "For us the street was the playground," said Lee, "but we didn't know any better." Now, Lee said, her generation wants "nice yards, swings, schools and playgrounds," and she has found them in Prince George's County.
According to the 1980 census, 86 percent of the more than 18,000 people of Chinese ancestry in the Washington metropolitan area lived in the suburbs. Only about 302 -- less than 2 percent -- lived in Chinatown, although that number has at least doubled since then, according to city officials. Bosco Lee puts the number at about 1,000 today.
In 1972, when the city planned to build its convention center in the heart of Chinatown, protests erupted, forcing the city to shift the site several blocks west and bringing promises that Chinatown would be preserved and enhanced. One result, according to several Chinese community activists, was city help in building the modern 153-apartment Wah Luck House for low-income and elderly residents, many of them displaced by the convention center.
Now, elderly Chinese and new immigrants comprise most of Chinatown's small population, which also includes blacks, whites and other Asians, according to census data.
Guo Huang, who came to America from southern China in 1982, moved his wife and three children into one room on the first floor of a red-brick row house on I Street. "I don't like it here, but I can't help it," he said, struggling with the new language. "Not enough money to live in another place." The building "is old, a lot of trouble. Sometimes the water is not running, or no heat."
Huang works nights at a Chinese restaurant on Connecticut Avenue and cares for his three children, ages 5 to 9, during the day while his wife works as a room attendant in a hotel -- "so we can get good money for a house to live in in Maryland or Virginia."
Some fear that Chinatown will become "a ghost town" if that trend continues, but others see the future in commercial development that they say will make Chinatown a mecca for tourists and conventioneers, for Washingtonians dining out and for downtown workers having lunch.
Architect Liu proudly shows visitors his designs for the $125 million Far East Trade Center, a glass-walled pagoda-style hotel, office, retail and condominium complex that will rise above the Gallery Place Metro station in the heart of Chinatown if he and the developers, who include 34 Chinese businessmen, have their way.
Liu asserts that this project and the proposed Techworld, a complex that would include a 900-room hotel and a marketplace for high-tech merchandise on the edge of Chinatown, would turn the area into a booming business place where his people could "portray the true Chinese cultural image" to thousands of visitors.
Since the convention center opened in December 1982, about 14 businesses have sprouted in Chinatown, including restaurants, souvenir shops and a travel agency, Liu said.
But all is not rosy. Development in the area is moving, but not as quickly as many would like. The Far East Trade Center has had problems attracting a hotel tenant and financing, although there "is light at the end of the tunnel now," according to the developers' attorney.
Also, as land values have skyrocketed, so have assessments and, with them, real estate taxes. Jean Lee said the taxes on the building that houses her parents' Mee Wah Lung grocery store doubled between 1983 and 1984 to about $8,000. Dr. Toon Lee, a physician who renovated his family's old Jade Palace restaurant to create the Hunan Chinatown, tells the same story. And assessment records indicate that the same is true in much of the neighborhood.
"If you don't have a strong business, you can't survive," said Toon Lee, who added that business these days "is fair; I wouldn't say good."
Annie Chan, who opened the tiny Good's Carryout at 602 H St. NW a few months ago, said her rent is $700 a month. "People take advantage," she said. "They think this place is like gold . . . but it isn't. Here, the lunch business is short, and it's quiet at night, too."
Many in the business community believe the proposed arch, still scheduled for construction this summer, may help. The opponents, led by Bosco Lee, have said they want to build two arches of their own, and city planners said that if there are viable plans and funding, the city will consider the idea.
But several business people, who asked not to be identified, called the battle of the arches "ridiculous."
"As far as I'm concerned, whether the mainland donates the arch or Taiwan, it doesn't matter," said one businessman, echoing the words of others. "We are all citizens of this country now . . . and this arch may bring traffic and new faces to Chinatown. That's what we need."