They were supposed to celebrate a traditional Chinese holiday tonight with red-bean pastries and a moonlight cruise along the Potomac. But that was called off, as was the banquet tomorrow honoring teachers at the local Chinese weekend schools. And, for the first time in more than 20 years, organizers intend to cancel next month's Taiwan National Day parade in Chinatown as well.
It has been a difficult week for Chinese families across the Washington area, perhaps half of them with roots in Taiwan, where a powerful earthquake on Tuesday killed at least 2,100 people and injured thousands more.
Some families have been trying desperately to get in touch with relatives, spending sleepless nights dialing phone numbers again and again. Others have been gathering nightly to follow the news, wiping away tears while staring at the images of destruction. Occasionally they spot a familiar building or street, now in ruins.
"We're shocked and in grief," said Henry Yang, president of the local Taiwan Benevolent Association, which canceled the cruise that was to mark the annual Mid-Autumn Festival tonight. "We understand that the thing to do now is help with the relief effort. . . . We're so far away, but we're trying to do our best to help."
Nearly a dozen anxious families have rushed to Capital Travel, the Rockville agency popular with the local Chinese community, begging to be placed on same-day flights to Taiwan so they could search for loved ones. At least one woman had learned her parents had been killed, said Teresa Lee, the travel agency's owner.
"She needed to go home for the funeral. She wanted to go that day," Lee said. "Right now, they don't have enough places for all the bodies, so the funerals have to be processed quickly."
Several local community groups are raising money for relief efforts, and volunteers will be seeking donations outside six major Chinese groceries in Montgomery and Prince George's counties this weekend. At least two Chinese restaurants have agreed to dedicate a day's income to the cause.
"So many people have called me, crying and crying. They can't contact their relatives. Some small towns have been wiped out completely, and people here are so anxious," said Ho-I Wu, chairman of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, which has already received pledges totaling $50,000 for the relief effort, including several $20 donations from local restaurant workers.
Fumei Kao, 56, a pharmacist who lives in Bethesda, said she was talking with her husband in Taipei the moment the earthquake struck. "He said, 'Oh my God, the ground is moving.' It was getting stronger and stronger, and he said he was scared," she recalled.
"And then the line went dead."
She tried to call her husband, who was in Taiwan on a business trip, but couldn't get through. Her daughter called to tell her CNN was showing pictures of a Taipei hotel that had collapsed. Finally, after three anxious hours, the phone rang again: Her husband was safe.
The wait was longer for Chen Hui-Qing, 49, a mother of four in the District. She said she worried for two days about her mother and two sisters--residents of Nantou, the county hardest hit by the quake--before learning they had survived.
"We couldn't sleep that first night," she said. "We took out all the phone numbers of everyone we knew, more than 20 of them, and just kept calling and calling."
But the lines were down, so she could only watch television and cry. "These buildings, these roads, we know all of them. We grew up with them," she said. "It's very sad, seeing the government center collapsed, the winery burned, the neighbors' homes destroyed."
Ray L. Hwang, publisher of the American and Chinese Business News, a local Chinese newspaper, said his hometown is just five miles from the earthquake's epicenter. He learned that his parents and siblings were safe after two days, but he has yet to hear from other relatives.
"When I finally heard my brother's voice on the phone, I was crying," he said. "But the community next to my home has been wiped out. . . . My brother said it was living hell. And these are my neighbors. These are names I know."
HOW TO DONATE
The following local organizations are accepting contributions for assistance to victims of the earthquake in Taiwan:
* CCBA-Taiwan Relief Fund, Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, 803 H St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001
* CCACC/Earthquake Fund, Chinese Culture and Community Service Center, P.O. Box 34619, Bethesda, Md. 20827
* Taiwan Benevolent Association of Washington, D.C., P.O. Box 4822, Washington, D.C. 20008
* Tzu Chi Taiwan Earthquake Fund, Buddhist Compassion Relief, Tzu Chi Foundation, 9423 Lost Trail Way, Potomac, Md. 20854