This story was originally published on January 29, 1995.
803 H St. NW is a row house where no row exists. It is a red brick vestige, a lone survivor on a scruffy urban prairie of emptied whiskey bottles and the brown paper bags that once offered them false camouflage. This block was once so important to Washington’s Chinatown that hundreds of people took to the streets to save their homes and businesses. In those days, a generation ago, the Chinese people who lived along this street celebrated a great and honorable victory over the Goliath of city development. They forced the Washington Convention Center to be moved two blocks to the west, to save Chinatown from the city that surrounds it.
In this latest winter of Chinatown’s contentious history in a capital city long accustomed to viewing life in black and white, 803 H St. stands alone, waiting and suffering. Two policemen emerge from the basement; some trouble with a drunk who took up residence in the stairwell. On the first floor, the offices of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Associations -- Chinatown’s most venerable institution, a throwback to the early days of immigration, when loans were made on handshakes and your family’s reputation -- are dark.
A teenage girl and a toddler come bumping down the stairs from the third floor, their wash drying on lines stretched across the stairwell. They laugh and play in Fujianese, the dialect of many new Chinese immigrants who trickle into Washington, heading -- because this is how things have been done for decades, because this is where their townspeople have moved, because they know no better -- for Chinatown.
On the second floor, behind a desk, hard by the hissing radiator, surrounded by the Chinese newspapers that keep him company over the long, lonely days, Dai Tie-Sheng casts his keen eye upon a street of disappointment. He has decorated the windows with paper letters, cut by hand, spelling out the words “ UNIQUE ART SHOW .” He waits for customers who rarely come. And he wonders how he could have made such a massive mistake.
“Out this window, I saw someone smash a car window with a brick,” Dai says. “That would never happen in China. In Fuzhou City, that could not happen. Could not! America is too much kill, kill, kill!” He is 42 but looks half that age. He is so thin he seems emaciated. He dresses, after four years in this country, in the mass-produced clothing of his homeland, the thin polyester shirts and pants churned out by the millions in a country that drove Dai to look for paradise. Washington, he had heard back in Fujian province, was a beautiful city filled with promise and prosperity, a place where everyone lived well and everything was cheap.
“Illegal immigrants come here, pay $30,000 each, in American money, to come here, work 15 hours a day in restaurants, in terrible heat, terrible conditions, and they are deceived. They thought America, Washington, Chinatown is a paradise, very easy money. But it is the same as China. There is no paradise.”
Dai knows this is no revelation to Americans. And he knows that Chinatown, especially Washington’s tiny Chinatown, the neighborhood so many deride as Chinablock, is not typical of America. But Dai, an artist whose calligraphy and paintings create a peace and order that H Street has not known in many years, cannot understand why the capital of the United States tolerates a neighborhood of desolation and drunks, dirty sidewalks and dreary, disused storefronts. He cannot figure why Chinese people cling to a neighborhood that offers no supermarket; no decent, affordable housing; no place for young people to gather and meet each other. Dai cannot get used to living in fear. His aged parents, who live above his art gallery, rarely go out. Dai passes his days writing about what he sees out his window on H Street and sending the essays to a Chinese newspaper in New York City.
“This here is Kill City,” Dai says, his clipped English rising to a shout as he rummages through a scrapbook filled with his published reports about life in the promised land. “I write everything down. After one year, as soon as they have a little money, all the Chinese people, the immigrants, leave Chinatown. Because no one wants to be here. Even the name is funny: Chinatown. There are more American people here than Chinese people. The American people smoke, drink and eat and throw everything on the street . . .
“Silver Spring, a lot of Chinese people move there. Maybe I should move there. But I know lots of Chinese students who come to America, study four, eight, 10 years. They even marry an American girl and they still tell me they are thinking every day about China. I don’t know where it is good.”
[D.C.’s Chinatown has only 300 Chinese Americans left, and they’re fighting to stay]
Four old women, slight and bent, huddle together in the doorway, craning their necks to peer into the large room where the important people settle around a long table. The old women live here, in Wah Luck House, the House of Happiness, the only housing built in Chinatown since the 1940s. Wah Luck was supposed to be a harbinger of new hope for Chinatown.
The neighborhood needs hope. It is a ragtag blend of blight and bustle whose only bright color is the spectacular Chinese arch that stretches across H Street, promising an ethnic extravaganza. But Chinatown is over before the arch disappears from your rearview mirror. Tens of thousands of Asian immigrants have moved into the Washington area in the past 20 years, but most have been Korean and Vietnamese, and while they have established burgeoning enclaves in Falls Church, Arlington, Silver Spring and Wheaton, the District’s only Asian center, the area’s oldest, has been stagnant at best.
When Wah Luck House opened in 1982, the 10-story apartment building at Sixth and H streets was hailed as proof that the neighborhood’s decline could be stemmed. But Wah Luck’s 153 apartments are nearly all one-bedroom units, and they are reserved for the elderly. A few widows have moved back to Chinatown after their husbands died in suburbia, but Wah Luck has not sparked any new residential development, nor made the neighborhood any more attractive to immigrants who yearn to live somewhere safer and greener.
The old women, padded against the winter chill in the blue silk vests, loose gray pants and slippers their mothers wore before them, watch, point and giggle as a dozen middle-aged men and women begin the monthly meeting of the Chinatown Steering Committee. Only one person among these property owners, restaurateurs and leaders of the region’s Chinese community actually lives in Chinatown, the 11-block area between Fifth and Ninth streets, from G Street to Massachusetts Avenue NW. But these people are the District’s official advisers on the future of the community. They are developers and architects, merchants and representatives of Chinatown’s grand old families, the Lees and the Chin Lees.
On this night, one thing is on everyone’s mind: the sports arena planned for Chinatown’s southern border, at Seventh and G streets. But it’s not on tonight’s agenda. In fact, the people around this table know next to nothing about the plans or politics of the project. Only one person from Chinatown is involved in the arena planning, and she is not here. But the arena is the subtext for everything else that is discussed.
A sports arena could make some of these people very, very rich. It could put some of them out of business, which, given the state of Chinatown commerce these days, might not be such an awful fate. If the arena for the Bullets and the Capitals is actually built, it would, most people in this room believe, change everything in Chinatown. Some harbor hopes that an arena might revitalize Chinatown as a tourist attraction. Others believe it might make the neighborhood safer, cleaner and busier.
That’s what they say publicly, anyway. Outside of this room, in their offices and homes, they offer another view, sometimes hesitantly, sometimes in words so softly spoken they are barely audible.
Tony Cheng, whose name appears on two of Chinatown’s most prominent restaurants, owns several properties on H and I streets. He is a longtime booster of the neighborhood and probably Chinatown’s most politically influential figure, thanks to his loyal and generous support of Mayor Marion Barry -- even after Barry’s drug conviction, when hardly anyone would go near him. Cheng stood next to Barry at the December announcement that Abe Pollin would build the arena with his own money. And Cheng wants Chinatown to stay in Chinese hands. But if a big developer comes along and offers to include Cheng’s property in a major office and retail complex, “We’ll do business. If the price is right, we sell. Business is not too good now.”
By Chinatown standards, Cheng is a relative newcomer, a brash Hong Kong native who opened a restaurant in New York City in 1969 and moved to Washington two years later. Toon Lee, by contrast, belongs to one of Chinatown’s most storied and powerful families. Lee, 63, is a surgeon who still maintains an office on I Street, though his suburban practice is busier. He lived in Chinatown for 10 years when he was younger, but he has been in Virginia for 28 years.
By family heritage and economic stature (the Lees are the largest Chinese property owners in Chinatown), Lee’s role is to be booster and optimist. He does his duty: He talks about the arena as a potential bonanza, a magnet that could put customers back into the Chinese restaurants, especially after dark, when most of them sit virtually empty, unable to convince their lunchtime customers that the neighborhood is safe at night.
But Lee knows that an arena will mean rising property values, speculation, big developers, fast food, a completely different breed of retailers. “If we see a threat to the integrity of Chinatown -- tearing down buildings -- we can mobilize this community to resist any takeover,” Lee says. Tough talk, but the reality is that business has been terrible at his family’s two restaurants and throughout the neighborhood. Most Chinatown property owners “would be glad to sell and take advantage of the increased property values from an arena,” Lee concedes.
He realizes that historic forces are at work: “Chinese people, particularly new immigrants, go where they can get a job and they find a place to live around there. As time goes by, they look to live someplace better. Chinatown is like a train station: When the train arrives, you take it to the next destination.”
Even Toon Lee might be willing to catch that train. His children have no interest in taking over the restaurants. They are successful professionals with suburban lives. And reality is staring down Chinatown from all directions -- a proposed new convention center to the north, encroaching office development from Judiciary Square to the east, the hotels and offices around the existing Convention Center to the west, and the arena and the Pennsylvania Quarter/Shakespeare Theater development to the south.
“There’s not much land left downtown,” Lee says. “Not many more Chinese immigrants coming; their lives back home are a little better than when I came in 1948. How long the Chinese people can sustain this situation is highly questionable. If they build the arena, big developers will assemble large blocks of property. Most of the people will be forced to leave here.
“When they talk to me, we will listen to offers. That is the reality.”
Duane Wang, the Steering Committee’s new chairman, is the only major business owner who still lives in Chinatown. While living in the same home for 40 years, Wang has owned and sold restaurants, groceries, and computer, insurance, real estate and lumber businesses. No one has sacrificed more to stay in the neighborhood. He watched as his own brother, and now his daughters too, moved out to Maryland.
Wang, 70, is a rumpled, blunt fellow who still strolls fearlessly around the neighborhood, padding along in his bright, white sneakers. He complains about Chinese merchants who feel no responsibility for the new immigrants. He rails against city regulations that prevent Chinese owners from tearing down decrepit buildings because they have been declared historic. He dreams of attracting new Chinese money from Hong Kong.
But when all is said and done, Wang knows where his home is headed. “Sure, we want Chinese businesses,” he says. “But if nobody comes, well . . . It’s a free country.”
An arena, the elders of Chinatown say, might not kill their community immediately, but it almost certainly would hasten a death that many believe may be inevitable. It is very difficult for most of these people to say this openly. No one in the room at Wah Luck House has dared to admit to the others that they are ready, even eager, to speed along the demise of their own place. It seems somehow disrespectful to the elders, to the courageous immigrants who came before them. But as Toon Lee says, history moves on.
There was another Chinatown once, in this same city, in this same century. In its place today stand marble palaces of art and government, and not one reminder, not one shred of evidence of the Chinatown that was.
The only natural-born Chinatown Washington ever knew arose at the bottom of Capitol Hill, on land where the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art stands today.
A headline in the Evening Star, January 8, 1898: “A Trip To Chinatown/Where the Moon-eyed Mongolians Make Their Headquarters/Not All the Members of the Colony Are Laundrymen.”
And below it: “The real Chinese quarter . . . includes some half a dozen buildings on the south side of Pennsylvania avenue between 3d and 4 1/2 streets. . . . These are mostly rather dingy-looking structures. The stores are naturally on the ground floors, while in the rooms above the Chinese live, many within a very small compass, as in their native land.”
A handful of Chinese immigrants sold teas and spices in the last decades of the 19th century, and a few dozen more arrived over the years. By the late 1920s, Chinatown was home to about 700 people, most of them men who worked in the laundries and restaurants and sent money home to their families.
In 1927, federal officials ordered all Chinese businesses closed to make way for the Federal Triangle project and the expansion of the government quarter along Pennsylvania Avenue. A relative handful of Chinese immigrants could hardly raise much clamor. Over the next few years, Chinatown vanished, its population and businesses scattered around the city.
In the early ‘30s, the Washington branch of the On Leong Chinese Merchants Association -- a fraternal organization of immigrants who provided one other with credit, a meeting place and tips on making it in the new world -- quietly searched for a new site for Chinatown. They settled on H Street NW between Sixth and Seventh streets. White property owners in the area were none too pleased by the notion and started a petition drive against any mass relocation of the people they called “Celestials” to their block. But over the course of the early years of the Depression, hundreds of Chinese moved to H Street, and what had once been a German and Jewish neighborhood soon became Washington’s second Chinatown.
Evening Star, April 1939: “Washington’s new Chinatown made known its existence today as it burst forth in all the glory and splendor of its first celebration.”
The Chinese population of Chinatown that year was said to be about 200.
Washington has never been a significant destination for Chinese immigrants. At times, the District’s Chinese restaurateurs have had to import staff from New York or California. The older immigrants -- many of them Mandarin-speaking Chinese refugees from Taiwan or the communist mainland -- eventually found success and moved out to Bethesda, Wheaton, Potomac and McLean, forsaking the laundry business for accounting, medicine, engineering and a host of other higher-status professions. But immigrants kept trickling into Washington to join relatives or friends from their home towns, and the new arrivals -- mostly from Fujian province -- took their places in the decrepit rooming houses and overcrowded row houses on H Street and surrounding blocks.
The second Chinatown never grew much beyond that first block the elders bought. The number of restaurants never rose much above 25, and there weren’t enough residents or visitors to support more than a couple of groceries or souvenir shops. The housing stock deteriorated. Many restaurants grew run-down, depressing. Since the 1970s, about 500 Chinese Americans have lived amid the crime, darkness and frightening emptiness that afflicts so much of downtown at night.
For a time, Chinatown retained a place in the hearts of the area’s Chinese Americans, even if they had long since decamped for suburbia. Sundays still meant family gatherings over dim sum, meetings of the family associations, birthday celebrations, stagings of the lion dance, rehearsals for the New Year’s festival. There were Miss Chinatown contests, Chinese movies on Friday nights, Chinese School language and culture classes on Sundays.
In the ‘70s, when the city proposed a convention center that would have stretched to Seventh and H, residents and property owners shouted “Save Chinatown!” and hung banners and bedsheets on the sides of buildings. The campaign worked -- to a point. The center was moved, but the construction nonetheless displaced dozens of Chinese families, many of whom moved out of Chinatown.
As they aged, the old generation that had created Chinatown found themselves coming into the District less often, especially after Korean and Vietnamese immigrants opened groceries and Asian shops in Fairfax and Montgomery counties. By 1990, less than 25 percent of the property in Chinatown was Chinese-owned. Immigrants still work in the traditional entry-level jobs at Chinese restaurants, but as often as not, the kitchen help is Hispanic and the waiters are graduate students from China toiling part time to make their tuition payments at the University of Maryland. In time, other than to attend the annual New Year’s and 10/10 (the anniversary of Taiwan’s founding) celebrations, there seemed little reason to visit Chinatown.
Two years ago, Chinatown was 24 Chinese restaurants, a handful of gift and souvenir shops, and three groceries. Since then, five restaurants, two gift shops and a grocery have closed. Zapped by high taxes, plagued by crime, forced to charge higher prices than their suburban competitors, Chinatown’s surviving restaurants still do a decent lunch and weekend business. But after dark they are often eerily empty. Waiters sit around reading the Washington China Post or the World Journal, Chinese papers brimming with ads and news of Chinese suburbia. The only steady business at night comes from mainland China, from busloads of tourists discovering America on a shoestring budget. Their tour leaders negotiate for every meal, squeezing already-meager profits down to painfully low levels.
The tourists’ buses and vans pull up to the Golden Palace or Mr. Yung’s, wait with motors running, and depart moments after platters piled with orange slices and fortune cookies have been passed around the wide banquet tables. Sometimes, the buses wait a few extra minutes while the tourists dip into the Wah Shing Kung-Fu and Tai-Chi School and Gift Shop, where Chao-Chi Liu teaches self-defense and the art of Chinese movement in the back while his employees hawk perfumes, American ginseng, vitamins, cheap watches and video cameras up front.
Liu runs a shop unadorned by decoration, crowded with merchandise, catering to the tourists from China. The occasional American stops in to sign up for kung-fu classes or pick up an umbrella on a rainy day. But Americans rarely shop in Chinatown anymore.
Wilson Lee’s shop on Seventh Street is the only busy one in Chinatown. Heng Kang is a Chinese general store, an herbal pharmacy where ancient healing arts are practiced directly across the counter from the city’s largest collection of Chinese videos. Shelves of Chinese porcelains share dusty shelves with D.C. souvenirs, Chinese newspapers and the ubiquitous lottery ticket dispenser. Lee, a gentle reed of a man who joined his family in Washington in 1979 after studying Western and traditional medicine in China, fills prescriptions scrawled on rough squares of newsprint, mixing just the right amounts of chrysanthemum and pearl rice, almonds and jelly grass for customers suffering from viruses and colds, arthritis and bronchitis. He weighs the herbs on brass scales, folds the Eastern remedies into paper, and rings up the transaction on a 20th-century intrusion, the electronic cash register.
In the past decade, Lee’s rent has soared from $1,000 a month to $5,000, even as his customers have drifted away to Asian stores in Maryland and Virginia. His taxes have skyrocketed and no relief is in sight. About half the people who visit Heng Kang are the immigrants and elderly who still live in Chinatown; the rest are suburbanites or tourists. “You cannot have a business just for people who live 10 or 20 miles away,” Lee says in the clipped accent of his native Fujian province. “The new immigrants stay in Chinatown shorter times now. They go to the suburbs for the schools and the convenience. Everything here makes them move out.”
Lee too lives in Maryland, and for the first time -- arena or not -- he is considering moving his shop there, perhaps to the Wheaton Plaza area that is becoming the suburban focal point of Washington’s Chinese community. There, Lee would get much more space for less money. He’d be close to his customers, far from the drunks and panhandlers whom he must shoo away every day.
If the arena is built, Lee says, “no Chinese people will be able to afford to live in Chinatown. The Chinese people will be moved and you cannot have a Chinatown without people. There’ll be nothing left but the arch.”
The arch, that dazzling burst of color that so outshines the rest of Chinatown, once united the neighborhood in purpose and divided its people in politics. Erected in 1986 as a symbol of relations between Washington and Beijing, the Friendship Arch is bejeweled with the dragon and phoenix, symbols of a home most Washington Chinese recall as torn by war and sodden with poverty. For years, the arch so angered some partisans of the Taiwan anti-communist cause that there was a serious movement to build a second, competing archway at the other end of the block.
But that movement is dead. Tempers have finally calmed. The arch stands now as a symbol more of what was and what could have been than of any promise of prosperity or pride.
The Arch was the brainchild of Alfred Liu, a Hong Kong-born architect whose Pennsylvania Avenue firm is one of the District’s most prominent Chinese-owned businesses. Liu, 52, is a juggernaut of energy and ideas, a master salesman and dreamer who spent much of the past 15 years designing and redesigning the Far East Trade Center, a massive office and retail center that was to fill the east side of Seventh Street between G and H streets. It was to be a Chinese Harborplace, a magnet that would establish irrefutably the Chinese character of the area and lure Asian investors.
The Far East Center underwent so many alterations that its last version was virtually indistinguishable from any other urban mall -- The Shops with a Chinese accent and an Asian-themed food court. Liu and his partners eventually had to cede control of the project to Melvin Simon, the mega-mall developer who built Fashion Centre at Pentagon City. And now Simon, although still talking informally about going ahead with the building, faces losing as much as half of the Far East Center site to the sports arena development.
Liu, a trained physicist who paints Chinese landscapes drenched in mysterious gray clouds, believes in a Chinatown with an arena, a Far East Center packed with 60 shops, and a Chinese look of his own design. But market forces won’t make it happen. So Liu hopes the city will step in to turn Chinatown into a festival marketplace, a tourist attraction where once there was a neighborhood.
City planners have been trying to figure out what to do with Chinatown for decades. It’s a strange anomaly in a city that never had the teeming ethnic immigrant neighborhoods of most great American cities. Washington had pockets that were identifiably Italian, German or Jewish, but they were small and faded early because of assimilation and suburbanization. After the 1950s, only Chinatown remained.
Without Chinatown, Liu says, a dead downtown has no hope of achieving the street life that makes cities work. In Washington after dark, that life force is evident only in Adams-Morgan, Georgetown and a couple of stretches of Connecticut Avenue. “A city is a balancing act,” Liu says, “and Washington, D.C., has a cold, dead feeling of monotony. In other cities, areas around arenas usually have drastic problems. Chinatown can make the area around this arena healthy by bringing street life to the neighborhood.”
Liu’s answer is a Chinese architectural theme: Walk up Seventh Street to the three big new office buildings between H Street and Massachusetts Avenue and that’s exactly what you’ll see. Every 20 feet, a Chinese lantern. Chinese symbols embedded in the red brick sidewalks. Chinese trees, phone booths with pagoda roofs, a rock garden in an office building atrium. And behind that Chinese streetscape, ordinary office buildings that couldn’t attract many private tenants. The offices are filled mostly with federal agencies and the storefronts are about half empty, half populated by run-of-the-mill businesses: Roy Rogers and Jack’s Famous Deli, chicken and pizza, greeting cards and jewelry. A few businesses are Asian-run (mostly by Korean immigrants), but Chinatown it ain’t.
No matter, Liu says. Look at Georgetown: “I design restaurants there and they force me to study colonial architecture. It preserves a cultural presence, even if the function is no longer there. You’re not housing horses or using the C&O Canal, but you preserve it to retain the Georgetown culture. Same for Chinatown. American culture is all mixed up anyway. But you create an image of city.’ It’s the theme park concept. People say it’s fake, but they do enjoy it.”
Yet it’s one thing to look Chinese and something completely different to be Chinese. No matter how many Chinese symbols appear on sidewalks and store windows, if no one can read them, the neighborhood becomes, at best, a Disney version of Chinatown. While the ethnic Chinese population of the Washington area has climbed from about 10,000 to 43,000 since 1960, the proportion of those people who live in Chinatown has dropped like a stone. (There are Chinatowns across the country that survive with hardly any Chinese residents -- in Boston and Baltimore, for example -- but they tend to be tiny and in perpetual danger of extinction.)
Many of the city’s top politicians and civic leaders are tripping over themselves with visions of municipal rebirth sparked by a single sports arena. But despite his theme park dreams, Liu focuses on the reality: “This is a sports arena, not a concert hall. Concertgoers might want a sit-down dinner after a show, but hockey fans get in their cars and go home. What an arena would do is push up real estate values, and this would destroy Chinatown by inviting big developers to eat up the small flowers. The money you can make from a Chinese restaurant is not enough to make you say No’ to a big developer. The owners will sell, move to Florida and enjoy the rest of their lives.”
Liu’s Chinatown is a look, an image, a marketing concept. But marketing ideas come and go. If the arena happens, fast-food joints, coffee houses and bars will want to locate where Chinatown is now. John Fondersmith, the District’s chief planner for the area, believes the era of a residential Chinatown may already be over; with only a trickle of new immigrants arriving, there’s no call for a ghetto. Fondersmith hopes Chinatown will develop as a commercial and cultural center, but he realizes developers may have other ideas. “At some point,” he says, “there wouldn’t be much purpose to insisting on Chinese characters in the design. At some point, it might not make sense to call it Chinatown.”
A dozen young Republicans, fresh-faced and still marveling at their good fortune to work in a big city, zip into town for dinner and barhopping. They’d never actually live in the District, but Glebe Road isn’t what they have in mind for a Saturday night. They pull their snazzy Land Rovers and Miatas up to the valet parking guy on Seventh Street, step quickly over Alfred Liu’s cherished Chinese-theme sidewalk and enter the Brazilian-Mexican fantasy world of Coco Loco, the first major upscale restaurant in Chinatown, a huge success owned by a Frenchman and an Italian.
Yannick Cam is a swashbuckling culinary pioneer in a crisp linen uniform. On this night, he’s being photographed by one of the glossy gourmet magazines. He has dancing eyes, perfectly manicured hands and a regal manner topped off by dramatically swept-back hair. He’s also got two of the hottest new places in town -- Coco Loco and Provence, a splendidly civil oasis on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Coco Loco was a risk, a rebellion really. The demise of Cam’s Le Pavillon, one of the city’s French institutions, had taught the restaurateur that times had changed: Folks still wanted great food and fascinating surroundings, but they simply refused to pay megabucks for it.
Cam talked to marketing specialists and real estate brokers, consultants and bankers. Finally, he rejected their advice and did what the experts said was dangerous and daring: He put his new place in Chinatown, on Seventh between H and I, on a block where half the storefronts are boarded up or empty.
“For three blocks all around, there are no restaurants,” Cam says, ignoring more than a dozen Chinese places within one block of Coco Loco. “There’s nothing going on there, and that was perfect. The concept was to bring the restaurant to the edge.”
Inside Coco Loco, there is not a hint of Chinatown. The bar is topped by a swooping expanse of burnt red, the dividing walls shine with tiles in stark colors. There are murals of South American scenes, Latino waiters, and a menu filled with unusual tapas, the Spanish appetizer delicacies, at moderate prices. In the back, a festival of grilled Latin meats beckons; waiters wander from table to table offering spits bulging with beef. Some nights, the food, the scene and the music -- Latin, African, jazz, dance tunes from everywhere but Asia -- attract lines that extend out the door and around the corner.
Cam attributes his success to his cutting-edge concept, the occasional gimmick (importing Brazilian dancers from Rio’s Carnival) and his strategy for overcoming customers’ fears. He knew that few customers would relish walking around on Chinatown’s dark, deserted streets. So he set up valet parking with more than 100 underground spots and hired security guards to be visible on the street. Cam limited the number permitted inside, creating long lines, which, in turn, generate a feeling of assurance and, not so incidentally, attract police patrols. “Add noise, make it like a marketplace, close to chaos, and it’s a party,” he says. “That’s what people like.”
Since his invasion of the neighborhood last April, Cam has had contact with exactly zero Chinese merchants.
Most Chinese restaurateurs say they welcome non-Chinese competition like Coco Loco. “Anything to bring in people,” says Tony Cheng. But neither he nor any of the other Chinese restaurant or property owners interviewed for this article had bothered to eat at Cam’s place. “Coco Loco doesn’t add anything,” says Kathleen Hom, who was Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly’s assistant for Asian and Pacific islander affairs and now represents the Chinese Community Church on the Chinatown Steering Committee. “Those people come in, park in the garage, eat and leave. They don’t set foot in Chinatown.”
The wariness is mutual. “The Chinese are kind of weird,” Cam says. “This Chinatown is very poor. It looks very sad, doesn’t have much to offer. Their places are not well-run, not high-class. They don’t seem to recognize that I’m here.” If Cam is right, Chinatown’s elite will get the picture soon enough. Several other restaurateurs are eager to follow in Coco Loco’s backdraft, and Cam dreams of creating a new restaurant district extending from Jaleo in the Pennsylvania Quarter up Seventh Street as far as L Street.
An arena “will change the epicenter of the town,” Cam says. “If enough restaurants come in, there will be no more Chinese.”
Seventh and H is supposed to be the heart of Chinatown. Look at it now: On the south side, one corner is occupied by the Metro station, another by a new shoe store that is not Chinese-owned. To the north, a Chinese book and art store that failed is about to be replaced by a branch of the CVS drugstore chain. The fourth corner is Yeni Wong’s.
Wong, 49, came to America in 1967 from Taiwan to study chemistry at the University of Illinois. She and her husband moved to Washington in 1980 when he got a job with the Agriculture Department’s research wing in Beltsville. Yeni Wong continued her scientific work until 1986, when she invested in one of the restaurants owned by the Lee family. Wong lives in Potomac, but she felt an obligation to Chinatown.
Wong renovated Golden Palace into one of Chinatown’s most attractive eateries, importing cooks from New York and China. But then one of her fellow Chinatown business owners told Wong, “Yeni, don’t sell food. Buy land. Then you can go play golf.” Yeni took his advice. She teamed up with Glenn Galonka, a white ex-banker who had helped her learn the food-importing business, to become a real estate developer. By 1992, Wong, buying mostly from the Lee clan, became one of Chinatown’s largest landowners. Today, she is poised to develop her eight storefronts stretching around the northwest corner of Seventh and H.
Aligned with Alexandria developer DRI, the same company that built the office building above Coco Loco, Wong hopes to attract a mix of restaurants, retail shops and offices. (DRI is also constructing two smaller buildings for trade associations on I Street -- a success for a city that is losing too many association offices to Virginia office parks, but another non-Chinese strip in Chinatown.) Wong’s idea was to create a Chinese market center, with Chinese food, furniture and art stores.
But when renovation is completed on the Wong properties this spring, the buildings most likely will be prepared for use by fast-food franchises, or perhaps a more upscale restaurant of the Coco Loco ilk. “This is a free-market system,” Wong says. “You cannot demand that there be a Chinese gift shop if nobody will visit it. We shouldn’t emphasize distinguishing ourselves from other places. America is a melting pot. If I’m so concerned about preserving Chinese culture, I should stay in China.”
Chinese tradition is important in the Wong family. Yeni sent her 19-year-old daughter Vivian, a business major at the University of Pennsylvania, to Taiwan for the summer a couple of years ago. Vivian Wong is an American-born Chinese, known as ABC or Juk-sing. She wants to be a lawyer, not a restaurateur, and that’s fine with her mother. The Wong children attended Chinese Sunday school and the family speaks Chinese at home. “We want to preserve some culture, but you can’t stop progress,” the mother says.
Wong will talk and sell to anyone. And if all goes well in the coming months, she says, “I will be able to play golf every day.”
There is no Chinese lettering outside the Metropolitan Cantonese School, not a lantern to be seen. The Sunday afternoon school, founded last year by nine families and already attracting more than 70 students, holds classes on the second floor of Walt Whitman High School, a postmodernist stone and brick behemoth surrounded by a vast parking lot just off a winding street in suburban Bethesda.
The walls of the borrowed classrooms are decorated with excerpts from Shakespeare and tributes to black American political figures. But while their parents sit down the hall, sipping coffee from foam cups, watching the Redskins lose again on TV, the children play Chinese games, hear folk stories and get a grounding in the history, religion and language of their parents’ homeland.
“They’re quite resistant to the idea, most of the kids,” says Patrick Yeung, the Hong Kong-born, Princeton-educated scientist who is president of the school. “But you reach a point in life where you have to establish your identity.”
If spending Sunday afternoons in language class does not win the children’s hearts, the program snares them in other ways. The Chinese American kids make friends with one other, play soccer together, and slowly, the ethnic identity so important to their parents seeps into their young consciousnesses as well. They see that their parents are not the only ones who insist on speaking Chinese at home.
Leslie Tam is a self-assured 14-year-old growing up in a Silver Spring neighborhood where her friends are white and her own ethnicity once seemed more an oddity than anything else. “We’ll be different from our parents,” she says. “We grew up in a different culture. When I was younger, I used to think, why am I not white? Why are my eyes like this? When I was real little, kids would play and they’d say, She’s my sister,’ and when they got to me, they’d say, Oh, yeah, she’s our adopted sister.’ “
“The stuff in our lunch boxes was always different. The way our parents talk. For a long time, I wished I was white. But now I like my Chinese identity. It’s easier to be with other Chinese. But I wouldn’t want to just be with them, because then you don’t get to know other people. That’s how we’re different from our parents.”
In a Bethesda classroom, the kids can get a dose of identity, without Chinatown’s ghetto feeling. Of course, some families bring the kids downtown to visit their grandparents, or to hang around the old merchants’ and family associations, picking up gossip, trading tales about the Chinatown that was.
But, Patrick Yeung says, “That place is not so important. Chinatowns are full of pagodas and false reinforcement of stereotypes about China -- restaurants, laundries. And there’s a lot of crime. I want my kids to understand there will be great business opportunities in China, and you must know Chinese to do business there. I want the kids to be outward-looking, not Chinatown-bound.”
Another parent, Raymond Ao, visits Chinatown often because he works at Metro headquarters on Fifth Street. But when his family goes out to a Chinese restaurant, they’re more likely to pick one on Rockville Pike. When he wants his children to have an authentic Chinese experience, he puts them on a plane to his homeland, Hong Kong.
Like all immigrant groups, the Chinese are struggling to find a middle ground between their passion to belong to the new society and their need to find comfort in tradition. For Calvary Baptist Church’s Chinese singing group, the most popular songs are “America the Beautiful,” “Home on the Range,” and the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Teachers tried to teach the Chinese national anthem, but no one was particularly interested. If you’re looking for Chinese opera groups, family associations and karaoke singing clubs, check Wheaton or Silver Spring.
However, while Chinese Americans have joined other ethnic groups in the long march from urban ghetto to suburban bliss, they are perhaps the only Americans whose passage through the rites of assimilation has been complicated by a marketing concept: ghetto as tourist attraction.
Chinatowns work in those cities where a constant flow of immigrants lends them real meaning as self-sustaining communities. But when historic preservationists and city planners decide that a Chinatown must be saved even after its residents have moved out to the suburbs, even after new immigrants have forsaken Chinatown, even after the local Chinese American community has dug new roots outside the city, what remains downtown is something hollow and artificial.
“I’m sorry to say, but Chinatown is a vestige,” says the Rev. William Wan, pastor of the Chinese Community Church on L Street. Wan’s is the only one of more than 25 Chinese churches in the Washington area still located downtown. (He draws about 400 people on Sundays, two-thirds Chinese, one-third white.) “The idea of Chinatown as something to be preserved, as a curiosity, is regressive. Oh how cute, these Chinese people in pigtails. A lantern does not make Chinatown. People do.
“Don’t make a curious place for tourists to gawk at things Chinese. That’s a zoo mentality. If we can’t have a thriving, human Chinatown, then don’t.”