Jenny Tang remembers when Chinatown was still Chinatown.
It was a neighborhood of empty lots, but the streets were crowded with people — shoppers, merchants, children, the elderly. Many of them were locals, and nearly all of them Chinese. She needed only to walk down the street to find a breakfast of rice porridge or replenish her supply of sesame oil.
That was in 1997, when she arrived from southern China. Tang, now 44, didn’t realize that the neighborhood was already no longer the Chinatown that had earned its name. The construction that year of the future Verizon Center was a turning point. An ethnic enclave of mom-and-pop storefronts would be transformed into a kitschy block where Chipotle is written in Chinese characters — and luxury condos and glittering nightspots now compete with the ornate Friendship Archway for the eye’s attention.
The population of Chinese Americans in Chinatown has shrunk from a high of 3,000 to about 300 — half of whom are now fighting to be able to stay.
It was about a year ago that residents of Tang’s apartment complex, Museum Square, received demolition notices. The building houses roughly half of Chinatown’s remaining Chinese community, and although many could not read what was written in the English-language letters from the building’s owner, their African American neighbors helped them to understand: The building’s Section 8 contract was due to expire, and the owner planned to demolish their tawny home to make way for a new development .
The tenants and the D.C. Council are embroiled in a legal battle with the landlord, Virginia-based Bush Companies. While they await a court decision about how much it would cost them to buy Museum Square for themselves, Tang and her neighbors are restless. They find it difficult to grasp that they might have to move away in October.
“Even though it’s not Chinatown anymore,” Tang says, “we still want to stay here. Where we feel safe.”
In the gray halls of Museum Square, the building’s demise is announced on bright pink notices.
“ATTENTION ALL RESIDENTS. This is a sample offer of sale letter that has been personalized and mailed to each of you individually. Please do not remove this document from the wall.”
By law, residents have the right to buy a rental building before it is razed. Bush Companies is asking for more than $800,000 per apartment, an impossible sum for housing-subsidy recipients whose incomes rarely exceed $30,000.
The door to Tang’s sixth-floor apartment is marked by an upside-down cardboard cut-out of the Chinese character fu, meaning “fortune.” The Chinese word for “arrive” is a close homophone to the word for “upside-down,” so the turned insignia adorns homes as a wishful harbinger of good luck: Fortune arrives.
Flanked by her daughters, Jiaxin Lin, 10, and Jiahui Lin, 11, Tang kneels on the yellow alphabet-patterned rug in her living room. The small space is furnished with cluttered shelves but devoid of couches. An end table holds a slender female Buddha statue perched beside offerings of fresh tangerines and pears. The TV plays a Chinese broadcast about the MERS crisis in South Korea. Tang says she likes “not having too much. Makes the place look bigger.”
This Saturday afternoon, she has just a few hours before her night shift starts at a takeout place in Oxon Hill, Md. The night before, she didn’t get home until 2 a.m. because she had to cover a co-worker’s shift as well.
Tang never married, and her formal education ended at age 7 after her mother died. Tang’s illiteracy has made her vulnerable to abuse. She says her co-workers tell her tauntingly: “Shouldn’t you be good at math if you’re Chinese?”
But at Museum Square, where she is one of the few adult Chinese residents who speak English, Tang has led efforts to rally tenants, going door to door to encourage them to come to meetings and protests. The low-income residents will receive vouchers to help them re-house themselves when the building is demolished, but she fears that they will not find anything affordable in the District.
Three floors up, Jianhong Wang, 77, and Xin Yi, 83, offer Tang a pack of pineapple cookies for her daughters. The pair have lived in the building for nine years and are enmeshed in its tightknit community. Just around the corner is Chinatown Service Center, offering free translation services and English classes; a short walk away is the family doctor who treats Chinatown residents as his father did before him.
Every week, Tang drives her older friends to Good Fortune supermarket in Falls Church, as the grocer that once sold fresh Chinese vegetables on their block is now a distant memory. The neighbors return the favor by showering Tang with food: sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves for the Dragon Boat Festival, baked rice cake for the Lunar New Year.
“We don’t want to live in your beautiful places,” Tang says, pointing to the peeling wallpaper and scratched-up wood in Wang and Yi’s apartment. “We have a lot of love here. We look out for each other.”
The worn-out building houses their closest friends: neighbors who knew their children as toddlers; families with which they share glutinous rice balls and slices of pork liver; people who understand them, no translation required. If forced to leave Museum Square, they will most likely relocate to the suburbs — not only far from Chinatown, but also from each other.
Once home to German immigrants, the blocks from G to K streets became a haven for Chinese Americans in the 1930s, after the construction of the Federal Triangle government complex displaced them from an earlier enclave. They brought with them strong markers of culture, which only began to dissipate when the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a first wave fleeing to the suburbs. Two decades later, as Chinese flavor started to return to the area, the Friendship Archway — proclaiming “Chinatown” in golden Chinese script — was erected in honor of the city’s sister relationship to Beijing.
When they arrived, Wang says, the neighborhood was “wild.” Weeds sprang from the concrete, and trash was scattered on the streets. She feared that she would be robbed in broad daylight, because few police officers were around. Once, a friend called 911 after a mugging and waited an hour for help to arrive.
“Rich people would never have lived here before, but we’ve set down our roots,” she says. “Now that circumstances are better, they’re trying to buy everything.”
After the Verizon Center’s completion, development snowballed, and long-standing family businesses were priced out. Today, surviving landmarks of the old Chinatown are few. The historic Chinatown Garden restaurant shares a block with Panera Bread. The Chinese Community Church stands across from new high-rises. Most of the church’s members these days come in from the suburbs to hear the gospel preached in Mandarin, Cantonese and English.
Easten Law grew up visiting his grandmother at the Wah Luck House apartments. He remembers riding the elevator up from the Metro and being greeted with open air.
“All you saw was the archway,” recalls Law, an intercultural studies lecturer at American University. “The archway and the sky.” Visitors now come up into an alcove of the Gallery Place shopping complex, AT&T flat screens hanging overhead.
On the next block of H Street, a tiny gallery used to stand. The owner, artist Tie-Sheng Dai, closed the place five years ago after rent rose too high. Now he spends most days holed up in his Museum Square apartment, filling notebooks with scrawled musings on China’s culture, learned Americanisms and why his home should be saved.
A self-described idealist, Dai arrived in the United States in 1989 expecting “paradise.” He is proud of his writing, and the paintings and calligraphy that hang on the walls — but with his limited English, the work that won national prizes in China has found little success in his adoptive country.
“I had big dreams,” Dai, 62, says in a voice tinged with regret. “I thought that with my talents, I could open up the sky.”
He prepared a statement for the Museum Square rally last month, but it was not read because he couldn’t find a translator. In the text, now tucked into a desk drawer with other loose sheets of writing, Dai talks about the freedom that he and his neighbors sought when they immigrated, including the freedom to make a home for themselves.
Dai writes, “Our vision of the country has been disrupted by a greedy owner who hasn’t lived here a single day.”
The D.C. Council passed emergency legislation in March to protect residents from Bush’s high asking price. But while Museum Square tenants have drawn support from community leaders — including Rabbi Scott Perlo of Sixth & I synagogue and Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets — Marge Maceda, a member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6E says the tenants seem distrustful of seeking help from groups like hers.
The disconnection between Chinese residents and the neighborhood’s newer populations is an example of “micro-segregation,” says Derek Hyra, an associate professor in the Department of Public Administration at American University. Hyra, who directs AU’s Metropolitan Policy Center, says mixed-income communities where diverse groups live in close proximity can nevertheless be racially divided.
If what is left of Chinese Chinatown is to be saved, Hyra says, more needs to be done to bridge cultural divides in a neighborhood that is now more “Ann Taylor than Asian.”
Back in her apartment, Tang lectures her daughters about homework. “You just want to play,” she scolds. “You don’t work hard.” Her eyes well up. “Don’t you know what I’ve sacrificed? Why do you think we’re fighting for this building?”
Tang is haunted by missed opportunities. She thinks she immigrated too late to properly learn English and that it is too late to go back to school. Sometimes, she takes her daughters to her workplace just to scare them. “You think this is funny?” she’ll ask.
While the residents of Museum Square await news of the building’s future, Tang tells herself not to give up. Some African American residents will need her help communicating with their Chinese neighbors. Her daughters will want to stay at BASIS, a public charter school on Eighth Street NW.
And of course, there are more community meetings to attend and rallies to organize. Tang knows she will not just sit still in the apartment that isn’t quite hers, waiting for fortune to arrive.