The Chinese New Year parade in Washington’s Chinatown has grown up from its mom-and-pop roots, last year drawing 45,000 people to the bustling neighborhood around the Verizon Center.
Debi Gasper, whose District public relations firm is working to increase the parade’s profile, has lofty ideals for the annual event, which hit the streets again Sunday as throngs of people participated: “Our goal is to make it as big as Macy’s.”
The parade, celebrating thousands of years of Chinese culture, not long ago wended its way through a neighborhood of Chinese shops and restaurants that was home to thousands of Chinese immigrants. Now, the event passes through a gentrified Chinatown filled with American eateries, bars and high-end stores. It is home to a little more than 300 Chinese residents.
As more than 150 volunteers set up the parade Sunday, a group of Chinese elders huddled around the stage at 6th and H streets, overseeing the preparations. One of the men, Sam Wong, said he has seen Chinatown change from a cultural epicenter to a shell of what it once was.
Wong, who emigrated from China to Washington’s Chinatown in 1948, said he has been a parade coordinator for more than 30 years and laments what has been lost.
“The Chinese used to be concentrated here because it’s the only area where they could make a living,” he said. “The next generation is not that close to Chinese culture and they’re not that close to Chinatown.”
Referred to as “Chinablock” since the arrival of the sports complex and a host of businesses that have little or no connection to Chinese culture, some in the neighborhood look to the parade as a way to celebrate the new year and attempt to bring Chinese culture back to an ever-dwindling Chinatown.
Alexander Chi, founding chairman of the Chinatown Revitalization Council, has for years been working to develop a strategy to burnish the Chinese connection to the neighborhood and transform it into a cultural destination. Four year ago, Chi and the D.C. Office of Planning began working with community groups to develop a shared vision to stem the sweeping changes there.
“The gentrification process is gradually replacing the character and heritage of Chinatown,” Chi said.
The group’s short-term goals have been accomplished: the “Friendship Archway” on H Street was renovated, vacant buildings are now occupied and there are new businesses in the area, said Thor Nelson, an urban designer with the Office of Planning and the project manager of the development strategy.
“Life has returned to parts of H Street,” Nelson said. “One of the major struggles has been the diffused nature of the stakeholders. Business owners aren’t organized in any concrete fashion and residential interests are very diverse.”
An Asian street market and the development of a vending zone that would promote Asian crafts and street food are planned, Nelson said.
“It’s a new Chinatown,” parade chairman Hon Yuen Wong said. “You don’t see as many laundromats, there are less Chinese restaurants and the Chinese population is much less. It’s different now. We’re integrated into the mainstream. D.C. Chinatown has changed, but the heritage is still there and will be there for the next 2,000 years.”
Leaders in Washington’s Chinese community hope Chinatown will keep cultural enthusiasm thriving, using the Chinese New Year celebration as a jumping-off-point.
“What’s missing in Chinatown is the culture,” said Stan Lou, vice president of the D.C. chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans. “Chinatown is an important touchstone to us Asian Americans. It’s a place where we can identify with our culture. In D.C., particularly in our nation’s capital, we need to figure out how we can make it more ethnically appealing and preserve that history.”
The elders hope the newest generations of Chinese Americans see the need for continued attention to the culture, especially in the face of a disappearing Chinese influence in Chinatown.
One of those young people, Christopher Chan, president of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association’s Washington chapter, lives and works in the neighborhood and is committed to his cultural heritage.
“Chinatown has been marginalized and taken advantage of in many ways,” Chan said. “It’s hard for the little shops. They’ve been offered huge settlements of more money than they make in a year. We’ll see if we can preserve what’s left of Chinatown.”
He said the parade brings awareness to the problem of the diluted culture in Chinatown.
“If you don’t have things like this, there will be nothing to preserve,” Chan said. “It shows people we’re here and we’re here to stay.”