The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In fast-changing Chinatown, a struggle to preserve traditions amid development

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Where We Live | Chinatown in Northwest Washington

The Friendship Arch is a well-known landmark in the Chinatown neighborhood of Northwest Washington. (Robert Miller/The Washington Post)

Chinatown is a lively neighborhood in Northwest Washington. People bustle along the sidewalks. Street musicians belt out tunes hoping to earn a few dollars. Vendors hawk souvenirs, children trail their tourist parents, whose eyes are buried in maps, and shoppers emerge from stores laden with bags.

Chinese calligraphy and architectural motifs adorn shops and commercial venues. The Friendship Archway, a Chinese gate built over H Street near Seventh Street, has 7,000 glazed tiles covering five roofs. A smattering of Chinese men, women and a few children stroll through the community. Chinese restaurants are packed at lunch and dinnertime.

On the surface, the neighborhood, which stretches roughly from Fifth to Eighth streets and from G to K streets and Massachusetts Avenue, looks as strong as ever.

But ask a Chinese American what it used to be like, and smiles wane. Shirley Woo, 70, has attended the Chinese Community Church, which has services in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, on I Street with her family since the late 1970s. She lives in Virginia.

“I remember coming down here with my father to meet his friends for coffee and tea,” said Woo. “It was a lot more quiet then, more residential — people actually lived there. There are still Chinese residents but it’s more commercial and busy.”

The once-strong Chinese community began to dwindle in the 1960s when many residents moved out of the area, according to a report by the University of Maryland.

“Now it’s a destination for shopping, eating and the [Capital One Arena]. It’s more upscale,” said Woo. “Longtime residents are being asked to sell their property and aren’t being replaced by family-owned restaurants and shops.”

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When the sports arena now known as Capital One Arena was built in 1996, it transformed the area by attracting new businesses that weren’t Chinese.

“It became so expensive to live and run shops that the mom-and-pop Chinese grocery stores that used to cater to the Chinese community could no longer afford it. They’re gone, and people have moved to the suburbs,” said Harry Chow, 69, who lives in Maryland. “This is the trend of gentrification around the country. Developers offer so much money for your property you’d be a fool not to take it. . . . Now we have a Chinatown with a slowly shrinking population. Only several hundred [Chinese people] still live there.”

Instead of shopping at nearby Chinese grocers, the mostly elderly residents of Wah Luck House at the intersection of Sixth and H streets are bused to the suburbs to buy groceries.

Chow grew up on North Capitol Street, a mile from Chinatown. He moved to Chinatown in the early 1970s and to the Maryland suburbs in 1980.

His family shopped for groceries, medicine and other goods every weekend in Chinatown. “We’d visit family and go to the Chinese church,” he said.

He recalls the lion dance at the Lunar New Year parade as a big deal.

“Families came into town from the suburbs to celebrate. The lion took away our bad luck and brought good luck for the new year. That’s what it symbolized. We used to throw firecrackers on the ground, but today that’s allowed only on one block, on H Street between Sixth and Seventh streets because the city doesn’t want to stop traffic for too long a time,” he said.

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Stan Lou, 80, who lives in Virginia, works at the 1882 Foundation, which tells the Chinatown story. It organizes monthly conversations, songs, talks, walks and gatherings.

“Chinatown is a touchstone for us even though most of us have moved away. There’s a sense of identity here,” said Lou. “It’s our goal to keep a presence here because Chinatown is a real ethnic community that contributes to the city and isn’t just a place with stores.”

Ted Gong, 69, executive director of the 1882 Foundation, also lives in Virginia.

“We lament Chinatown’s changing character, though we know that neither the city nor individual neighborhoods are static. We hope there’s a way to adapt and not lose our identity,” Gong said.

One of their ideas is to create a pedestrian walkway along the tree-lined block of I Street between Fifth and Sixth streets across from Chinatown Park. The nonprofit offices of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, the 1882 Foundation, the Chinatown Service Center and the Fujian Resident Association can be found in a row of townhouses.

“What makes D.C. different from other cities is that we have distinctive neighborhoods. We’re not going to lose those neighborhood names. But when the same national chain stores and types of businesses go into all the neighborhoods, because those businesses bring in customers, it leads to all the neighborhoods being alike — another whiskey bar, another sports bar and fusion food at high prices, loud and crowded,” Gong said.

Living there: Housing in Chinatown consists of condominiums, rowhouses and rentals. “Townhouses are rare, but they do exist in Chinatown,” said Rebecca Weiner, a real estate agent with Compass.

Eight homes are for sale, ranging from a one-bathroom studio condo for $355,000 to a three-bedroom, two-bathroom condo for $747,900.

Five homes are under contract, ranging from a one-bedroom, one-bathroom condo for $399,000 to a three-bedroom, three-bathroom rowhouse for $1.9 million.

In the past year, 59 homes sold, ranging from a one-bathroom studio condo for $305,000 to a three-bedroom, two-bathroom condo for $850,000.

Schools: Walker-Jones Education Campus (kindergarten to eighth grade), Dunbar High.

Transit: Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station is at Seventh and H streets NW. Several bus lines run through the neighborhood. New York Avenue is the closest major thoroughfare.

Crime: According to, there were seven burglaries, 13 assaults with a dangerous weapon and 27 robberies in the neighborhood in the past year.