A Walk Back In Time Through DC's Chinatown


I've visited DC's Chinatown dozens of times -- for games at the Verizon Center, movies at Gallery Place, and meals along that congested strip of 7th St. -- but I'd never seen it quite like I did last Thursday when I took a walk back in time with DC resident Easten Law. Easten has a singular perspective on the place: He's a professor of cultural studies at American University as well as a man who came to know Chinatown well as a teenager during regular visits to his grandparents' home in the Wah Luck House. I was captivated by Easten's stories about his roots, his views on the neighborhood's distinct markers of life and death, and his deliberate narrative about our surroundings. "I was thinking about how I wanted to frame my thoughts in terms of culture and identity and what a neighborhood is about," Easten said as our conversation began. "A neighborhood is a social construct based on the people who live there."

And from there, we began walking and talking, embarking on a trip back in time through a fascinating neighborhood of Washington, DC.

My connection to the neighborhood is very much rooted in my grandmother and my grandfather, Hsi Ling Wu and Ruoh Ying Wu. They lived with us when I was very small and then as my uncles and aunts got married, they realized they shouldn't just be around the house and living with their children who were married, although that wouldn't be unusual in a Chinese context. They felt like here in America, that's not how it should work. So they moved into the Wah Luck House. Throughout the 90s, I was coming down to Chinatown to visit my grandparents.

In the 90s, you knew Chinatown was going to change, but it hadn't quite gotten there yet. People knew it was coming. One of the most clear memories was that when you came up from this Metro station, this was open air. There was no building on top of it. The neighborhood only really started exploding when the Verizon Center opened in 1997. Then I left for college and by the time I came back, all the cranes you now see over there by O St. were over here.

"I've felt a strong desire to share about this neighborhood as a way of processing, and as a way of paying tribute to my grandparents because, especially my gramma, was a very very important part of my life. For me, her memory is tied to this space. As the space continues to change and lose elements of what it was, I want to find mediums for it to be captured."

Hsi Ling Wu & Ruoh Ying Wu, taken at the Wah Luck House 2005. Credit: Easten Law

It's in city law that within a certain area, all signage must have Chinese on it. Which is why AT&T, Fuddruckers, Hooters, all have Chinese on them. Because it was forced. It was the Chinese community fighting to preserve the heritage of the area. They said, If you're gonna bring all this stuff in, our community has to be able to read it. Which was a good advocacy fight. Ironically, they still got priced out, but the law remains. This here outside Starbucks says "high class coffee shop."

...This is a relatively well-kept sign, the Fujian Resident Association. The most recent wave of immigrants in terms of poor immigrants are from Fujian province, so they seem to have their own association to take care of their own... That one says Lee Medical Associates. That might be the building. My grandma used to go to see someone for Chinese traditional medicine and that might be it. For me, Chinatown still has a lot of questions, because I see the signs and I wonder if anything is still going on in that building that still reflects the sign that's there. I don't know, because they're not taking the signs down.

The history of DC's Chinatown was that it used to be over on Pennsylvania Ave. The Chinese got moved when they built Federal Triangle down on Pennsylvania. There were a lot of Germans here and the Chinese ended up pushing the Germans out, which is why the Goethe Institut, the German Cultural Institute, is over there. With Chinese wording.

Chinatown, Washington, DC

The Arch is what people think of when they think of DC's Chinatown. It is the largest single span Chinese archway in the world. It cost a million dollars and took 16 Chinese artists. It was a gift from Beijing in 1986 in partnership with then Mayor Marion Barry, Jr.

"I was thinking about people, and when they're ready to pass away they want to leave something behind that they'll be remembered by. They want to leave a legacy. And although it's slightly depressing, my view of this beautiful arch is that it's almost a headstone in some ways to the Chinese community that once was very, very vibrant in DC."

I always tell people DC's Chinatown is the most unique Chinatown in the world to me, not necessarily for the best reasons. In 1986, Chinatown DC was reported to be about eight blocks large. Now it's about two, with an estimated population of 400-500 Chinese residents. The last Chinese grocery store here closed in 2005. About half of them reside in the Wah Luck house and the others at nearby Museum Square and Gibson Plaza. I have worked with community organizing groups and pursued some of my research interests in Shaw. My fear for Shaw is what has happened in Chinatown. I fear there will be lots of monuments to African American tradition there and no African Americans living there.

The Wah Luck House opened in 1982. This is the 30th anniversary of its opening. It was opened because where they're building the new city center, that used to be where the Convention Center was. That's where most of the Chinese were living, so they had to move the Chinese out of there in order to build the old Convention Center. In return, they decided they would build the Wah Luck House here to house many of the Chinese people who had lived in that neighborhood. The Wah Luck House is actually Section 8 affordable housing. It was designed by a Chinese architect so it's one of the buildings that has more of an authentic Chinese feel. That used to be the tallest building in Chinatown. Not so much anymore.

Wah Luck House, Chinatown, Washington, DC

The Chinese Community Church is the only Chinese church in the city. It's the church that my grandparents attended. Much with many immigrant communities, the religious houses really were the places where they built a community when they were excluded from others.

When the Chinese were leaving Chinatown, the church said, Do we stay in the city or do we leave? They actually took a risk and bought this church building in 2006 from an African American congregation that was moving out because all these condos no longer housed the original African American residents.

They had the entire building renovated for almost free because it's an historical building: Thomas Ustick Walter, the architect who designed this building in 1852, helped design the Capitol Dome as well. If you restore historical buildings for free, you get a whole bunch of tax credits, so they chose this as their project. This church still serves the Chinese community and this rowhome next to the church is the Chinatown Service Center, which is a separate non-profit but it's pretty much staffed by the church. They help new immigrants work through their legal issues and immigration.

"To me, if the arch is something that reminds me that the Chinese community is really no longer here in a vibrant way, the Chinese Community Church, to me, is the fight. Of saying, No we're here and we're gonna take care of what few Chinese are here."

Chinese Community Church, Chinatown, Washington, DC

There's the Wah Luck House, there's Chinatown Garden Restaurant. They still have really strong features and date back a long while, but even the arch is relatively new. It's the authentic spaces that Chinese people put here for themselves because they needed some kind of symbol that said, This place is ours -- those are the places I want to take you to.

Chinatown, Washington, DC

Most people wouldn't know, but there's a little Chinese garden in the Renaissance Hotel. You'd never think this was here and unless you stayed in the hotel and decided to take a walk, you would never know. There's also a really awesome collection of bonzai trees at the National Arboretum that's set in a Japanese/Chinese garden and they're really well done, actually.

Chinatown, Washington, DC

I bring my son down, but not a lot, honestly. I mean, if you want real Chinese things, you go to Rockville. The best Chinese restaurants to my knowledge are in Rockville or Virginia. But no Chinese person would say that the good Chinese restaurants are in Chinatown. The only one that might pass is Full Kee, it's still considered relatively authentic Chinese cuisine, but the quality's gone down, obviously. Even if it's the same restaurant, I've gone to some of them, and it's not the same. A lot of the families that were here ended up all over the suburbs, really.

Chinatown, Washington, DC

In some ways I've walked you back in time, from the arch that's the newest to the Wah Luck House to some of the older governing bodies in Chinatown. The last stop is by the Convention Center and you would never think it would be there because it's not in Chinatown proper. It's here on a little trafficked part of L St. I think it's the most beautiful building in terms of Chinese architecture. This is the original Chinese Community Church building. The Chinese Community Church was founded in 1933, originally meeting in the Mt Vernon Place United Methodist Church, until 1939 when it acquired the townhome at 1011 L St. They raised the money to build the L St church building in 1957. Now it's nothing, it's vacant. My personal dream is that it becomes an Asian American museum or something. It would fit so well. This is, to me, a more reflective piece of the city versus the hustle bustle of the arch and the heart of Chinatown.

The reason this is such a powerful building to me is because it's a building built by Chinese for Chinese without any regard to anything else going on around it. They made it Chinese for them, not for outsiders, which is sort of what that arch really feels like.

Chinatown, Washington, DC

I love it because of the litte things about it. At the very, very top, that circle, that is the character for love. I wish I could go inside of it; I haven't, but I've seen pictures. There was a lot of debate over whether to sell this so that they could buy the new building, but eventually they did sell. So the Chinese Community Church no longer owns it. I don't know who owns it. The rumor I heard was that it's gonna become a boutique hotel. I don't think it has any historic designation, but there's no way they would tear this down, I would hope. I would think. But then again, there's all sorts of ugly things going up around the city because it's a building boom. It doesn't matter.

That's the issue with culture and space. I don't know what's better: you design something that's totally inappropriate for the space or you design something that is appropriate for the space but is not appropriate for the people there.

Chinatown, Washington, DC

Chinatown, Washington, DC

Originally published October 3, 2012.