By Shaobin Zheng
Located along H and I Streets between 5th and 8th Streets NW, the Washington, DC, Chinatown was once home to thousands of Chinese immigrants. Today, mostly as a result of development and gentrification, fewer than 300 Chinese Americans live in the neighborhood. The historical development of the neighborhood speaks both to the vibrant immigrant community that once lived there and the indomitable will of those who remain to fight against social and racial injustice.
Ethnic enclaves such as DC’s Chinatown often formed as a result of unrelenting anti-Chinese sentiment that drove Chinese immigrants to live in segregated spaces. The earliest Chinese immigrants drawn to the legendary “Gold Mountain” of the United States in pursuit of fortune were often regarded as vicious competition by local white laborers on the West Coast. Anti-Chinese riots sought to eradicate the “Yellow Peril” posed by the new immigrants and a variety of legal discriminatory measures, such as the 1872 Chinese Exclusion Act, imposed restrictions on Chinese immigration. In this environment of racial discrimination and animosity, Chinatowns often sprang up as safe spaces for immigrants to live together, build a community, and share common hardships.
Chinese immigrants first arrived to the Washington, DC, area in 1851. Three decades later, they built the first Chinatown along the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue, a principal commercial street in the city. Most of these residents migrated from the West Coast to avoid anti-Chinese disturbances there. Several Chinese restaurants, drugstores, and community organizations took root there. As the Chinese community was burgeoning in DC, traditional tongs (confraternities) developed to protect their compatriots from racial discrimination. Construction of the Federal Triangle government complex and other municipal projects in the 1930s, however, exerted a negative impact on the neighborhood’s boom, forcing Chinese residents to relocate. In times of adversity, On Leong Tong and Hip Sing Tong played important roles in helping Chinese residents relocate.
The new Chinatown was established in 1931 between 5th and 7th Street NW. Few decades later, the community was flourishing. At its peak, DC’s Chinatown included all blocks from G Street to Massachusetts Avenue and from 5th Street to 9th Street. The 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., however, wreaked havoc on the neighborhood. Many Chinese residents moved to the suburbs in search of safety and economic opportunity. Despite decline in the Chinese immigrant population, the Friendship Archway was erected in the neighborhood in 1986 to celebrate the city’s relationship with Beijing and to mark its status as DC’s Chinatown. The same year, the nearby Metro station was dubbed Gallery Place-Chinatown.
The 1997 construction of a sports and entertainment arena (now known as the Capitol One Arena) put the declining Chinatown in further jeopardy. Property values increased, and many Chinese restaurant and business owners were forced to sell, close, or move their businesses to suburban areas, such as Fairfax County in Virginia and Montgomery County in Maryland. In 1990, the Asian American population in the Chinatown area was around 66 percent; by 2010 it had dwindled to 21 percent.
Today, DC’s Chinatown is only a distant memory of the once-bustling enclave of the past. Plans to improve commercial development in the area continue to come at the expense of heritage. Gentrification has further driven up rent prices beyond the reach of the majority of Chinese residents. According to the Washington Post, only 300 Chinese residents now live in Chinatown. Starbucks and Subway have replaced bubble tea stores; Nando’s PERi-PERi and Legal Sea Foods have squeezed traditional Chinese dim sum restaurants out; and Hooters and Capitol One Arena have transformed the cultural center into a place for nightlife and entertainment. Only the Friendship Archway remains on H Street NW as a symbol of Chinese identity. Two hundred and eighty-four vivid dragons carved or painted on the archway reflect Chinatown’s past splendor and vitality. The golden color of tiles, gleaming under the midday sunlight, reminds visitors and residents alike that Chinatown was once a bustling and flourishing place.
Today, the remaining Chinese immigrant residents are engaged in a new fight to preserve their lives in DC’s Chinatown. Museum Square, an apartment complex where over half of Chinatown’s Chinese residents currently live, was slated for demolition a few years ago, and its residents have been fighting the landlord ever since. Their success will determine whether the neighborhood will continue to derive its name from its residents, or whether it will be Chinatown in name only.
Shaobin Zheng (Daniel) was the AHA’s 2017 summer research intern. He is a junior at Boston University, double majoring in history and international relations. He specializes in European medieval history, Chinese ancient history, and East Asian policy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.