Chinatown's Friendship Archway at 7th and H streets NW. Image by Tim Evanson licensed under Creative Commons.

“Chinatown’s identity is the people who live there.” That’s what Chinatown means to Yi Chen, a documentary filmmaker and adjunct professor at George Mason University. But what happens when those people can’t connect with other District residents, or when they can’t live in Chinatown?

A lot of senior citizens in Chinatown live in apartment buildings called the Wah Luck House and Museum Square. Most of the seniors are on fixed incomes, use Section 8 vouchers, and most have a limited ability to speak, read, and write English. Also, none has any intention of leaving, even as the owners of their buildings threaten to demolish their homes and replace them with luxury condos and commercial development. Residents are often unaware of things like neighborhood meetings, and language barriers prevent many from participating.

Chinatown is a neighborhood that would benefit from greater density, but the issue is certainly complicated, as residents face unique barriers to sharing their opinions, and there is a real risk of displacement.

Yi explored these dynamics in her documentary, Chinatown: A Changing Neighborhood, which I watched at last month’s DC Ideas Fest. Filmed in 2013, the documentary shows the everyday struggles of Chinese senior citizens who still live in Chinatown. Wah Luck House, in particular, was designed by a Chinese architect and was built for Chinese residents who were displaced from the area that was then the old convention center and is now CityCenterDC.

After watching her film, I spoke with Yi about her experience working with the residents at Wah Luck House and Museum Square to preserve their homes, and how much progress they have made in the four years since the documentary was made.

It’s very tough for residents to interact with the larger community

Jia Ting Xu, a resident of Wah Luck House who helps to organize monthly bus rides to a Chinese grocery store in Falls Church and is featured in the documentary, said (through translation that Yi provided) that things have gotten worse in the last few years. Aside from residents’ continuing fight to keep their homes, Chinatown doesn’t have its own Chinese grocery store (the last one closed in 2005). The DC government did partner with a nonprofit to provide a farmers market that sells Chinese vegetables, but it isn’t in operation year-round, and doesn’t offer everything residents want to buy, like dry goods.

Yi Chen, the documentary filmmaker, (left) and Jia Ting Xu, a Wah Luch House resident.

Yi said that one of the biggest barriers for the residents is access to information. In 2013, Monument Realty proposed a 10-story building near Wah Luck House, and Yi said many residents weren’t even aware of the plans.

“[The residents] don’t have a strong voice in the democratic process,” Yi said. She said that when the building near Wah Luck House was first proposed, there were numerous meetings without any participation from the residents at Wah Luck House. “There were ANC meetings and historic preservation meetings going on without Wah Luck residents because they just didn’t know about them, and their voice wasn’t heard,” she said.

During this time, Yi was a reporter for Asian Fortune News, a DC area Asian-American newspaper, and she was asked to write about the new building proposal. Seeing that Wah Luck House tenants were not in attendance at meetings, she invited them worked with the DC Office of Planning to get documents translated so residents could read them.

“The good thing is, [residents] are working with organizations like the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development, but those organizations can’t be there every day,” Yi said. “It really is a struggle for the residents to be involved in the process. So many things are happening so quickly, in terms of the price of real estate, and there is a lot of interest from developers to build commercially in Chinatown.”

Seniors are worried that Chinatown’s affordable housing is going to evaporate

Chinese immigrants were once attracted to Chinatown for its affordability and the opportunity to be around other immigrants, but in 1997, DC built the MCI Center (later renamed the Verizon Center). The arena brought a lot of development and wealth with it. When rents started rising, small businesses started to close and the population dwindled to a few hundred families.

Yi said that residents’ primary goals are to preserve affordable housing and get English lessons and translators. Nonprofits, like the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development, have educated residents on their rights and pushed back against efforts to evict residents.

In 2013, the DC Preservation League submitted a proposal to DC’s Office of Historic Preservation, asking it to include Chinatown in its list of historic areas. The proposal would protect the Friendship Archway and 19 buildings, including Wah Luck House and Museum Square, and consider them to either have historical value or be connected to buildings that have historical value.

It has languished since submission and Yi said that any concerned citizens should write to the Office of Planning and the Historic Preservation Review Board and encourage them to review the proposal.

Being Chinese doesn’t mean you have a connection to Chinatown. In fact, most Chinese people here do not.

Yi pointed out that there is also differences of opinion among Chinese-Americans. “It’s not one unified view on preserving Chinatown,” she said. “There are different views on preserving Chinatown, how to do it, and what it should look like, etc. A lot of business owners in Chinatown want to sell their buildings to developers and testified to support the development projects.”

These business owners are nearing retirement age, and many of their children don’t want to work in the family business. Additionally, many Chinese-Americans have moved to Virginia and Maryland or have never lived in Chinatown, and don’t know the plight of residents at Wah Luck House and Museum Square. Overall, Yi said that preserving the community requires broader awareness and education.

“A lot of [Chinese-Americans] are not aware of the struggles that Wah Luck House [and Museum Square] residents are having…that awareness and education, for them to know that there are residents who want to keep living there, that’s important.”

Yi also added that Wah Luck House has a waitlist of potential tenants, showing that there is demand for housing. Many residents have children who live elsewhere in the region, but they consider Chinatown their home.

Ultimately, it’s not totally up to Chinese-Americans. “Preserving Chinatown requires more effort than just from the Chinese-American community,” Yi said. “The Office of Planning plays a major role in terms of the future of Chinatown, what that will look like.”

This is bigger than just DC’s Chinatown

As ethnic neighborhoods, Chinatowns across the country represent a connection to shared history that may go away with faster and faster change.

What we recognize as Chinatown today, with its elaborate pagoda roofs and gilded arches, has a bittersweet story. The first Chinatown started in San Francisco around 1848. At that time, Chinese residents weren’t allowed to live outside of Chinatown and couldn’t become citizens or own land. In 1906, a massive earthquake leveled San Francisco’s Chinatown. As they rebuilt, Chinese business leaders added pagodas and other stereotypical Chinese design features to their buildings. This affirmed Western stereotypes about Chinese people and allowed tourists to feel as if they were visiting an exotic, foreign land. Bonnie Tsui, who wrote a book about America’s Chinatowns, said on the 99% Invisible podcast that leaning into stereotypes to attract visitors was an attempt to protect Chinatown’s residents from racism.

In DC, Chinatown was on Pennsylvania Avenue until the 1930s when the government began to develop the Federal Triangle area and residents were forced to move. DC’s Chinatown also used to be eight blocks and now it’s only two. This is a story repeated across the country. Chinatowns were once popular places for poor and newly-immigrated Chinese residents to live, until the high cost of real estate has pushed out Chinese-American residents and immigrants, and transformed Chinatowns around the country, like in Philadelphia, into more commercialized areas devoid of Chinese influence or people.

“When I first moved to the US, no matter where I traveled to, as long as there was a Chinatown I wanted to visit. I think initially, one of the reasons was because of the food. [Authentic Chinese food] reminds me of [Shanghai] where I grew up.” Yi said. “Learning how Chinatowns originally started, I think for me, it means that there is a connection to the past. There’s a connection to Chinese immigrants way before I came. It connects me to that part of the history.”

The seniors at Wah Luck House and Museum Square aren’t just struggling over affordable housing. Chinese-Americans fought for a piece of the city they could call their own, and now they’re having trouble saving their enclaves. Keeping Wah Luck House and Museum Square affordable would be a small step in preserving a significant piece of DC’s immigrant history, giving underserved Chinese-Americans a voice in their own neighborhood, and keeping alive a connection to a shared cultural past for many Chinese-Americans in the region.

DC is going to rewrite its Comprehensive Plan soon, and a coalition (which includes Greater Greater Washington) is encouraging the city to support a set of 10 priorities for the next version. These priorities include preserving affordable housing where it already exists.