Cul­tural para­dox of ‘Chi­na­town’ Busi­ness comes at cost of iden­tity

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY ALEX HOP­KINS

It’s a typ­i­cal mid­week noon rush in the heart of Wash­ing­ton, D.C.’s Chi­na­town, and the streets are packed.

Lo­cals, tourists and lo­cal of­fice work­ers flock to the restau­rants, shops and bou­tiques that dot the dis­trict. Na­tional brands — McDon­ald’s, Star­bucks, Ra­dio Shack, Sub­way — mix with smaller tra­di­tional Chi­nese shops and eater­ies, all ben­e­fit­ing from the eco­nomic boom sparked by the nearby Ver­i­zon Center. Many stores dis­play both English and Chi­nese sig­nage.

But the bus­tle masks a para­dox that re­searchers say is be­ing repli­cated in cities across the coun­try: “Chi­na­town,” the neigh­bor­hood, is boom­ing. Chi­na­town, the eth­nic en­clave that has pre­served its iden­tity and char­ac­ter in the heart of the city for eight decades, is not. If cul­tural, de­mo­graphic and eco­nomic trends con­tinue, ur­ban an­a­lysts say, many clas­sic Amer­i­can Chi­na­town dis­tricts may dis­ap­pear al­to­gether.

“There is not much of a Chi­na­town here,” said Zeno­bia Lai, a lawyer at the Asian-Pa­cific Le­gal Ad­vo­cacy Re­source Center. “We joke that it’s a ‘Chin­ablock,’ not a Chi­na­town.”

“Most peo­ple we talk to who have been to Wash­ing­ton have ac­tu­ally told us that they don’t want to be like the D.C. Chi­na­town,” said Karen Chin of the Bos­ton-based Chi­nese Pro­gres­sive As­so­ci­a­tion, whose tra­di­tional Chi­nese eth­nic en­clave is fac­ing many of the same gen­tri­fi­ca­tion pres­sures. “You don’t see com­mer­cial Chi­nese busi­nesses or Chi­nese res­i­dents.”

Al­though the Dis­trict’s Chi­na­town hangs on, oth­ers in Bal­ti­more and St. Louis have been all but elim­i­nated to make way for grand build­ing projects, such as casi­nos and sports sta­di­ums.

A study re­leased this month by the Asian Amer­i­can Le­gal De­fense and Ed­u­ca­tion Fund traces the ex­tent of the threat, fo­cus­ing on the shrink­ing for­tunes of Chi­na­towns in Bos­ton, Philadel­phia and New York, the three largest Chi­na­town en­claves on the East Coast. Us­ing 2010 cen­sus data and land-use records, the study found that the pro­por­tion of Asians and Asian-Amer­i­cans in each city was de­creas­ing, even as rents and me­dian hous­ing val­ues were on the rise.

Each com­mu­nity faced unique chal­lenges. Bos­ton’s Chi­na­town neigh­bor­hood faced in­tense real es­tate com­pe­ti­tion from ex­pand­ing hos­pi­tals and uni­ver­si­ties. In Philadel­phia, it was the in­cur­sion from lux­ury de­vel­op­ers, the lack of af­ford­able hous­ing and new ho­tel prop­er­ties first spurred by the 2000 Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion.

Com­mon chal­lenges in­cluded the de­cline of small ur­ban man­u­fac­tur­ing, com­pe­ti­tion for mom-and-pop gro­ceries and restau­rants from na­tional com­peti­tors, and a sharp in­flux of non-Asians into sud­denly trendy neigh­bor­hoods.

The re­port rep­re­sents “a sound warn­ing to all of us that Chi­na­towns are turn­ing into a san­i­tized eth­nic play­ground for the rich to sat­isfy their ex­otic ap­petite for a dim sum and for­tune cookie fix,” said An­drew Leong, a co-au­thor of the study and a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts-Bos­ton’s Col­lege of Pub­lic and Com­mu­nity Ser­vice.

Bethany Li, a lawyer with the Asian Amer­i­can Le­gal De­fense and Ed­u­ca­tion Fund and another co-au­thor of the study, said many of the re­main­ing res­i­dents of the D.C. Chi­na­town found that they had to travel be­yond the neigh­bor­hood for ba­sic goods.

“The Chi­nese have to be bused out to the sub­urbs in or­der to buy gro­ceries,” she said.

Hang­ing on

Com­pared with other north­east­ern Chi­na­town dis­tricts, Wash­ing­ton’s Chi­na­town is much smaller and has a shorter his­tory. In the 1930s, the dis­trict’s pioneers es­tab­lished an eco­nomic and cul­tural safe haven for Chi­nese im­mi­grants. With the Im­mi­gra­tion and Na­tion­al­ity Act of 1965, many of the racially based im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies that dis­cour­aged Chi­nese im­mi­gra­tion were dropped.

But Chi­na­town suf­fered along with the Dis­trict’s tra­di­tional down­town in the wake of the 1968 ri­ots af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of Martin Luther King Jr. Iron­i­cally, the un­der­de­vel­oped state of the Dis­trict’s down­town pro­tected Chi­na­town for decades from the eco­nomic pres­sures and ris­ing rents that threaten it to­day.

Al­though a re­vi­tal­iza­tion of the city be­gan to take hold in the 1980s, small pock­ets of Chi­na­town re­mained va­cant. The pull of Chi­na­town for a new wave of Chi­nese im­mi­grants and sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Chi­nese-Amer­i­cans was on the wane.

“When a neigh­bor­hood wanes, it might in­deed be on the verge of dis­ap­pear­ing,” said Ali­son Isen­berg, co-di­rec­tor of Prince­ton Univer­sity’s ur­ban stud­ies pro­gram. “How­ever, a vi­brant new neigh­bor­hood might take its place. Chi­nese cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions might mi­grate some­where else.”

Since many of the jobs, hous­ing and re­tail space were in­creas­ingly lo­cated in the sub­urbs, waves of na­tive Chi­nese im­mi­grants looked to sub­ur­ban ar­eas in Vir­ginia and Mary­land, es­pe­cially Chan­tilly and Rockville.

“As the re­gion grew, un­like most cities, the Wash­ing­ton re­gion has this dy­namic of new im­mi­grants ac­tu­ally mov­ing to the sub­urbs in­stead of the in­ner-city neigh­bor­hoods,” said Uwe Bran­des, an ur­ban plan­ner at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity. “In the ’80s and ’90s, there was a lot of mi­gra­tion into the area, es­pe­cially to the sub­urbs.”

Mr. Bran­des noted that this mi­gra­tion phe­nom­e­non dif­fered from New York or San Fran­cisco, where siz­able Chi­nese pop­u­la­tions con­tinue to re­side within the city proper rather than the sub­urbs.

De­vel­op­ment pres­sure

The con­struc­tion of the Ver­i­zon Center in 1997 posed new op­por­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges for the Dis­trict’s Chi­na­town. While the venue cre­ated a bur­geon­ing night-life busi­ness op­por­tu­nity, it also drove up rent prices to the point that only bet­ter-fi­nanced re­gional and na­tional chains could af­ford them.

“The ar­gu­ment at the time was that the com­plex would bring peo­ple into the city, which it did,” said Michael A. Tom­lan, di­rec­tor of his­tor­i­cal preser­va­tion plan­ning at Cor­nell Univer­sity. “On the other hand, it in­evitably in­tro­duced peo­ple who had lit­tle in com­mon with the Chi­nese.”

The Dis­trict’s Chi­na­town has been greatly af­fected by in­creased com­mer­cial­iza­tion. From 1970 to 2008, the num­ber of na­tive Chi­nese in Chi­na­town has de­creased from 3,000 to 300, ac­cord­ing to a study by the Mayor’s Of­fice on Asian and Pa­cific Is­lan­der Af­fairs.

The neigh­bor­hood “is be­com­ing more like an in­ter­na­tional food center,” said Peter Kwong, pro­fes­sor of ur­ban af­fairs and plan­ning at Hunter Col­lege. “That lack of em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­nity for non-English­s­peak­ing Chi­nese im­mi­grants means they tend not to choose ar­eas like Wash­ing­ton’s Chi­na­town.”

Some be­lieve, how­ever, that the heart of the is­sue is tim­ing, not com­mer­cial pres­sures.

“For a Chi­na­town to hap­pen, you need a vi­able liv­ing res­i­den­tial base first and fore­most,” said study co-au­thor Mr. Leong. “Then busi­nesses [can] come in. Busi­nesses will go where the prof­its are, where they know there will be a host of pa­trons that will uti­lize their ser­vices. That isn’t the case in D.C.’s Chi­na­town.”

Some say the evo­lu­tion from a liv­ing, or­ganic neigh­bor­hood to a hy­brid com­mer­cial dis­trict/cul­tural ar­ti­fact is in­evitable for many of the na­tion’s em­bat­tled Chi­na­towns, in­clud­ing Wash­ing­ton’s.

“The best thing that could hap­pen is that it is rec­og­niz­ing it­self as a tourist desti­na­tion,” said Tun­ney Lee, di­rec­tor emer­i­tus of the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy Depart­ment of Ur­ban Stud­ies and Plan­ning. “Right now, it’s a lit­tle bit run-down. It’s a kind of mish­mash. It seems OK, it pro­vides some eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity, but it is be­ing over­run by the con­ven­tion center and the ad­ja­cent busi­nesses.”

Christo­pher Kle­mek, an as­so­ci­ate his­tory pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity, said change is the na­ture of the game for ur­ban neigh­bor­hoods.

“Any pe­riod when we might call this neigh­bor­hood ‘Chi­na­town’ looks more like an in­ter­reg­num, or just one tem­po­rary phase in a cycli­cal so­cio-eco­nomic story,” he said.


The Friend­ship Arch­way at Sev­enth and H streets North­west in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., was once a gate­way to an eco­nomic and cul­tural safe zone for Chi­nese im­mi­grants. Like in other Chi­na­towns across the na­tion, an­cient cul­ture is mak­ing way for mod­ern busi­ness.

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