Thirteen years ago, Alfred H. Liu, an architect and urban planner, designed the Friendship Archway. The ornate blue-and-gold monument marked the entrance to D.C.’s dilapidated Chinatown at 7th and H Streets NW, adding a dash of grandeur to a dreary corner. It was just a symbol, Liu hoped, of exciting things to come.
Today, says Liu, change has indeed come to Chinatown—but it’s nothing like the progress he imagined. From the 7th Street Starbucks to the proposed new multiplex theater on H, the area’s tourist-oriented economy is growing fast. The area’s appeal to Chinese merchants and shoppers, meanwhile, keeps on shrinking. Scarcely 600 Chinese live in Chinatown, and many of them are the mostly elderly residents of the Wah Luck House, a low-income housing development. Locals wonder whether the neighborhood will survive as anything more than a series of Chinese street signs.
“After business hours, there’s nobody here,” says Peter H. Liu (no relation), who lives in Gaithersburg and works at the Chinatown offices of his landscaping architecture firm, Lee & Liu Associates. “The future of Chinatown is very, very difficult.”
Both Lius, along with their fellow members of the Chinatown Steering Committee, are proposing a package of tax incentives and other measures to counter the real estate development pressures, lack of parking, and housing shortage they believe are undermining their community. But interviews with more than a dozen local Chinese-American businesspeople suggest that such proposals may not be enough to revive the neighborhood. Chinatown’s troubles stem from a problem larger than taxes or parking or even the Washington Wizards: The Chinese live somewhere else. And—like suburbanites everywhere—they’d rather not schlep into town to do their shopping.
To really understand why Chinatown is little more than a strip of tourist-oriented restaurants on H Street surrounded by vacant buildings, yuppie bars, and construction teams, you must leave Washington entirely. The forces fueling the disappearance of the last ethnic neighborhood in downtown Washington are on display not just at the MCI Center but at places like 850 Hungerford Drive in Rockville. At that address, a verdant lawn slopes back to the three-story brick building housing the offices of Montgomery County Public Schools. From there, start walking south.
Go past Lin’s Bakery, the Kung Fu club, and Ever Pro Inc. 1st Import Outlet (Ronald Wu, president). Go past F & J’s Hair Salon, where harried women neatly cut and style their Chinese clients’ hair and the receptionist speaks no English. Go past the China Canteen restaurant and the imposing new granite and stucco Asia Bank, set to open in late July. Go past the 2-year-old Kam Sam gourmet food store. Don’t stop for the fresh fish or vegetables stacked in sparkling suburban splendor in the store’s bright, clean aisles. Watch out for the Mercedes 300E pulling out of the parking lot.
Go past Peter Liang’s 2-year-old China Books & Gifts, and don’t pick up the latest video rental from Taiwan, A Study Guide to American Citizenship, or Seven Tycoons in Zhongnanhai. Go past the packed Ritz Beauty Salon (Jen Chang, manager), and don’t stop to talk to the thoughtful, University of Manchester-educated director of Harmony Careers International, An-Chi Hoh, about her nationally known computer training center. Go past United Realty Inc. and Carol Kung’s Talk Unlimited cell phone and wireless services shop.
Keep going past the Rockville Metro stop, past the team of kids playing soccer on the green fields of Richard Montgomery High School, the 8-month-old Yun Yun Medical Clinic, Yuan Fu Vegetarian Restaurant, and the 2-year-old outpost of Ten Ren Tea Ginseng Co., Inc., a family franchise that bills itself as the largest tea company in the Far East and operates some 240 stores in Taiwan and mainland China. Don’t cross the parking lot of the Wintergreen Plaza mall to refresh yourself with a popsicle at the Oriental Market. Instead, go up the stairs to the second floor of the mall, to the World Journal’s WJ Bookstore, which moved to Rockville from 611 H Street NW some five years ago.
There, while teenage girls with dyed hair and boot-cut pants peruse the CD rack for the latest by Gen-X heartthrob Yuki—Taiwan’s answer to Debbie Gibson—office manager Bob Liu will explain how the bookstore decided that, in order to increase its Chinese customer base, it had to get out of Chinatown.
“The buying power in the neighborhood here is more than [that of] the people elsewhere,” says Liu. “Business follows the community. Most of the people [who] still remain in D.C. Chinatown are a different kind of immigrant. Old immigrants [stay] over there; most of the new immigrants move over here. Most of the new people have children, and they need a better educational system for their kids, and Montgomery County has better primary schools and high schools than Washington, D.C. That’s why people have left D.C.”
Liu was able to more than double the size of his store when he left Chinatown. Sales have doubled as well. Today, his shop has room for wares beyond just books. He sells CDs, jewelry, and a wide selection of Hello Kitty and Sanrio decals and accessories. Goods anchored in tradition—like live bamboo stalks—sit cheek by jowl with Palm Pilots that read Chinese characters and run on Windows 98. The Taiwan edition of Marie Claire is around a corner from traditional calligraphic brushes and New Year’s scrolls.
The books, meanwhile, span the range of the ethnic and political Chinese world from “Red China,” as Liu puts it, to “free China.” There are biographies of the U.S.-educated candidates for the 2000 presidential elections in Taiwan, novels from Hong Kong and mainland China, and a whole table devoted to Tibet. There are computer guides, children’s books, and cookbooks for those who miss the taste of Chinese food as served in India. There are Mandarin translations of Bill Gates’ Business @ the Speed of Thought, George Soros’ The Crisis of Global Capitalism, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, people had to go there [to Chinatown] for living stuffs or even groceries,” says Liu. Today, that’s no longer the case.
“Now we have more choices,” agrees Gene Chao, director of the Chinese Cultural Center in Rockville. For big events, like weddings or the Chinese New Year, people used to go to places like the popular but temporarily closed Golden Palace in Chinatown. Now, says Chao, they go to New Fortune in Gaithersburg. “Nobody goes to Chinatown during the night for restaurants,” he adds. “Rockville you can consider the new Chinatown, for sure.”
The old Chinatown is encompassed by Census Tract 58 of Washington. In 1998, that tract had an estimated 616 Asian and Pacific Islander residents, according to Herb Bixhorn of the D.C. State Data Center. (The count combines official census numbers with numbers compiled by a private data-gathering system.) But the Chinatown neighborhood has not, historically, had many Chinese residents. In 1990, it had only 514, and in 1980, only 484. In 1970, it had even fewer: 397.
But that small population base made little difference because, for local immigrants like Sandy Yin, Chinatown remained central to Chinese life. Yin, the WJ Bookstore’s manager, used to commute all the way from her home near Annapolis to work in Chinatown, where she found her first job upon arriving from Taiwan in 1984. Like Yin, many immigrants were once willing to commute from the surrounding suburbs and towns to the city center for shopping or work.
Today, an explosion of new ethnic businesses has made trips to the city center unnecessary. Yin, for instance, now lives in Gaithersburg and makes a short commute to work in Rockville, where she has plenty of friends and can find just about any Chinese merchandise she needs. She saves more than $100 per month in parking costs and doesn’t even bother to bring out-of-town guests to see the old neighborhood. “I show them the White House,” she says.
“The Chinese presence, if it was big in people’s minds, it was because of the commercial businesses. When you look at the numbers, 500 [residents] is not very many, certainly compared to the surrounding suburbs,” says Bixhorn. “The suburban Asian populations are just growing by leaps and bounds, and the District’s isn’t. That’s what’s creating the impression of loss.” By 1997, an estimated 14 percent of the population of Rockville was Asian or Pacific Islander, up from 5.2 percent in 1980.
Businesses that might once have come to Chinatown, like the Ten Ren Tea Ginseng Co., now bypass it. With nearly 300 stores in seven different countries, the company had long dreamed of opening a store in Washington, D.C. “It’s capital of United States. It’s one location we always want to get into,” explains Rockville store manager Alfred Y. Liu. But the rents in the District were too high given the likely customer base. So he went to where his customers lived: His 2-year-old shop sits in the Wintergreen Plaza Mall, right below the WJ Bookstore. Ginseng, like so much else, is now a few more Red Line stops away from the city—closer to the Chinese, and farther from Chinatown. CP