Washington, DC’s Chinatown: An Urban Cultural Enclave

Whenever I emerge from the Gallery Place-Chinatown metro station in downtown Washington, Iamimmediately struck by the giant, seven-roof Chinese gate suspended across H Street.  The metro isn’t exactly a magic carpet ride, but seeing the Friendship Archwaymakes me feel like I have been transported to the opposite side of the world. And yet everything else seems normal—there area Chipotle, Fuddruckers, and Bed Bath & Beyond.  Still, a remnant of something foreign remainswith the Chinese translationssuspended next to these stores’ Englishnames.

Washington’s Chinatown doesn’t compare in size to those foundin many other major American cities such as New York and San Francisco—ourshasless than a block of authentic “Chinatown.” Nevertheless, DC’s Chinatown has a long and rich history dating back to the late 1800s.

The first Chinese immigrants arrived in DC in 1851, looking for a better life.  Three decades later, Chinese immigrantsbegan to establish a Chinatown on Pennsylvania Ave. This Chinatown continued to expand, addingnew restaurants, shops, and community organizations. The neighborhood’s growth was cut off in1929, when the government’s plan to build a complex of federal and cultural buildings meant the residents of Chinatown needed to relocate. Two years later, manyChinese residents and businesses owned by Chinese immigrants established a new Chinatown between 5th and 7thStreet, NW.

Often times excluded from the American society and not allowed to live in certain areas, having their own neighborhood was a necessity for the Chinese residents and new immigrants. At the same time, it allowed them to maintain their culture through the constructionof schools, clubs, and entertainment facilities. It also created employment opportunities for new immigrants. This was important after Congress passed racially-discriminatory laws that restricted the rights and freedoms of Chinese immigrantsand anti-Chinese groups pushed Chinese immigrants out of manufacturing work and other labor that competed with German or Irish laborers.To overcome these laws and pressures, Chinese immigrants sought work within their owncommunity, providing typical ethnic food andother basic services. Many civic and merchant associations and community organizations, whichprovidedthe immigrant community with social services and support, were founded in Chinatown.

In the 1960s, many of Chinatown’s residents began moving to the suburbs. Washington’s rising crime rate and high city taxes made Chinatown less appealing to its long-time residents, and the riots that broke out across the city in 1968 accelerated the neighborhood’s decline. In contrast, the suburbs offered affordable housing and higher-quality schools. Many Chinese business owners began selling, closing, or relocating their stores. For example, by 1977 of the original 153 Chinese laundries in the DC area, only twenty remained. By the late 1980s, only 25 percentof the businesses in the neighborhood were Chinese owned.

The current DC Chinatown is only a vestige of the Chinatown that existed in the mid-twentieth century, but it remains an important cultural landmark for the city and continues to promote Chinese culture. There are still a number of Chinese-American cultural and religious organizations in the area, as well as about twentyChinese and Asian restaurants owned by Asian-American families. The Chinatown Community Cultural Center organizes programs to promote and preserve Chinatown and its cultural identity as well as to celebrate the rich Chinese culture, history, language, and heritage deeply embedded in the community.


Have you visited Washington, DC’s Chinatown or another Chinatown in the United States? What was your experience? What helpful services or organizations have you found in DC’s Chinatown, especially for new immigrants? How do you view DC’s Chinatown if you are part of the Chinese diaspora? How do you view it if you are not part of the Chinese diaspora?