In the early 20th century, D.C Chinatown was considered a contaminated place reflecting public fear and discrimination of the immigrant Chinese race. These ethnic spaces served as a segregation tool, physically separating people by not only race, but class as well. This form of social discrimination is reinforced by the imperial culture: by making forms of exploitation and appropriation seem hegemonic and natural. City planners go in the community and say that the area is in a need for redevelopment, but they ignore the fact that this space was made as an outcome of segregation, which they created. Now, in the 21st century, D.C Chinatown has been transformed into an artificial “China” that serves as a commercial area.
As you walk down H St, it is evident that Chinatown has lost the authentic Chinese view that it was once famous for a few decades ago. The only “Chinese – ness” remaining that is barely representative of Chinese culture is the city’s requirement to have all of the shops’ names written in Chinese. If adding Chinese characters to street signs were actually an attempt to help out the old folks who don’t read English, then Wheaton, MD should be translating the area’s signs into Spanish.
I was born in Hong Kong, and have been exposed to what a “Chinese town” is suppose to look like, so when I came to America I had high hopes of this so called “Chinatown”. I was excited that I could finally identify with an area where people share similar cultural backgrounds as me. When I imagine Chinatown, I smell the musky scent that is a part of the neighborhood’s rustic charm. I see barbershops, noodle joints, and other small shops bustling with business. However, D.C Chinatown is almost the complete opposite. There are numerous American clothing stores, and small local bars/restaurants that have signs that say “Come in for Happy Hour!” Even the people in the area were mostly Non-Asian. During nighttime, it is more evident that the identity of our Chinese ancestors has been eroded and replaced with a more commercialized identity as you see a sharp influx of non-Asians into suddenly trendy neighborhoods.
“There is not much of a Chinatown in Washington D.C anymore. People even joke, “it is a Chinablock and not a Chinatown”. Most Chinese -Americans would agree that the ethnic enclave that used to preserve identity and character is “not Chinese enough” anymore because of the lack of commercial Chinese businesses and Chinese residents.
The remaining Chinatown is not a good way to honor Chinese heritage, because Chinatown is basically turning into a sanitized ethnic playground for the rich to satisfy their exotic appetite for a dim sum and fortune cookie fix.
With an ever-increasing number of luxury condos and shops breaking ground in Chinatown, the neighborhood is constantly losing its traditional flavor. Other locals would disagree, arguing that growth and economic development are, in fact, good for the community as a whole. Economically, I would agree that creating new shops and redeveloping the area is good for our capitalist economy. However, at a historical standpoint, I would have to disagree with the development because the community is losing its authentic Chinese presence. Because most people who lived in Chinatown were immigrants, many were forced to move out because there is little home ownership opportunity in Chinatown. There is no way these Chinatown locals can afford a luxury condominium. The gentrification of D.C Chinatown has led people to flee to cheaper suburban areas, and develop ethnic enclaves in other towns such as Rockville, and Chantilly.
This change has led to something bad; our identity must be compromised to accommodate the commercial uses of Chinatown. To bring back the representation and identity of our Chinese culture and tradition in Chinatown is going to be almost impossible. If you want to support the small businesses that remain, fine. But once an ethnic community has lost the critical mass necessary to project itself, manufacturing authenticity is just going to fail.
The only thing the community can do now is recognize itself as a tourist destination, where people enthrall over the Chinatown sign, take a few selfies, then leave to the next tourist destination.