How Chinese Is Chinatown DC?

Chinatown DC Chinese New Year

When Chinatown is at its most Chinese — Chinese New Year, January 2012 (Photo By: heydayjoe)

What’s in a place name anyway? If you’ve ever been to Germantown, Md., you’ve probably noticed that it’s not all beer halls, lederhosen and St. Pauli girls. But when you think of Chinatown DC, you expect something authentically Chinese, right? Shiny arches. Red lanterns. Dim sum. Lychee nuts. A Buddhist temple or a dragon-infested arch. DC’s Chinatown has some of these—Chinese restaurants, a handful of souvenir shops and even a traditional Chinese gate—but it also has a major-league sports arena, a Hooters, an Ann Taylor Loft and a Bed Bath and Beyond. And despite the inclusion of Chinese names on all the shop signs, Chinatown still falls short on one key measure of authenticity—Chinese residents. It wasn’t always that way though.

The first Chinese immigrant arrived in Washington City in 1851. Many Chinese had moved east to escape the violence perpetrated against them in the West, but upon arriving in our nation’s capital, they found they weren’t exactly welcomed here either. Racism was rampant, and its power coalesced here in DC.

Chinatown-Chinese-Exclusion-Poster-DCIn 1877, a joint special committee of the Senate and House of Representatives released a report on the “character, extent and effect of Chinese immigration.” It contained the following testimonial:

“The burden of our accusation against them is that they come in conflict with our labor interests; that they can never assimilate with us; that they are a perpetual, unchanging, and unchangeable alien element that can never become homogeneous; that their civilization is demoralizing and degrading to our people; that they degrade and dishonor labor; that they can never become citizens, and that an alien, degraded labor class, without any desire of citizenship, without education, and without interest in the country it inhabits, is an element both demoralizing and dangerous to the community within which it exists.”

Soapine ad

A late 1800s ad for Soapine, produced by the Kendall Manufacturing Company of Providence, R.I.

White folks must have been easily demoralized back then, although they certainly had no problem with using Chinese laundrymen or eating Chinese food. As still happens today, fear of the “other” and concerns about “racial purity” ruled the day. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, restricting any new immigration from China and barring the Chinese who were already here from ever becoming U.S. citizens. This marked the first time in American history that the U.S. restricted immigration based explicitly on race. (The Chinese remained ineligible for citizenship until the Exclusion Act was finally repealed in 1943!)

Chinatowns in America were extreme forms of racial segregation created in response to congressionally mandated racism. So it was that Chinatowns came into existence not out of collective pride in Chinese heritage, but for group safety. As they had on the West Coast, the Chinese congregated in part to repel anti-Chinese attacks.

Washington, DC’s original Chinatown took shape in the 1880s on Pennsylvania Avenue, between 3rd and 7th streets NW. Pennsylvania Avenue was a major commercial hub at the time, catering to Congress members and other VIPs. Greeks and Italians ran most of the nearby businesses, hotels and restaurants, but the Chinese did have some shops in the area, mostly laundries.

Excluded from not only neighborhoods, but also many trades, the Chinese had turned to the service industry, taking on work that was deemed undesirable by whites and that required little training and capital. In DC, this work included groceries, restaurants and laundries. In 1881, the DC Directory listed four Chinese laundries. A decade later, this number had grown to about 40.

Chinatown DC Pennsylvania Ave

Commercial buildings along the south side of Pennsylvania Ave., including the Nam Kee and Hop Sing laundries, circa 1890 (Courtesy of Washingtonia Division, DC Public Library – Photo By: L.C. Handy)

The Chinese were seen mostly as quiet and law-abiding, but their rights were still limited. In 1929, the feds kicked out the entire population of Chinatown to build the cultural and government buildings known as Federal Triangle.

The displaced Chinese residents and businesses were resilient though. In 1931, nearly 400 of the Pennsylvania Avenue Chinese moved several blocks north to H Street NW, between 5th and 7th streets. The area’s white residents and businesses opposed the mass relocation and launched a petition to prevent the migration. It failed, and DC’s Chinese had a new Chinatown.

Germans had originally populated the H Street NW site (it’s still home to the Washington branch of the Goethe-Institut), but the name Germantown never really caught on, and the Germans had left well before the Chinese arrived on the scene. By 1936, 800 Chinese lived in the new Chinatown.

Chinatown DC pagoda phone

Bring back the pagoda phones! In 1981, there were two pagoda telephone booths in Chinatown on the northeast corner of 7th & H streets NW. (Courtesy of the Washington Post – Photo By: Tim Dillon)

For a few decades, the re-established Chinatown developed a thriving cultural community. Then came the 1968 race riots. Although many of the businesses north of Chinatown were torched and looted, Chinatown was untouched. The neighborhood, however, suffered from its proximity to the rioting, and businesses suffered along with it. Most of Chinatown’s Chinese followed their German predecessors out to the suburbs.

By the mid-1970s, Chinatown had so little Chinese flavor that when the city opened a Metro station in the heart of the neighborhood, it was called Gallery Place (for its proximity to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery), with no mention of Chinatown. By the late ’80s, only a quarter of all Chinatown businesses were Chinese owned.

So how do you reinvigorate a disappearing Chinatown when all the Chinese have left? You make it look like a Chinatown.

Foreseeing the threat of a complete disappearance of Chinatown in our nation’s capital, the remaining local Chinese community took action. With some funding from the feds, they built the Wah Luck House, an affordable housing complex for low-income Chinese residents. It was a good start but not much of a tourist destination. So the community pushed for the creation of some sort of visible attraction, like an archway, that would draw visitors to Chinatown. Mayor Marion Barry sprang into action. In 1984, he helped establish Beijing and DC as sister cities, and the Friendship Arch, a traditional Chinese gate, was dedicated by Barry and the mayor of Beijing in 1986. This dazzling $1 million work of public art includes seven roofs up to 60 feet high, 7,000 glazed tiles and 272 painted dragons.

Chinatown DC arch construction

Looking east at construction of the Chinatown Friendship Archway in 1989. To the right of the arch is a parking lot that today is the site of Gallery Place. (Courtesy of Zinnia “DC Changes” Photograph Collection)

With its 35,000 separate wooden pieces decorated with 23-karat gold, the Friendship Arch was a gleaming beacon of hope for a new Chinese presence. But the rest of Chinatown was rundown and falling apart, and soon the arch was falling apart, too. In June 1990, one of the 100-pound dragons fell off and landed on a passing soda truck. By Chinese standards, this was an ominous sign, usually portending the fall of a great emperor. Sure enough, that same night, “Mayor for Life” Marion Barry announced that he would be stepping down from office at the end of his term, following his recent arrest for possession of crack. Eight years later, the mayor of Beijing would be found guilty of corruption and forced to resign. Both mayors went to jail. And Chinatown still struggled to remain Chinese.

Chinatown Friendship Arch

There be dragons! (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Even though Chinatown now had the largest single-span Chinese archway outside of China, the neighborhood still needed a little more Chinese flavor. To preserve what was left of the character of Chinatown, local ordinances required that all signs appear in English and Chinese. A $200 million renovation in the 1990s brought in more restaurants, stores and entertainment but, ironically, most of the new businesses were national chain restaurants and stores. This created some interesting juxtapositions. Places like Hertz Rental Cars and Starbucks attempted literal translations. But the jokey racism of English names like the restaurant Wok n’ Roll transformed into “Hall of Precious Flavor.” And Chinatown Gifts became something completely different in translation: “Service Center for People Leaving the Country.”

Today, less than 15 percent of Chinatown residents are ethnic Chinese. Only a few hundred residents live in their ethnically named enclave, and most of them live at Wah Luck House. The superficial homage to Chinatown’s Chinese past lives on though, in the Chinese-character signs that grace Fuddruckers, Legal Seafoods and Urban Outfitters. Transforming a neighborhood and translating the names of its shops can be a tricky business, but even if it doesn’t promote authenticity, it adds character. For all we know, the Chinese characters on the Friendship Arch may actually say “Welcome to Germantown.”

Veterans Day — Celebrating Those Who Served

Major hostilities of World War I ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the time at which the Armistice with Germany was signed. Along with Europe, the United States originally observed Armistice Day, remembering those who died in the “war to end all wars.” Turns out, it didn’t end all wars. Along came another world war (enough already, Germany — you had your chance!) and then another war (Korean War) and Armistice Day evolved in 1954 into Veterans Day. Congress, and our veterans, realized that we’d be better off creating a day to remember American veterans of all wars, since these wars just seemed to keep on coming.

While Memorial Day celebrates our veterans who died while serving, Veterans Day celebrates all U.S. military veterans.

Election Special: Top 11 Marion Barry Quotes

Marion Barry quotes

Marion Barry the man gives some love to Marion Barry the wax figure, at Madame Tussauds in 2009. (Photo By: Patrick G. Ryan)

What better way to celebrate Election Day than with the Top 11 Marion Barry quotes of all time from “Mayor for Life” Marion Barry. Why 11 quotes? Because Marion goes to 11, that’s why.

For those who haven’t been following local DC politics, Marion Barry is still governing. Following four terms as mayor (including one after his crack conviction), Barry today serves as the DC Council member representing Ward 8, a seat he’s held since 2005. (Barry previously served two other tenures on the DC Council, as an at-large member from 1975 to 1979 and as Ward 8 representative from 1993 to 1995.) His current term ends on January 2, 2017—just a couple months shy of his 81st birthday.

(11) “Washington was a sleepy Southern town when I came in ’65 …  I have transformed Washington into a metropolis.” – in an interview with Al Jazeera (July 24, 2014)

(10) “There is a sort of unwritten code in Washington, among the underworld and the hustlers and these other guys, that I am their friend.” – at a press conference, after being robbed at gunpoint by two men in his Ward 8 neighborhood who apparently knew who he was (2006)

(9) “Womanizing had become an integral part of my lifestyle.” – in an interview with local DC magazine Sister 2 Sister, acknowledging that he brazenly flirted with other women in front of his wife (1991). That same year, he went on the Sally Jessy Raphael TV show and told a nationwide audience that he was addicted to women and sex.

(8) “White people should be allowed to come back only if the majority of the ownership is in the hands of blacks. That is, they should come back and give their experience and their expertise—and then they should leave.” – following the riots of 1968, telling an interviewer that white dominance of business in the inner city must end

(7) “Why should blacks feel elated when we see men eating on the moon when millions of blacks and poor whites don’t have enough money to buy food here on earth?” – in response to Nixon honoring the moon landing with a holiday, but opposing an MLK holiday (July 19, 1969)

(6) “We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops. They ought to go, I’ll just say that right now, you know. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.” – in his election night victory speech, after winning the Democratic primary for DC’s Ward 8 seat and effectively securing a third term (April 3, 2012)

(5) “I am clearly more popular than Reagan. I am in my third term. Where’s Reagan? Gone after two! Defeated by George Bush and Michael Dukakis no less.” – during third term (1986-90)

(4) “First, it was not a strip bar, it was an erotic club. And second, what can I say? I’m a night owl.” – following allegations he was spotted at 14th Street strip club This Is It? (1981)

(3) “Bitch set me up … I shouldn’t have come up here … Goddamn bitch.” – after being arrested in a sting operation in Room 726 at the Vista Hotel (now the Westin Washington, DC City Center) by the FBI and DC Police for crack cocaine use and possession (January 18, 1990)

(2) “Get over it.” – to those who opposed his 1994 mayoral campaign following his incarceration for smoking crack during his third term as mayor

(1) “I may not be perfect, but I am perfect for Washington.” – to a throng of supporters at his victory celebration after winning a third term in 1986. In 1992, after serving six months in prison for crack cocaine use and possession, he ran for and won a city-council seat under the slogan, “He May Not Be Perfect, But He’s Perfect for D.C.”

BONUS: Current DC mayoral candidate Carol Schwartz dances with the “Mayor for Life” in 2007 at Adrian Fenty’s mayoral inauguration ball.

When Banks Were Good: The Oldest S&L in America

Oriental Building Association

The Oriental Building Association in its latest incarnation (Photo By: heydayjoe)

McCain reveals his true gnomic character during the 2008 presidential debates

McCain reveals his true gnomic character during the 2008 presidential debates.

Long before their predatory practices were scandalously defended by presidential hopeful and secret gremlin John McCain, the savings and loan association was a godsend to families who needed a leg up in the world.

In the early 1800s, most folks didn’t need a bank unless they had boatloads of money. Barter was still common, and if people did have some extra cash, they stashed it in a safe or under a mattress.

Along came the savings and loan association (S&L). Also known as thrifts, savings and loan associations were for the little guy. They were cooperative organizations that lent money to people to buy a house, make home improvements or build on their land. Before the birth of the S&L, it was the insurance companies that provided home mortgage services, with short-term deals highly in their favor. Needless to say, many people lost their homes and their shirts.

The S&Ls, however, were different. The goal was to help develop communities. Anyone who deposited money into the association was a shareholder and received dividends in proportion to the organization’s profits. A member’s saving account was, therefore, an investment in the community.

DC’s oldest S&L, the Oriental Building Association, was founded in 1861. Located at 600 F Street NW in Penn Quarter, the Oriental Building Association No. 6 Building, also known as the OBA Federal Savings & Loan Association, until 2003 housed the oldest continually operating savings & loan association in America.

Located just two blocks from the heart of today’s Chinatown, the bank would presumably have been founded by Chinese businessmen. But the Chinese did not call themselves “Oriental” (Westerners did), Chinatown until 1929 was actually located several blocks away (along Pennsylvania Avenue between 1st and 3rd streets NW) and what we think of today as Chinatown was known then as Germantown.

600 block of F Street NW Washington DC

The 600 block of F Street NW in 1900, looking west, taken in front of what would become the Oriental Association Building. The buildings on the right were replaced by Verizon Center, with the exception of the U.S. Patent Building in the distance (now the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum).

The four German businessmen who founded the Oriental Building Association were members of the Oriental Lodge, a fraternal organization of the Freemasons. Derived from the Latin for “east,” Orient is a common term among Freemasons; the regional governing body of a Freemason group, a Masonic “Grand Lodge,” is also referred to as a “Grand Orient.”

Oriental Building Association

Oriental Building Association – get your chicken wings here (Photo By: heydayjoe)

The Oriental Building Association Building was designed in the Italian Renaissance Revival Style by Albert Goehner in 1909 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. (Goehner also designed the Concordia German Evangelical Church and Rectory, at 20th & G, which was posted to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.) The OBA Building is one of the last remnants of the original downtown DC to survive from the neighborhood’s turn-of-the-century heyday as a thriving downtown business sector.

Today the OBA Building is home to ground-level retail tenant Fuel Pizza & Wings, office tenant Terra Eclipse and upstairs event rental space The Loft at 600 F Street.

Despite federal deregulation in the 1980s, the massive subsequent (and expected) bank fraud and the ultimate failure of nearly half of all S&Ls in the U.S., the Oriental Building Association lives on. In 2003, it moved a few blocks to 700 7th Street NW, and the Oriental Building Association remains the oldest continually operating S&L in the nation.

DC as Canvas: From Crack to Canvas to Condo

Hanover Place DC street art

A taste of the murals that formerly graced Hanover Place NW (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Before it became home to one of the greatest collections of street art in Washington, DC, Hanover Place NW in Truxton Circle was a narrow, dead-end street where you could easily see the cops coming. It was also the place to buy cocaine in the 1980s, so much so that newspapers called it the city’s “cocaine supermarket.”

Until a few weeks ago, the west end of Hanover Place was lined with spectacular murals, but today most of the paintings are lost in a pile of rubble. What was once stables, then one of the city’s first automobile garages, a box factory, then part of a brass knob warehouse and lastly an artists’ space, is now debris, soon to be cleared away for new condos.

Hanover Place DC street art

Before (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Hanover Place DC

And after (Photo By: Bradley Glanzrock)

The building at 79 Hanover Place NW, most recently home to the artist-run warehouse and studio space called Wonderbox, was built in 1906 as a three-story stable and box factory. In 1928, it was converted into a storage warehouse, with only the first-floor walls of the stable remaining intact. The stable-turned-warehouse was formerly part of Chapman Coal Company Stable and Garage, an N Street complex that stretched north to fill the space between N Street and Hanover Place. Chapman Stables had originally been built as a coal yard with stables for horses and later transitioned into a garage for cars and buses. Wonderbox transformed the interior by hosting art openings, performance art shows and modern dance, although some might argue that the building continued to be home to a bunch of horseshit.

Hanover Place DC street art

Kelly Towles mural (Photo By: heydayjoe)

The murals first appeared as part of the But Is It Art? Fair, a DIY contemporary art show held at Wonderbox in September 2011. Created by Kelly Towles, Alicia “Decoy” Cosnahan and Aaron Lim, these paintings gave life to an otherwise bland stretch of blank building facades facing Hanover Place.

Hanover Place DC street art

(Photo By: heydayjoe)

Hanover Place DC street art

(Photo By: heydayjoe)

Before the Preservation League submitted a proposal to the Historic Preservation Review Board, plans had been in the works to raze all the Chapman Stables buildings to make way for new development. The main Chapman building on N Street, previously home to the Brass Knob Warehouse, was saved from demolition when it was entered into the DC Inventory of Historic Sites in April 2013. Six months later, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Chapman Stable DC

Chapman Coal Company Stable and Garage (and later, Brass Knob Warehouse) on N Street NW (Photo Courtesy of NPS)

The former storage warehouse and bus garage didn’t fare so well. Both were deemed to have “no artistic distinction … [or] architectural value” and were torn down in early September 2014.

But let’s get back to crack. In July 1984, police launched “Operation Beat It” to confront powder cocaine dealing on Hanover Place. (Michael Jackson’s Thriller, with the hit song “Beat It,” had been the No. 1 album in the country until April 1984.) The law-enforcement action was at first successful, but dealers were back on the streets just five months later.

By December 1985, Washington, DC, outranked all other U.S. cities in per capita drug arrests. (We’re still No. 1 in per capita arrests for PCP – in your face, L.A.!) And by 1986, crack had hit the streets of DC, edging out heroin for the first time as the city’s most popular illicit drug.

Hanover Place was in full swing as the most notorious open-air drug market in crack-infested Washington, DC. From the east end of the block, one could look down Capitol Street and clearly see the white dome of the Capitol Building. Dealers used to quip: “Over there, they make the laws; over here, we break the laws.”

To keep the police from raiding the market, kids acted as sentries at the corners, hollering “OLE-ER-RAY” (pig Latin for “rollers”) whenever they saw a police cruiser approach. But for the most part, the street was a self-regulating marketplace. And with the trafficking came traffic. Sometimes the line of cars turning onto Hanover Place was so long it backed up traffic on Capitol Street, with cars honking to keep the checkout lines moving.

Hanover Place DC crack

The Hanover Place drug market, open for business on the early evening of Dec. 6, 1984 (Photo By: Linda Wheeler/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

By this point, the cops had had enough and decided to crack down on Hanover Place. A year-long, 24/7 occupation ensued, with a command-center trailer on the street and a daily rotation of 60 officers patrolling the immediate area. It was still 1986, but Hanover Place was closed for business.

Two decades later, Hanover Place is mostly quiet. The housing prices have rebounded from their 1990s lows and are now selling for five to 10 times as much. The artists have come and gone, and the condo-dwellers are about to arrive.

Here are more photos of the art of Hanover Place. Some of these murals remain. Others are gone but not forgotten.