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.”

Temperance Fountain: Nobody Knows How Dry It Was

Temperance Fountain DC

Located near the southeast corner of Indiana and 7th NW, the Cogswell Temperance Fountain is the only intact fountain of its kind. (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Dr. Henry Cogswell often wondered why anyone would choose an alcoholic beverage over a nice cool drink of water. In his mind, the solution was simple: Build water fountains across America.

Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” – Ogden Nash

While most dentists rail against the harmfulness of sweets and candy, Doc Cogswell warned about the evils of distilled liquor. It makes sense if you consider that most alcohol is the adult version of candy – fermented sugar. But that wasn’t the real issue for Cogswell. A devout Christian, he felt that the ungodly temptations of alcohol were destroying not only the family, but also man’s connection to God.

To Cogswell, the choice of what to drink was simply a matter of easy access: Offer a man in search of a saloon a drink of water instead of whiskey, and he will rightly choose the healthful, thirst-quenching water. Needless to say, Cogswell was not a drinker.

Henry Cogswell

Henry Cogswell, c. 1850-52

Born in New England, Henry Daniel Cogswell began his first dentistry practice at age 26 in Providence, Rhode Island. When gold was discovered in California, he went, spending five months aboard a clipper ship before landing in San Francisco on October 12, 1849. No 49er himself, he immediately set up shop to become the first practicing dentist in San Francisco. As a teetotaling tooth-puller, he made a mint from the gold miners, often decorating their terrible teeth with gold dental fillings made from their own finds. He also pioneered the use of anesthetic chloroform in dental operations in California. (Chloroform has since been shown to be carcinogenic – it’s like laughing gas without the laughs.)

I do not believe in people being compelled, whether they wish it or not, to go into a saloon to slake their thirst.” – Dr. Henry Cogswell

Cogswell got the last laugh though. He wisely invested his dental earnings in stocks and real estate, becoming one of the first millionaires in San Francisco. He retired from dentistry and put his money to good use, founding the Cogswell Polytechnic Institute, the first school of its kind west of the Mississippi. His real passion, though, was for curing the working classes of their drinking problem. His plan: to provide free drinking fountains in American cities, one for every 100 saloons. What the great unwashed really needed was cool clean water.

A strident supporter of Prohibition, Dr. Cogswell built his first fountains in San Francisco and then set his sights on the sinfully thirsty in the rest of the country.

His fountain at the junction of California and Market Streets [in San Francisco] was crowned by a full-length statue of the fountain-giver philanthropist until the close of the last year. On the first of the new year certain citizens found no better way of relieving the exuberance of their spirits, or of attesting their dislike of the statue as a work lacking art, than to hitch a rope about the neck of the good doctor’s image and pull it to the ground.” The New York Times, January 14, 1894

Cogswell designed his donated fountains himself, often incorporating a giant statue of himself in a frock coat, holding a cup and dispensing water to the parched masses. The recipients of Cogswell’s magnanimous gifts, however, often quenched themselves by other means and didn’t hesitate to express their true feelings about his monuments to temperance. One “silent gang of hoodlum miscreants” in San Francisco (as the San Francisco Morning Call put it) hitched a rope around the neck of the dentist’s bronze doppelganger and toppled the statue in 1894.

The residents of DC weren’t too keen on Cogswell’s monuments either, but as often happens in our nation’s capital, Congress overruled them and passed a bill in 1882 granting the dentist permission to donate the unwanted fountain. His original design for the DC fountain was, like the San Francisco monuments, topped with a statue of a man eerily similar to himself. But in DC, where statues of great men abound, that design didn’t sit well with the powers that be. Instead, the DC monument – located only blocks from the U.S. Capitol – is topped with a life-sized heron with a single reed growing next to it. (Although the heron appeared on a few cities’ fountains, others were adorned with gargoyles, frogs, pigeons, horses and sea serpents.)

Temperance Fountain heron

The bronze heron atop DC’s Temperance Fountain (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Installed in June 1884, DC’s Cogswell Temperance Fountain is located near the southeast corner of Indiana and 7th NW. Cogswell built about 15 of these anti-alcohol monuments nationwide – in Boston, Buffalo, Rochester, San Francisco – but DC’s is the last remaining intact Cogswell fountain (although restored and reconstructed fountains exist in New York City, Pawtucket, R.I., and Rockville, Conn.). For years, the monument stood squarely on the corner of 7th and Pennsylvania NW, across from the Apex Liquor Store, before it was moved a half-block north. Now it stands across from a Starbucks.

Apex Liquor Store DC

Apex Liquor Store, with Temperance Fountain in front

Made of granite and bronze, the fountain was chiseled at a Connecticut foundry, with the words “Faith,” “Hope,” “Charity” and “Temperance” cut under the stone canopy. Cogswell had patented a device to produce cool water and air from ice. Blocks of ice were placed in a sort of well around the central column, and the city pipes flowed through tube coils under the ice. In the fountain’s heyday, this ice water flowed from the mouths of two intertwined scaly dolphins, which look more like Chinese carp. A brass mug dangled by a chain, encouraging those passing by to scoop up a cup of the cool water. Below, a trough caught the runoff for thirsty horses.

Temperance Fountain fish

The fish mouth from which the cool water of the Temperance Fountain would flow (Photo By: heydayjoe)

It was probably pretty nice to have a cold cup of water during a hot DC summer in 1884, but it’s uncertain if the fountain ever worked. Soon after it was erected, the city stopped replenishing the ice altogether. In the late 1880s, the city considered connecting the fountain’s pipes to a local spring, but the spring was polluted with sewage.

Cogswell’s DC Temperance Fountain was headed for the scrap heap in the 1940s when Sen. Sheridan Downey of California introduced a Senate resolution to tear it down, calling it a “monstrosity of art.” Ulysses S. Grant III, the former president’s grandson and chair of the city’s planning commission, wanted to preserve it, calling the fountain “ugly, but interesting.” Congress ignored Downey’s resolution, and it died in committee.

In 1984, the fountain that nobody wanted in the first place was listed on the DC Downtown Historic District National Register. The pipes are no longer connected to the fountain and the ice well is, ironically, filled with discarded cups, soda bottles and other trash. Despite the abundance of public water fountains in town, the saloons of DC are still doing brisk business.