The DC Chinatown Walking Tour project peels back the layers of today’s Chinatown to explore a geographical snapshot of the Chinese diaspora in Washington DC. While the history of DC’s Chinatown is winding, complex, and stored predominantly in memory, this tour aims to shine a light on the past and present of this historical space as it has been lived by people and communities. This project acknowledges that there are an abundance of stories, experiences, and lived realities that are uncapturable on a page and by a limited authorship. Nevertheless, this tour serves to grapple with the perception that DC’s Chinatown is a ‘inauthentic’ or ‘dying’ ethnic enclave. When we look to history, what are the factors that have shaped today’s threatened neighborhood? Who is DC’s Chinatown ‘inauthentic’ to, and who is forgotten when this assumption is made? Through a guided walk through the three-block radius, centered around 7th and Eye Street NW, you are invited to re-engage, reorient, and reflect on DC’s Chinatown through the eyes of its residents, families, and community leaders, rather than architects, city planners, and governments.
Explore the tour below, and keep an eye out for in-person guided tours in the future.
Location: 6th and Eye Street, in front of the Moy Family Association
D.C. Chinatown’s history begins in the 1800’s, and is generally considered by the presence of Chinese people appearing in records, in writing, and in the public eye, but the marginalized status early Chinese immigrants in the U.S.
In 1851, the first Chinese person would register an address on Pennsylvania Avenue. His name was Chiang Kai. The majority of the first residents were new immigrants, seeking to settle in urban centers where working-class jobs would be widely available. Some early residents were also from the West Coast, escaping Sinophobic conditions developed under retaliation by American workers against cheap Chinese labor, which had been driven to the area by an economic boom fueled by the Gold Rush (1848-1855). These residents took up small business jobs in restaurants, grocery stores, dry cleaners, and many more, due to exclusion from other white-dominated trades. By 1884, the population was estimated at around 100 individuals.
This population would remain stunted as racism towards Asian immigrants, particularly Chinese, worsened. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 dictated that no Chinese nationals were to be allowed to enter the country, and those already in the U.S. were barred from citizenship, further contributing to their alienation. The population is primarily made of bachelors, as many originally immigrated with plans to bring their families after having settled. By 1903, Chinatown had established itself as an insular and functional community. The Evening Sun described the neighborhood as “where the real Chinese life is to be found.” Social networks from villages in China allowed new immigrants, mainly from Southern China’s Taishan area, to seek the familiar in an unfamiliar place. Connections from ancestral homes often carried into the new locale, and were significant enough that a single contact from China served as justification for immigrants choosing the new American soil they chose to make their new lives. By 1928, the Chinese population of Washington D.C. was estimated at around 600. At its peak, the neighborhood occupied the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue, stretching from 2nd to 4 ½ Street.
The reaction of the wider public to the blossoming community was largely negative, with the residents considered dirty, secretive, mysterious, and highly insular. Many outside the enclave actively worked to suppress Chinese presence by buying out real estate, discriminatory hiring practices, and actively racist rhetoric, further confining the community. For example, stereotypes persisted that Chinese had an affinity and particular talent for doing laundry, while in fact it was racist hiring practices that demanded that immigrants own and operate their own businesses. The April 2nd, 1903 issue of the Evening Star, speaking on the classic American Chinese dish chop suey, read:
“The Americanized celestial looks invariably pale, and in most instances half fed, and people think of a Chinaman as scrubbing away in his laundry day and night, and subsisting on rice, but it is said that this wan, pallid fellow, with his funny hat and combination cape, sacque, and petticoat, is about the merriest and best ordered glutton to be found on a day’s journey.”
Fear existed that a phenomenon was underway in D.C. as was happening in the West Coast, where inexpensive Chinese labor left many white laborers without jobs. Because of this discrimination, the early Chinatown community was shaped heavily by internally-adjudicated organizational structures. Family associations, such as the Moy, Lee, and Chen families, served as community pillars and pseudo-governing bodies, providing support for each other and the residents. Although in its second iteration of home, These associations helped adjudicate neighborhood disputes, integrate new immigrants into their new home, and established Chinese language schools, essentially serving to fill any social welfare needs that the government could not or refused to. Operating adjacent to these associations were tongs, or businessman’s associations that helped adjudicate the neighborhood in the commercial sense, despite often being tied with organized crime. The Sunday Star described one example of their work, stating, “should a Chinese want to open a restaurant outside of Chinatown, his tong decides whether he would be situated too close to another member restaurateur. If the competition would not be too keen the association gives its blessing and even lends him money, if need be.” Racist policing practices capitalized on the crime associations of tongs for immigration crackdowns into the 1920s. An October 19, 1928 Washington Star stated, “a police campaign against Chinese who are in D.C. illegally [was] launched by the recent killings,” in reference to a murder in Chinatown that had occurred that year.
In 1931, the neighborhood was forced to relocate from Pennsylvania Avenue near John Marshall Place to its current location, centered around 7th and I Street as a result of the developing Federal Triangle and National Mall projects. It had been there for nearly 50 years. In 1932, led by an influential and large tong known as the On Leong Chinese Merchant’s Association, the community purchased and leased property on H Street to house the 11 businesses operating within their tong, effectively establishing a new Chinatown when a rival tong followed them soon after. The Sunday Star reported that the site of the former Chinatown was quickly destroyed to make way for new developments, “[presenting] somewhat the appearance of a village in Northern France after a German bombardment. Most of the old brick structures formerly occupied by the Chinese have been torn down to make way for new Government buildings.” This transition and resettlement was not without turbulence, as many were unhappy to house the Chinese community. White property owners on H Street unsuccessfully petitioned the government to keep the Chinese out, citing fears of deterioration of the neighborhood and property prices. The new Chinatown housed roughly 800 residents, making up 32 families. Immigration would continue to increase into the mid-1900s as the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed as a reflection of US-China relations during WWII.