As the gentrification of Chinatown continues, Chinese elders mobilize to save their neighborhood

A group of Chinatown residents sit in folding chairs in a community room.

Chinese residents of Chinatown gather at the Chinese Community Church to testify before the Board of Zoning Adjustment. Photo by Andrea Ho

The last Chinese residents of Chinatown have long been mobilizing in an effort to preserve what remains of their neighborhood. However, a new proposal to build a nine-story lodging, intended to be somewhere between a hotel and an apartment building, threatens to decimate their already dwindling community.

During a public hearing on March 27, eight Chinatown residents urged the Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) to reject the proposal by the developer, Rift Valley Partners. Residents had two main demands: first, that D.C. preserves Full Kee Restaurant and Gao Ya Hair Salon, the two small Chinese businesses that would be displaced by the project; and second, that D.C. supports the establishment of a mid-size Asian grocery store.

Although the hearing was virtual, residents gathered at the Chinese Community Church, where organizers with Save Chinatown Solidarity Network — a newly formed organization — could help them navigate conference technology.

Lamenting the steady gentrification of D.C.’s Chinatown, witnesses voiced concerns that the proposed hotel between 5th and 6th streets on H Street Northwest would contribute to rising rent, declining employment, and further displacement. Many of Chinatown’s residents expressed that if this trend of displacement were to continue, “there would be no Chinatown in the future.”

“There used to be thousands of Chinese families, lively businesses, and prosperous communities here,” said See Ming Chan, a long-standing resident of Chinatown and the president of the Wah Luck House Tenants Association. “But the development of Chinatown has greatly reduced the number of residents.”

In the 1970s, there were roughly 3,000 Chinese residents of Chinatown; but only 361 responded to the 2020 Census. Of Chinatown’s remaining residents, the overwhelming majority live in Wah Luck House, an affordable housing complex that is directly across the street from the spot of the proposed project.

Because of existing zoning requirements to protect the cultural integrity of Chinatown, the BZA would have to grant Rift Valley Partners a zoning exception to construct the proposed hotel. Chinatown’s sub-area regulations dictate that the ground floor and street frontage of buildings should be devoted to retail that emphasizes Chinese culture, and other operations that serve residents and visitors. The BZA is expected to release its ruling on Apr. 10.

According to residents who testified, Full Kee Restaurant and Gao Ya Hair Salon, which would be demolished, are two of a handful of surviving small Chinese businesses left.

“Chinatown used to be a prosperous neighborhood with lots of Chinese businesses, like bakeries and grocery stores,” said Hui Xia Li, who has lived in Chinatown for 30 years. “But now there are no stores to buy what we need.”

The last full-service Chinese grocery store in Chinatown closed in 2005. The other residents echoed that the loss of small Chinese businesses in Chinatown meant that, despite their old age, they had to travel long distances in order to obtain goods and access services that catered to their specific wants and needs.

“I am getting older each year, so are the other residents. My mobility isn’t good and walking is hard,” said Yong Jian Chen, who has lived in Wah Luck House for over 20 years. “Yet I have to go to Maryland or Virginia to find Chinese groceries.”

Historically, Chinatown has been a victim of D.C.’s development. As part of the McMillan Plan to beautify the National Mall, many Chinese residents were displaced to create space for the Federal Triangle government office complex in the 1920s — pushed to the present-day Chinatown. For many Chinese residents and small Chinese businesses, the opening of Capital One Arena in 1997 dealt the final blow, as soaring rent forced them into the suburbs.

The language barrier has prevented residents from meaningfully advocating for themselves for decades.

“It shows the difficulty of our residents to be included in what is happening in their own neighborhood,” said Ren Lee, an organizer with Save Chinatown Solidarity Network.

Frederick Hill, who chairs the BZA, said this was the first time such “robust” translation services had ever been made available at a hearing. (Chinese is one of the six languages the D.C. government is legally obligated to provide support services for upon request.) Court-certified Mandarin and Cantonese interpreters were brought in by the BZA, since none of the residents spoke English.

Because of the language barrier, residents of Wah Luck House had not been aware of the proposed hotel until early March. These residents, who are primarily Chinese elders with limited English proficiency, said this was because government notices are usually only posted in English. The hearing for the proposal to build a hotel was originally scheduled for last November, before it was postponed.

As a result, the Wah Luck House Tenants Association was late in filing for party status, which would have allowed it to participate in zoning proceedings. Party status is given to individuals or groups who can prove that they are more “uniquely affected” by a proposed zoning action than the general public.

Nashrah Ahmed, a staff attorney with Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center and the lawyer for the Wah Luck House Tenants Association, argued that the Wah Luck House Tenants Association qualified for party status on the grounds of proximity to the proposed hotel and employment opportunities in the businesses that would be displaced.

However, the BZA ultimately voted at the hearing to deny the request by Wah Luck House Tenants Association for party status, with Freeman Kyrus, the lawyer for the developer, contending that the proposed hotel would only displace businesses, not residents.

“That is equivalent to saying, we aren’t going to directly displace villagers — we will just remove their wealth, their sources of food, and make it completely impossible to exist as a community,” argued Lee, the Save Chinatown Solidarity Network organizer.

Without party status, the Wah Luck House Tenant Association was restricted in its ability to participate in the hearing, diminishing the weight of the testimonies of residents on the decision-making process.

The fight to preserve Chinatown has also exposed a split between wealthier Chinese landowners and working class Chinese people. The Moy family, a local Chinese family who currently owns the plot of land in contention and has their own family association, supports the construction of the hotel.

“The voices of landowners, like the Moy family here, tend to be the loudest and most influential and often overshadow the residents and employees who feel beholden to them,” said Zoe Li, another organizer with Save Chinatown Solidarity Network.

Residents likewise bemoaned the lack of outreach to them, especially since they are, in their words, “the ones who make Chinatown what it is.”

“The developers may think that they have already had plenty of discussions with local Chinese organizations,” said Chan, the Wah Luck House Tenants Association president. “We understand that this is [the Moy family’s] land. But are they the ones who actually live in Chinatown?”

While they own properties in Chinatown, members of the Moy family moved to the suburbs in the 1990s. Eddie Moy, the president of the Moy family association, currently resides in Montgomery County, Maryland.

“We are excited for any new developments, including the proposal of the H Street hotel,” the Moy Family Association wrote in a statement to Street Sense. “Any revitalization in our historic Chinatown that is respectful for the heritage and growth is welcomed.”

But organizers and residents of Wah Luck worry. “This proposal is meant to eradicate working class Chinese people from these streets and replace them with luxury businesses that serve the wealthy,” Lee, the Save Chinatown organizer said. “Essentially, this is the extinction of working class Chinese society here in D.C.”

Issues |Community|Gentrification|Senior Citizens|Tenants

Region |Downtown|Washington DC

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