An ABC in D.C.: Thoughts on D.C.’s Chinatown

 Denny Chan
J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law

I have an intense relationship with Chinatown. Growing up in suburban, white West Michigan meant that the closest Chinatown was a three-hour drive to Chicago. My family made the trip several times a year, spending the entire day eating, loading up on Asian groceries and snacks, and visiting relatives. I always loved Chinatown, but the nonstop, three-hour car ride each way was invariably an epic and restless ordeal.

Imagine my excitement when I learned D.C. had its own Chinatown! First signs seemed promising: the main strip featured its own paifang, a traditional Chinese architectural gating style as an archway, representative of many Chinatowns. The location was even prominent enough to have its own stop on the D.C. subway.

Perhaps I have high standards. Admittedly, Chicago’s Chinatown is no mecca, but it suffices as a source of ethnic food and culture. And, one could argue my time abroad in Macau and in Southern California for law school has spoiled me. Regardless of whatever standards one may use to evaluate an ethnic enclave’s authenticity, D.C.’s Chinatown simply does not make the cut.

I am a foodie. D.C.’s Chinatown is a desert in desperate need of some real Chinese food. From soupy dumplings without soup to flavorless congee as thick as molasses, the offerings have ranged from unfortunately overpriced, yet passable, to items that my grandma would scoff at and not recognize. To my knowledge, there is one Asian grocery store in Chinatown, which is about the size of my room in Irvine, and it carries no fresh produce. What is a serious foodie to do?

But superficial foodie concerns aside, Chinatown bothers me for a deeper reason. The explanation as to why the food scene is dismal is because there is insufficient demand; many Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants have left Chinatown to settle in D.C.’s  suburbs, meaning that most restaurants cater to D.C.’s booming tourist industry. The unfortunate consequence is that when I spot the random Asian grandma walking down Chinatown’s bustling streets, she stands out in the sea of yuppie faces. While I cannot fault anyone in particular for the lack of a sizeable Chinese community, I do take issue with how some businesses in Chinatown have handled their presence.

Many of Chinatown’s businesses are not the typical Ma-and-Pa stores run by immigrants. Instead, D.C.’s Chinatown features prominent business establishments, like Urban Outfitters; Regal Cinema; Bath, Bed & Beyond; Chipotle; Starbucks; McDonald’s; and my personal favorite, Hooters. These franchises have a right to conduct business in Chinatown, but the businesses’ attempt to fit into the Chinatown scene by translating their large signs – and sometimes more – into Chinese is, at the very least, slightly

Anyone who knows me can vouch for my interest in language access for limited English proficient communities. Often times, language barriers mean that LEP folks have difficulty accessing  critically important resources.

But I cannot fathom a serious argument that what these businesses have done is language justice. First, as I mentioned before, there is a very small Chinese community that remains in Chinatown. The demand for these businesses to provide language access is minimal, if not nonexistent. Even if some demand is present, there is also a question of audience. The last time I checked, my Asian grandma did not frequent Urban Outfitters or dine at Hooters.

A rational explanation for all the translated signs is that these businesses are simply doing what they think makes the most sense for being in Chinatown, and that the whole thing is a marketing gimmick. But these efforts remind me more of when people try too hard to be diverse, politically appropriate, and culturally accommodating. The efforts become counterproductive. I worry that corporate executives will point to these seemingly multicultural practices as examples of their good behavior when questioned about their commitment to diversity and social responsibility. If their mission is to indeed be inclusive, there seem to be more genuine ways to achieve this, like donating to local Chinese American organizations or sponsoring structural improvements in the nearby Chinese retirement home. Instead, the disingenuousness suggests to me that these business establishments care much more about helping tourists – potential customers – feel like they are in a part of China.

There are moments when I truly do miss California, and walking around D.C.’s Chinatown is one of them.

           Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown. Photograph by Denny Chan.