Whether you’re in the mood for authentic Chinese delicacies or a stroll through one of Washington DC’s historic neighborhoods, Chinatown offers a unique experience for all who visit. This small DC area is marked by an enormous Friendship Arch, created by local artist Alfred H. Liu. It stands 60 feet high and is a recognizable Chinese Gate with colorful dragons, Chinese Roofs, tiles and designs. The area is known for its wonderful restaurants and shops and its annual Chinese New Year Celebration which attracts many visitors – locals and tourists alike.
Chinatown is a small historic neighborhood of Washington, D.C. that features a variety of cultural attractions and business for tourists and residents alike. If you’re planning to travel to the nation’s capital and looking for some of the best authentic Chinese food, look no further than this neighborhood’s approximately 20 Chinese and Asian restaurants.
Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown is located east of Downtown near Penn Quarter, a revitalized arts and entertainment district with new restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, museums, theaters and trendy stores, and is marked off by the Friendship Arch, a traditional Chinese gate prominently on display at H and 7th Streets.
Although much of the area was torn down in the 1990s to make way for the MCI Center (now the Capital One Arena), Chinatown remains one of the most popular destinations for tourists visiting the nation’s capital. However, Chinatown is most visited for its restaurants and the annual Chinese New Year parade.
History of Chinatown
In the early 1900s, the Chinatown area was mostly populated by German immigrants, but Chinese immigrants began moving to the area in the 1930s after they were displaced from the original Chinatown along Pennsylvania Avenue when the Federal Triangle government office complex was built.
Like other Washington neighborhoods, Chinatown declined sharply after the 1968 riots when many residents moved to suburban areas, spurred by the city’s rising crime and deteriorating business climate. In 1986, the city dedicated the Friendship Archway, a traditional Chinese gate designed by local architect Alfred Liu to reinforce the neighborhood’s Chinese character.
The core of the neighborhood was demolished to make way for the MCI Center, which was completed in 1997, and in 2004, Chinatown went through a $200 million renovation, transforming the area into a bustling neighborhood for nightlife, shopping, and entertainment.
Major Attractions Near Chinatown
Although there’s plenty to do and see in Chinatown including some of the biggest and best event spaces in the city, one of the main draws of this neighborhood is its authentic Asian cuisine. Also, all of D.C. now has pedicabs available.
Along with the development of the Verizon Center, historic buildings, mainly along the west side of 7th Street, were renovated and tenanted, primarily with nationally known brand shops and dining establishments. Within a short time, a significant mixed-use office-residential-retail development on the southeast corner of 7th and H streets commenced construction. These developments, which included restaurants, shops, a cinema complex, and a bowling alley, together with the Verizon Center, transformed the area into a bustling scene for nightlife, shopping, and entertainment. An anomaly is that most of the businesses are no longer representative of Chinatown, yet due to a city design guidelines encouraging businesses to use Chinese characters, even national chains such as Starbucks, Hooters, Ruby Tuesday, Ann Taylor, Urban Outfitters, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Legal Sea Foods hang their names in Chinese outside their stores. Chinatown has become home to many high-growth technology companies, such as Blackboard, Blue State Digital, LivingSocial, and The Knowland Group. It is also the location of the Washington branch of the Goethe-Institut.
Chinatown’s most prominent businesses are the approximately 20 Chinese and Asian restaurants, almost all of which are owned by Asian American families. Among the most well-known are Chinatown Express, Eat First, Full Kee, and Tony Cheng’s. One of the restaurants, Wok & Roll, occupies what was once Mary Surratt‘s boarding house — the meeting place for John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators in Abraham Lincoln‘s assassination. Another is located in a house once owned by the On Leong Chinese Merchants Association, which was among the first Chinese organizations to move into the neighborhood; today the structure is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The neighborhood is home to a Chinese video store, several general stores, and numerous Chinese American cultural and religious charities. Chinatown has one Chinese church, Chinese Community Church, located at 500 I Street. Chinese Community Church was founded in 1935, initially at L Street, but relocated in 2006 to its current I Street location. The 6th and I streets historic synagogue has been restored and is the scene of cultural events.
The Washington DC Chinatown Community Cultural Center offers numerous activities, classes and services.
If you feel like doing something other than eating on your trip to Chinatown, there are a number of different attractions nearby worth exploring, including the International Spy Museum, United States Navy Memorial, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
As mentioned, Chinatown is now home to the city’s largest sports and entertainment complex, the Capital One Arena, a state-of-the-art facility that routinely features performers and sports teams from around the world, including artists and acts related to Chinese and other east-Asian cultures.
Other popular attractions include the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Gallery Place shopping and movie center, the Washington Convention Center, the German cultural center named the Goethe-Institut, and the Marian Koshland Science Museum.
Officially, Chinatown stretches between 5th and 8th St NW and G Street and Massachusetts Ave NW. Within those bounds, buildings have to conform to the city’s “Chinese ‘Theme’,” which most famously includes having signs in Chinese (more on that later). But when UMD students interviewed 16 people who live or work in Chinatown and asked them what the boundaries of Chinatown are, they got…..16 different answers. In that spirit, please don’t @ us if we included or excluded something that you wish we hadn’t.
The giant arch at 7th and H NW was believed to be the largest in the world when it was built in 1986. It is a massive architectural undertaking, boasting five roofs, 7,000 tiles, and 35,000 individual wooden pieces. There are almost 300 dragons painted or carved on its surface.
According to local historian John DeFerrari, the existing friendship arch was conceived after Chinatown was already on the decline. As a way to preserve some of the remaining Chinese culture, two neighborhood leaders proposed building the arch. Mayor Marion Barry got on board, and so did Beijing.
That caused a ruckus among members of Chinatown’s business community, many of whom hailed from Taiwan. According to DeFerrari Lawrence Locke, chairman of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of D.C., told the Washington Post that the arch “might misidentify the local Chinese community with the Chinese communists.”
A year later, the CCBA and the city agreed to build two arches, the Friendship Arch at 7th and H, and a “Chinatown Community Arch” at 5th and H. The second group planned to put their community arch on 9th—or maybe even build TWO other arches. But ultimately they never put together a specific plan and the rival arch was never built.
If you have a business within the official boundaries of Chinatown, you must have a bilingual sign. Sometimes those signs….get lost in translation. Academic Jackie Jia Lou writes in the scholarly volume Linguistic Landscape in the City that it’s often much less expensive to pick Chinese characters that translate to a generic description, rather than translating a brand. So for example, Legal Sea Foods’ sign translates to “Seafood restaurant.” The Capital One Arena’s sign says “Sports Center,” and Urban Outfitters is “Men and women’s clothing, household goods.” On the other hand, Subway’s Chinese name is a transliteration: “Saibaiwei,” which literally translates to “Most tasty among a hundred delicacies,” Jia Lou writes. (Subway has a presence in China, which probably explains why the company has a better translation of its name.) These generic descriptors, plus the fact that the Chinese signage is usually less visually prominent than the English sign—plus the fact that the neighborhood has a Subway and an Urban Outfitters–has led many to speculate that the signs are just putting a Bandaid on a Chinatown that is largely no longer Chinese.
Today, there are around 300 Chinese people living in Chinatown, most of them elderly residents of the Museum Square and Wah Luck House buildings. But the neighborhood was never as large as one might imagine.
Various estimates put the peak Chinese population somewhere between 1,000-3,000 residents. This was never San Francisco Chinatown, where 30,000 people live in 20 square blocks.
But more important to the remaining Chinese residents is a sense that the neighborhood’s identity is vanishing. The last Chinese grocery store closed in 2005, and now residents must take a bus to the suburbs–one that only arrives once a month. Sill, the remaining Chinese residents want to stay.
“My children have saved a room for me in their house [in the suburbs], but I rarely go there,” Wah Luck House resident Jia Ting “Tina” Xu told the Washington Post in 2011. “I don’t have a driver’s license, so what would I do?”
Although they recently survived the building’s sale, Wah Luck’s residents say they worry about its continued affordability, the Washington City Paper recently reported. Museum Square has also been the site of a major battle over affordable housing.
First Down Funding is one of the top funders in Chinatown.