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Chinese Culture Fades in Washington's Chinatown


Washington’s Chinatown was once the home of many Chinese immigrants. But over the years, the Chinese population has decreased sharply, which has caused the local Chinese culture to fade.

Artist Tiesheng Dai is one of the few Chinese residents remaining in the U.S. capital’s Chinatown. He used to have two art galleries. But rent hikes forced him to close both of them. A sign outside the building is the only evidence they existed.

The area's housing costs have been pushed up over the years by other ethnic groups flooding in. Its Chinese population has shrunk from a high of 3,000 to around 300 today.

Chinatown began to develop decades ago, as new immigrants moved there because most of them faced language and cultural barriers in other neighborhoods.

Tom Fong, vice chairman of the local chapter of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, says things gradually changed.

"As quickly as the kids they bring over assimilate [adopting] the English language, the parents actually lean on them to [say] 'you know, we are gonna move. You are gonna help us to register yourself for school in another school district.' We don't actually need a Chinatown English speaking translator or liaison to help get us there," Fong says.

Most of the current Chinese residents have low incomes and receive government subsidies. Many live in Museum Square, one of Chinatown's two affordable apartment houses. But the government subsidy for this complex expires in October, and the owner plans to replace the building with modern high-rise condos. So the residents are being forced to move out.

Dai, the artist, has lived here for almost nine years. He says the remaining residents don’t want to move.

“There are a lot of kids and elderlies. Some of the kids were born in the complex. Some families with three generations are living together. Some of them have been here longer than me, for more than ten years. Some for 20 some years,” Dai says.

If affordable housing is no longer available, the residents may not be able to stay in the Chinatown area, according to Derek Hyra, the director of American University’s Metropolitan Policy Center.

“A fair market rental unit in the Chinatown area goes for $1,200 a month. Every unit that has been built in the Chinatown area, for a one bedroom [apartment] averages about $2,000 a month. That means if the residents in those two buildings are displaced, they will not be able to use their [housing subsidy] voucher in the Chinatown community,” he says.

Hyra says without Chinese residents, the local government cannot promote Chinatown as an authentic ethnic tourist attraction. He says the neighborhood contributes to the city’s diversity, and that is key to Washington’s economic growth.

"I think that cities that are more racially tolerant and ethnically and racially diverse tend to be the places that have the most innovation. There is association between diversity and economic development,” says he.

And Tom Fong says, when it comes to retaining Chinese culture, Chinatown matters.

"My hope is that my kids and their kids will still have that touchstone of Chinatown to be a part of and come down here to perform [the] lion dance, and to do Kong Fu and spread our culture, to retain our culture for generations to come," Fong says.

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