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Still image from “A Right to the City” Exhibition at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum

Neighborhood Change in D.C.’s Chinatown Neighborhood: Stories from the Community

As part of an exhibition at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, A Right to The City, community members share insights about neighborhood changes and civic engagement in D.C.’s Chinatown.

“There’s no legacy for me to go back to,” Harry Guey-Lee says, referring to the Chinatown of his youth. He is one of several D.C. natives interviewed by the Smithsonian in 2018 about the history of and dramatic changes in D.C.’s Chinatown. 

In the 1950s and 60s, Guey-Lee recalls that Chinatown was “a small, close-knit community” of 16 to 18 families. It was a vibrant cultural hub, a place where Chinese Americans could find familiarity and community. Residents and visitors could find Asian-owned businesses that offered an array of services. You could find legal advice, institutions willing to loan them money, and foods not carried at mainstream grocery stores at the time like winter melon and tofu.

While some people lived in Chinatown proper, others came from Maryland, and Virginia. The demographics of the neighborhood have changed. National chains have moved in, and while they may include Chinese characters in their signage, Chinese people and culture are noticeably absent.

Our ability to have a physical Chinatown that we knew when we were growing up is no longer what it was. And we just can’t identify with it.

The cultural character of the community has been transformed. “I keep thinking they want Chinatown to be Chinatown, but without its people,” Chow says.

Evelyn Moy worries that Chinatown’s original community is shrinking too fast. Guey-Lee thinks it will be gone in 10 years. Tom Fong is concerned, too, but optimistic about the future. “It’s very important that we keep Chinatown as a touchstone for who we are and where we come from,” he says, “but it’s also important to move forward.”

“We saw Chinatown as a place where we could see others that look like us.” For Wendy Lim, Harry Guey-Lee, Tom Fong, Harry Chow, and Evelyn Moy, Chinatown is more than a neighborhood, it was a safe space, a community, and a public expression of shared culture. It was home.