Jasmine Ali, Madison Guare, Nicholas Kram Mendelsohn, Rachel Scalzo

The History of Washington D.C.’s Chinatown


On May 6th,1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law. This banned Chinese entry into the United States for ten years, unless the individual was a scholar, diplomat, or merchant. It also eliminated the opportunity for Chinese immigrants to receive citizenship. There was a fear that the Chinese were taking jobs from the U.S citizens and that it would lead the citizens to high rates of unemployment and poverty. The U.S. government created a complete moratorium on Chinese labor entering the United States. All traveling Chinese individuals after that were required to carry a card, identifying themselves and their occupation.

As a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the majority of Chinese immigration occurred under the table. Only the merchants who had established lives in the United States were able to return to China. Some of these merchants would sell U.S. citizenship status to the children of Chinese families. These Chinese merchants would then claim these children as their own, born in the U.S, and thus entitled to U.S. citizenship. The children who were transported to the United States in this fashion were referred to as ‘paper-sons.’ They lived as sons of the merchant on paper only. The merchants agreed to establish citizenship for Chinese children born outside of the United States, and raise them in exchange for payment.

The Chinatown of the 1880s was located in contemporary Federal Triangle, a few blocks south of Chinatown today. This original Chinatown lined Pennsylvania Avenue NW, between John Marshall Way and 7th Street. The group was made up of about 100 people, most of whom were men who came in search of wealth to send back to their families in China. The residents found work in the service industry, one of the few fields that did not require experience or extensive training. Like other immigrants of the time, the Chinese gradually began opening businesses that served the public. The most common business among the Chinese immigrants were laundries. In 1891 D.C. had nearly forty laundries, and Chinese restaurants were lived in areas further down Pennsylvania Avenue, Chinatown’s border now reached almost as far as 3rd Street.


New Chinese immigrants continued arriving into the 1900s, and tongs formed within the community. Tongs were community based groups that gathered to discuss common interests, share similar experiences, and talk about their roots in China; each provided needed support for new immigrants to the United States. In time they began to compete with one another for power, community influence, and the whole of the first Chinatown. The two most prominent tongs were the Hip Sing tong and the On Leong tong. The Hip Sing tong was considerably smaller than the On Leong Tong, including only 50 members, compared to the 200 in the On Leong tong. The fights between the rival tongs were described in a Washington Post article in 1921:

CHINESE gunmen, of a type more daring and cunning than the American gangster and racketeer, have killed with impunity in the Nation’s Capital during the last decade. They have left in the wake of their bloody activities a record so weird and tinged with the deep rooted mystery characteristic of the Oriental as to be almost unbelievable.

Seven Chinese have fallen victims to their deadly gunfire. Two others have been seriously wounded in the spasmodic warfare which has marked the rivalry of the Hip Sing and On Leong tongs. Yet, in each instance, these professional killers–hatchet men they are called–have successfully matched their cunning with Occidental wit and eluded capture. So far, none has been brought to justice for his cold-blooded crime.

These gunmen are expert in their heinous profession, as the record of seven unsolved Chinese murders on the books at police headquarters will attest. They seldom bungle their job as they pay for each murdered Chinese usually amounts to $1,500, a small fortune to an Oriental. And, too, they use the most up-to-date methods in their business of killing. True, they have not yet adopted the use of the machine gun, nor do they indulge in the throwing of “pineapples,” as the destructive home-made bombs are referred to, but this is because they have become so expert in putting their victim “on the spot,” taking him for “a ride” and the old fashioned way of just shooting him down in cold blood, that they do not have to go to the trouble of machine gunning or “pineapple” throwing.

In the 1920s, the city of D.C. began to implement changes to Pennsylvania Ave between 4th and 6th Street NW. Federal Triangle was planned for the area, and the site of the first Chinatown began to transition into today’s Federal Triangle:

That section of the Mall between Third and Four and a Half Streets has been laid out and planted with elms in accordance with the plan of 1901, and Congress has provided for putting in roadways. The temporary war buildings in the Mall were so located that upon removal the roadways will be in accordance with the Mall plan and as fast as the buildings are razed the planting of trees can be made. The space between Four and a Half and Sixth Streets will be so improved and restored during the fiscal year beginning July 1, 1921.

The Chinese residents were forced to move in order to make way for the construction of present day Federal Triangle.

The Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 established a quota system for managing immigration into the United States; the limit was three percent of the total number of foreign born persons from that country counted in the 1910 census. The Immigration of Act of 1924 further limited the number of immigrants who could enter the United States to two percent.

In 1931, the first Chinese School was founded to preserve Chinese culture. Also in 1931 the On Leong Tong found and bought property along H St. NW, where Chinatown remains today. They leased the extra space in their building only to merchants in their tong. The Hip Sing Tong and On Leong Tong, both dropped the word tong and became merchants associations. German, Jewish, and other ethnically white immigrants that occupied the area vehemently detested the incoming Chinese. The Chinese came regardless, and their arrival prompted German and Jewish flight. The synagogue on the corner of 6th and I pays a structural homage to the Jewish population, just as the German American Heritage Museum stands as a reminder of Germans who also lived there prior to the Chinese.

In 1935, the Chinese Community Church (CCC) held its first service, Rev. Ching Chong Hung, the founding pastor preached in English and Cantonese. In 1939, the services moved to the townhouse that was later purchased and renovated by the CCC.

This image shows a Chinese identification card of Anna May Wong.

Credit from the National Archives, San Francisco

September 1st, 1939

World War II ushered in a national rejection of Japan and Japanese culture. After constantly being mistaken for the Japanese by Americans, D.C.’s Chinese residents created identification cards for themselves with their nationality and a combination of the United States and Chinese flags to prove their loyalty to the U.S. Chinese business owners adored their storefronts with signs proclaiming, “We are Chinese.” China and America remained fierce allies until the Communist Revolution in China, at which point racial tensions between the Chinese and the lingering white residents escalated further.


In 1943, Congress passed the Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act which eliminated the discriminatory exclusion of Chinese immigrants established by the Emergency Immigration of 1924. Additionally, the repeal created a quota for Chinese immigration of 105 visas a year.


Just after the internment of Japanese Americans in the 1950s, Chinese Americans still strove to prove themselves far more American than the hurtful rhetoric surrounding Asians suggested. The Chinese fell victim to discrimination due to Japanese involvement in WWII just because they were also Asian. Meanwhile the United States praised China for being the first to enter the war and Chinese American relations were in a good place.

In 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the McCarran Walter Act, authorized the Chinese Confession Program. The act targeted immigrants who were “unlawful, immoral, diseased in any way, [or] politically radical,” and preferred immigrants who were most likely to assimilate to American culture. The main goal of the Act was to end the spread of communism, and deny citizenship to enemy nations, such as Japan. Undocumented immigrants could now confess their status to have it legally changed with lesser consequence. The act attempted to end the ‘paper sons’ practice that the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the 1921 Emergency Quota Act unintentionally created. In order to confess and actually have a chance at citizenship, the undocumented person had to turn in all of the other people he knew to be undocumented. As some Chinese Americans desperately fought to show their patriotism in the nation’s capital, one man’s act of patriotism could wipe out his family’s chance at American Citizenship.

In 1959, the second Miss Chinatown in the country was crowned, and the first from D.C., whose name was Lana Lee. The media’s positive coverage of her coronation and the confirmation of the duality of Chinese-American identity strengthened the Chinese community around the country. St. Mary’s Catholic Church hired a Chinese priest and mass is still celebrated in Chinese once a week.


The Hart-Cellar Act in 1965 allowed for Asian immigration levels to increase into the United States. At its passing the national origins quota system was abolished, and American immigration policy pivoted toward enticing skilled laborers and uniting immigrant families. Though the 1965 legislation did away with the Chinese Exclusion act, it is of note that there was a similar employment theme that continues to preference skilled laborers.

The Chinese Immigrants who came to the U.S. after the immigration act were vastly different from the immigrants of the early twentieth century. They were more educated, skilled and a higher percentage of them were women. By 1966, Washington, D.C. was home to nearly 3,000 Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans. As the cost of living in Washington D.C. grew, property taxes increased and businesses in Chinatown gradually closed.

The 1960s also saw the height of the American Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a leading spokesperson for racial equality in the U.S. successfully enfranchised blacks. The national attitude began to shift toward a more inclusive narrative leading up to the buzzword ‘multicultural’ 1980s. In 1968, King was assassinated standing on the balcony of his hotel room. Riots broke out nationwide. In D.C., the U St. corridor, the northwest neighborhood neighbor of Chinatown burned for four days. Stokely Carmichael and others stayed in Ben’s Chili Bowl, trying to help rebuild the city. The senseless, violent, and painful loss of Dr. King left the nation in mourning. By spatial association, Chinatown was now perceived unsafe. Residents left the city for nearby suburbs in Maryland and Virginia.

Businesses experienced a steep decline in patronage. George Butler, a business owner on H St. said of the riots, “I am a vet and I saw things I never saw in the war. The street was unreal, fires were everywhere it was just burning down. People left and never came back.” Four days after King’s assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, which outlawed the racial discrimination in the housing market. This practice of racial discrimination in the housing market -redlining- funnelled disproportionate levels of federal funding to suburbs. Meanwhile urban areas suffered a lack of investment, and most received little or no federal funding. The Fair Housing Act reversed the damaging direction of government funding into suburbs.


In 1972 plans for the first Washington Convention Center on 7th and H injected American culture and business into a culturally waning Chinatown. Residents protested, this time with more success. The site was moved to 9th and H. Despite the victory, Chinese Americans would again be relocated, so the community partnered with D.C. to build the Wah Luck House. Finished in 1982, the Wah Luck house is home to elderly and low income residents who were displaced by development of the Chinatown area. Its architecture incorporates Asian elements in the building design, including decorative pathways, a Chinese style garden, and a tiled roof. The metro station in Chinatown opened in 1976, under the name Gallery Place.

As DC expanded, more and more Chinese Americans moved out of Chinatown, and businesses continued to decline. By 1977 the number of laundry services had decreased from 153 to 20. In 1978, the city government and Congress reached an agreement for funding to build the Washington Convention Center. The new mayor of D.C. and the first home-rule mayor, Walter Washington, championed construction of the Convention Center as an economic priority.

The late 1970s saw Chinese resident’s taking action to ensure they would not be ignored or forgotten in the sweeping new developments of the area. In 1977 street signs written in Chinese were posted in Chinatown and the surrounding area, some of which can still be seen today. Local laws require businesses, both old and new, have two signs on their storefront: one in English and one in Chinese. Originally to help the residents of Chinatown, the signs now “preserve local character”. This law remains evident, in the language adorning the signs of mainstream and national chains.

The Chinese Community Church established the Chinatown Service Center in their townhouse on I street, it serves the needs of Asian individuals seeking public assistance as well as an array of social services.


By the 1980s the majority of the 1,000 residents remaining in Chinatown were either elderly, or new immigrants in their twenties.

Figure 1: This graph depicts in orange the span of the 1984 Downtown Development Comprehensive Plan for downtown D.C. The District of Columbia launched the Comprehensive plan for the entire downtown area, the effects of which were devastating for the Chinese residents of Chinatown. The Convention Center and the Verizon center, each in the plan, were intended to revitalize D.C.’s downtown.

The 1984 Chinatown Design Guidelines Study was released by the city and conducted before the construction of the Friendship Archway to continue to enhance the authentic cultural character of Chinatown. This study continues to regulate new development projects in Chinatown, holding it to the standards set in the 1984 study. This is the introductory letter from the director of the Chinese Design Guidelines Study.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was passed in order to address a rising public concern that illegal immigrants were taking jobs from American workers. It established the first official legal sanctions for companies and employers who hire undocumented immigrants. The law also provided amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the United States in response to pressure from immigrant advocacy groups and business leaders who feared the loss of cheap labor provided by immigrants already living in the United States.

In 1986, the Metro stop was re-named Gallery Place/Chinatown and the Friendship Archway was built on H Street NW between 6th and 7th. It was built to commemorate the relationship between Washington D.C. and Beijing. At the time it was the “largest archway of its type in the world.”

The neighborhood tongs which governed Chinatown earlier in the century became associated with Chinese gang violence that was spreading nationwide.


The Verizon Center was originally called the MCI building, after its’ sponsor: MCI Inc., and opened in 1997.

This image shows the use of buildings in Chinatown prior to 1990.



In 2003 D.C. decided to move and rebuild a new Convention Center on Mt. Vernon Place NW, two blocks away from the original location. The first convention center was torn down in 2004. The new Convention Center was renamed the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and completed in 2007.


In 2004 D.C. decided to launch a $200 million project to renovate Chinatown adding more businesses, retail shops, and nightlife. The results of the plan thus far include: The Verizon Center, high-rise apartment buildings, Starbucks, Fuddruckers, and Chipotle. At the turn of the century, corporate chain businesses outnumber the “local” restaurants in Chinatown .


The remaining Chinese residents in Chinatown live together in the Wah Luck apartment complex. Wah Luck was constructed for those displaced by the first Convention Center. Now most residents are elderly, and came to the United States as adults in the 1990s, though some have been here longer. There is a sense of community in the Wah Luck House that extends across the street, to the Chinese Community Cultural Center (CCCC). Most residents also attend services on Sunday two blocks away at the CCC.

Today the CCC occupies an old Presbyterian church the organization bought in 2006. The building is an excellent marker of the change Chinatown has seen. The architect of the Nation’s Capitol, Thomas Walter, originally designed the church for a Presbyterian congregation. Since its erection in 1852, it was home to Jews and then Baptists before the Chinese Community Church was finally able to purchase it in 2006.


The Verizon Center was finished in 2007.


The residents of the Wah Luck House formed their homeowners organization in 2008. The group organizes a monthly bus trip to the nearest Chinese grocery 14 miles away in Great Falls, Va.


In 2009, faced with another threat to their residency, representatives of the association testified in court, defending their right to their homes. The Bush Company, which is based in Williamsburg, Virginia owns Wah Luck house. Busch told the tenants two years ago that they would no longer accept section 8 housing vouchers. The section 8 vouchers make up the difference between thirty percent of the resident’s income and the cost of their housing. For the residents of Wah Luck, residence is completely dependent on section 8. Without Section 8 many tenants would watch their rent climb from $300 to market value around $1,500. The Wah Luck residents emerged victorious in court thanks to the District’s Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act; which ensured tenants the right to buy their home prior to any sale by the property owner. In theory, the organization would bring all of the tenants together, and they would buy Wah Luck. W`hen Wah Luck was listed at $250 million in 2014 that idea became an impossibility. The opinion of the court from September 22, 2016 reads:

Viewing the undisputed facts in the light most favorable to Parcel One leaves us with the firm conviction that Parcel One’s $250 million offer of sale on June 6, 2014, was not based on an objectively good faith assessment of the value of the property at that time, even taking into account Parcel One’s intended use.

The tenants of Wah Luck remain there as of September 27th, 2016 but undoubtedly face more challenges in the future. The City government released the Chinatown Small Area Action Plan in 2009.

This cultural strategy engaged a community passionate about preserving the authenticity of Chinese American culture in DC’s Chinatown and eager to benefit from its central location. The Chinatown Cultural Development Strategy (CCDS) positions Chinatown DC as the region’s top destination for Chinese American and Asian cultural businesses, programs, services, events and festivals in order to make it an even greater place in Center City DC. As a distinctive destination between the National Mall and the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, at the second most heavily used Metro rail stop in the system; Chinatown is strategically positioned to evolve in ways that build on its unique history and culture and capitalize on its international identity in an era that increasingly focuses on the emerging nations of the Pacific rim and India.


The Public Realm Plan for Chinatown which was published more recently in 2011 lacks some of the elements of the Small Area Plan. In addition, the residents of Chinatown say that none of the policy they lobbied for has been put into action.


The most recent government involvement in Chinatown has been the updated Chinatown Public Realm Plan, which was finalized by the District government in 2012. Though the Public Realm Plan was designed to be a direct investment into the future of Chinatown, similar to the 1984 Comprehensive development plan, it favored business development over the interests of residents. The 1984 Comprehensive development plan failed the residents of Chinatown by placing them out of the physical space in which they were living. The rapid development and successive developments kept them from building cohesive community organizations. After the riots of the 1960s encouraged the children of any first generation Chinese Immigrants to move to the suburbs, the Chinese residents who remained in Chinatown became the population rapidly aging in place. Today’s Public Realm Plan largely envisions cosmetic changes to the area’s design in order to increase the cultural authenticity of Chinatown.

Chinatown’s streets and public spaces currently lack the economic and cultural dynamism often associated with Chinatowns - Chinese streetscape elements such as Chinese lantern streetlights are diminished and inconsistent, there is very little outdoor economic activity such as vending or sidewalk cafes, and it has poor perceptions personal safety and crime. The Chinatown Public Realm Plan is an effort of the Office of Planning to create a comprehensive set of detailed actions to enhance the Chinese character, safety, and pedestrian friendliness of Chinatown’s streetscape and public spaces. It is a key follow-up action of the Chinatown Cultural Development Strategy and a framework for coordinating implementation funding and action from District, federal, or private institutions. The Office of Planning initiated the project in May 2011 and completed it in May 2012.

A “Key Issue” enumerated the Public Realm Plan is the “Diminishing Chinese Cultural Character”- that they aim to remedy with Chinese themed street lights and patterned bricks. Recently there have been small measures to restore those characteristics, such as referencing the Chinese zodiac at the crosswalks on H St. and 7th St. NW, however the Chinatown that remains is only a shell of the bustling Chinese cultural hub it once was.


The introductory letter of the 2016 Comprehensive Development Plan reads:

The nation’s capital provides both symbol and experience, translating the country’s democratic ideals into physical form. This form, and the resulting federal and local development, was shaped by visionary plans. The Comprehensive Plan for the National Capital continues this tradition, providing a vision for a 21st century capital by encouraging sustainable, smart development and thoughtful stewardship that inspires and engages visitors and residents, enables the federal government to accomplish its mission, and supports the region’s aspirations. The National Capital Planning Commission plays an important role in the region’s development, building upon a rich planning legacy and responding to evolving needs and opportunities. Through the Comprehensive Plan’s Federal Elements, the Commission establishes goals and policies that guide federal development and provide a decision-making framework for future initiatives. The Federal Elements highlight the most important issues in national capital planning. This update reflects ongoing interagency and public coordination that identified emerging issues and changing regional conditions, and tested policy directions. For example, policies in the Federal Workplace Element respond to how transforming technology and productivity goals impact federal employees. The new Urban Design Element reflects extensive technical analyses of the viewsheds, public realm, and physical form that contribute to the capital’s unique identity and character. Sections and policies in the Federal Environment Element respond to guidance on sustainability, climate change, and related issues, such as flooding. The federal government’s significant regional presence presents extraordinary opportunities to lead by example in urban design; sustainable community development; cultural, historic, and environmental stewardship; and innovation. The Comprehensive Plan’s Federal Elements provide the framing tools to realize these possibilities and ensure that Washington, DC is a great capital and a dynamic, thriving city for generations to come.

L. Preston Bryant,

Jr. Chairman