Chinatown Documentary: A Step Closer to Observing D.C’s Chinatown

Yi Chen. Photo by Yiyi Yang.

Yi Chen. Photo by Yiyi Yang.


Editor’s note: Yi Chen, from Shanghai, is a Film & Media Arts graduate student at American University. She is working on a 30-minute documentary about D.C.’s Chinatown as a thesis project. Chen started her project in November 2011 and filmed for about a year. At this point, she is editing a rough-cut and fundraising to finish the film, to be released around Lunar New Year in February 2013.


1.    Could you describe your Chinatown documentary project?

It is a short documentary film about the last residents living in the gentrified D.C. Chinatown. It’s a story about the challenges facing these Chinese American immigrants as well as their efforts to preserve the cultural and authenticity of Chinatown.

2.    What motivated you to do a documentary project?

Narrative had been my main focus before this project — I started in the film program thinking I would become a narrative filmmaker. Then two things happened in my life. I took a documentary history class in the fall of 2010.  Because I had little interest in documentary films at that point, I thought it would be a painful and boring experience, but it turned out to be just the opposite. I became fascinated by American direct cinema, and I chose Fred Wiseman and his film “High School” as the subject of my final paper. Right around the same time, I was also working for the United Nations Foundation,mainly producing videos on the topics of human rights, clean energy, access to health care and education for all. It gave me the opportunity to learn so much about international development issues and the impact media-makers can have to raise awareness, empower citizens and advocate policy changes. So when it came to the time to do a thesis project in 2011, I knew I wanted to take on a documentary project that engages in real life and real people.

3.    Why did you choose Chinatown particularly?

It was a place that I wanted to know more about. I came to America from China so naturally I am interested in stories of immigrant experience and history. I also felt the scope of the project would be realistic for me to take on.

I first had the idea of making a documentary about the District’s Chinatown about two years ago.  I started doing some research on its history, but it wasn’t until July 10, 2011, when I read the Washington Post’s article on the Chinese immigrants living in the Wah Luck House, I thought it was such a great story, and I contacted the journalist right away. It would also be the first documentary film about the present-day Chinatown in Washington, D.C. In September, I met the Wah Luck House Tenant Association board and explained my project to them. They agreed to an on-camera interview with me and things started from there. The more I got to know them and their stories, the more motivated I became, because they gave the project purpose and meaning — to tell their stories and give them voice.

4.    What objectivities do you want to obtain through your documentary?

Yi Chen is working on the rough cut of the Chinatown Documentary. Photo by Yiyi Yang.

Yi Chen is working on the rough cut of the Chinatown Documentary. Photo by Yiyi Yang.

I hope more people will learn about the real life inside Chinatown, the reality beyond the Friendship Archway, Lunar New Year parade and Chinese signage in Chinatown. I hope the film will reach out to more people through film festivals, community screenings, non-profit organizations and Asian-American interest groups next year. In the long term, I hope the film will have a positive impact on the future of Chinatown in Washington, D.C.


5.    As far as you know, what is the past and present situation of D.C’s Chinatown?

D.C’s Chinatown has gone through drastic changes in recent years. Many people probably don’t know — as I didn’t know — that the original Chinatown was established on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1880s. The first documented Chinese resident in Washington, D.C., dated backed to 1851. In 1929, the federal government forced the evacuation of Chinatown to make room for the Federal Triangle project. The displaced residents later moved to Chinatown’s present site on H Street. In 1936, an estimated number of 800 Chinese immigrants were living in Chinatown. Chinatown’s resident population has gradually decreased since the late 1960s due to the city’s urban renewal and redevelopment plans. The impact of gentrification on D.C’s Chinatown is much worse than I had expected. The developers of commercial buildings and big projects like the Convention Center, Verizon Center and Gallery Place have replaced Chinatown’s small business community. It’s a déjà vu of what happened in 1929. Chinatown has been redefined as a “cultural district.” It has become a commercialized area, no longer an ethnic community.


6.    How many people did you interview?

I interviewed more than a dozen, but not all of them will end up in the film. The main characters are Ms. Xu and Mr. Leung from the Wah Luck House Tenant Association and Raymond Wong, who leads the lion dance group in Chinatown. The interviews that do not end up in the film will be included in the educational outreach component. The educational outreach component includes the web component and the DVD component. I have started a Facebook page and a Tumblr blog to cultivate and engage audience. I have posted about half a dozen short clips of interviews on the project’s YouTube channel. I try to cover a balanced point of view with these interviews and include people from various backgrounds to share their perspectives. I do hope to have a website for the film next year and include some of the interviews in the DVD for educational distribution.


7.    What was your impression of Chinatown’s residents?

The residents are well-organized by Tenant Association leaders such as Mrs. Xu and Mr. Leung. They are actively engaged in issues affecting the community. For example, Mr. Leung was one of the speakers at last year’s City Tenant Town Hall. Mrs. Xu testified at the D.C. Council Hearing in 2009 regarding the Chinatown Cultural Development Strategy Small Area Plan. The Tenant Association held its third election this September and Mr. Leung was re-elected as the president.

I have also got to know many nonprofit organizations that are working to help senior low-income residents in Chinatown. For example, The Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center (APALRC) provides pro bono legal assistance for the Tenant Association. Many Languages One Voice organizes seniors to participate in public forums. Latino Economic Development Center provides services in affordable housing preservation.

Although the Chinatown Cultural Development Strategy Small Area Plan has been little implemented, local organizations as such and the Chinese-American immigrants in Chinatown are working tirelessly to preserve the cultural and authenticity of Chinatown.


8.    What issues did Chinatown and its residents particularly face nowadays?

Currently, only about a little more than 300 Chinese immigrants remain in Chinatown. More than half of them live in the Wah Luck House, a subsidized housing for low-income senior citizens. Many of them do not speak English, do not own a car and have little access to Asian markets or Asian groceries. Every month, the Wah Luck House Tenant Association organizes the senior residents to get on a charter bus and travel to the Great Walls Chinese grocery store in Falls Church, Va. The trip takes more than three hours, and the bus can only seat 52 people, so the residents have to take turns. Affordable housing, language access, health and social service are also the big issues facing Chinatown residents nowadays.


9.    Do you have any plans to do any follow-ups of your project? Will you keep your attention on the Chinatown in the future?

I haven’t thought about follow-ups because at this point I am still focused on completing the film. Chinatown has a very special place in my heart and it always will. I hope to continue telling stories of under-represented communities and stories that most American audience has little access to.