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.

Chinese Students Flock to Studying in the US

For each summer and winter, the price of flying from China to the United States soars. Tens of thousands of young Chinese in ponytails or sneakers eagerly head to their dream factories — American colleges — with bulged backpacks hiked up on shoulders and heavy suitcases rolling behind. After a more than a 13-hour journey, they present customs officers with neatly arranged sheets and pamphlets showing their destination to the exotic land: New York University, Boston University, the University of Florida, University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, among others.

In the past decade, China has witnessed an explosion in the number of students studying abroad. The Institute of International Education (IIE)’s annual report says the number of Chinese students studying in the United States surged 23.5 percent in the 2010-11 academic years. China has been the top country of origin of international students since 2009.

Undergraduate students are the major force driving the growth.  By the 2010-’11 academic year, the number saw a 43 percent rise, with a total of 56,976 students comprising one-third of all Chinese students living in the United States.

Jawee Perla, senior advisor of International Student and Scholar Services at American University, said Chinese students now account for 12 percent of the international student group, at the largest at American University. Though the number of undergraduate students is still less than that of the graduates, its rapid rise cannot be overstated.

“There are 43 Chinese undergraduates in 2011, but this year the number is 52,” he said. “We see a large number studying in a range of disciplines in Kogod School of Business, Washington College of Law and School of Communications, etc. ”

For Chinese graduate students, the numbers of applications also continued to increase dramatically in 2012. Applications from prospective students increased 18 percent in 2012 following a fluctuation of 21 percent in 2011 and 20 percent in 2010. This is China’s seventh consecutive year of double-digit growth, according to the survey from Council of Graduate Schools (CGS).

Unlike domestic students, international students, especially those at undergraduate level, have little, if any, financial aid. That means they pay almost 100 percent of tuition and fees.

“It is a large amount of money,” Perla said, “For undergraduates at AU, they have to pay $38,982 for one academic year, but that only covers the tuition. The actual cost includes mandatory fees, rooms, health insurance, etc. All of that together is about $57,000.”

With so much money to pay, Chinese parents are still willing to send their only child to the States. Perla said there are several reasons.

“With the expanding Chinese economy, the increased prestige of foreign education, and with certain economic factors, such as China’s one-child policy … it (is) possible for families to support fewer students for higher education, spend more money and pour more resources to their only child to study overseas,” Perla said.

The flood of Chinese students studying in America is also a new manifestation of Confucianism, which emphasizes education. Even before middle school, children from middle-class families begin to pay close attention to the information of meiguo liuxue — studying in the USA. They devote hours every day after classes preparing for American standardized exams from the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) or the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) to the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). With the support of education programs and test trainings, they often score in the top quartile of those exams.

Eric Kuang, a first-year public relations graduate student at the University of Florida, has been in the States for only two months. Recalling those days of preparation for tests, he describes them as “a pleasant misery.”

“Compared with TOEFL, I think (the) GRE is a more difficult task for me. Memorizing thousands of words is very hard, and I usually devote three to five hours to that. But studying with some of my best friends made it less hard. We encourage and help each other to overcome the difficulties,” Kuang said. “So even if I’m not satisfied with my final scores, I still think it was a good journey to me.”

Kuang said he enjoys his new life.

“It is a totally different experience compared to my previous life in China” he said. “But there’s still far to go to completely adapt to this environment.”