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.


Sandy Hits Northeast America, But What is its Impact on Chinese Students?

Flooded Battery Park Tunnel after Hurricane Sandy. Photo searched on Flickr under Creative Commons.

Hurricane Sandy demonstrated its power as it hit the nation’s Northeast Coast Monday and Tuesday, affecting millions in the country’s most densely populated region. The storm changed the coastline of New Jersey and New York, knocked down trees, cut off communication and transportation and left more than 8 million people without electricity Tuesday.

Among them is Jiamin Wang, 23, from Beijing, who is studying Human Resources Management at Pace University in New York City.

“My roommates and I woke up this morning and found there was no electricity and gas in our house,” Wang said.“But we knew it would happen sooner or later, so we were not that surprise.”

The storm made landfall near Atlantic City, N.J., with maximum sustained winds of about 80 miles per hour, and has killed at least 98 people, causing havoc and leaving a moonscape of disarray and debris in New York City and several counties in New Jersey.

A Dodge Durango feels the impact of Hurricane Sandy on Armstrong Avenue in Great Kills, State Island, N.Y. Waters rising 15 feet must of carried this half way up the block. Photo searched on Flickr under Creative Commons.

“There was chaos, and the road around my apartment became rivers when the hurricane arrived,” Wang said. “I’ve never experienced hurricanes in my life, and I called my family and friends immediately.”

The power and gas outage forced Wang to stay at her friend’s house temporarily. With no Internet access, all she could use to reach out the world was her friend’s mobile phone, and the signal was extremely weak.

The tropical storm formed south of Jamaica a week and a half ago and began to cruise north since then, dutifully following the predicted track. Washington, D.C. was also in Sandy’s path. The teeming federal city turned into a ghost town when the federal and state governments and schools closed.

“It was terrible and damaging,” said Peiyue Huang, a public communication graduate at American University (AU).

Huang is from Guangzhong, a city in southeast China where storms and typhoons frequently occur in the summer.

“We don’t have hurricanes in Guangzhou, but to me they’re the same,” Huang said, “It made me feel like I was at home.”

But there was one thing that Huang felt different: the school alert.

“I appreciated [the] AU alert,” she said. “It was very comprehensive and updated, from the hours of library, shuttles, to cafes. I don’t remember schools in Guangzhou … as thoughtful as those in the States.”

In fact, the hurricane here made some Chinese students start to compare the different handling methods between the two countries.

Cars submerged in floodwaters around a residential block after heavy rains in Beijing on July 21, 2012. Photo by Ching Chin/EPA

Last July in Beijing, urban areas were hit with an average of nearly nine inches of rain over 16 hours — the heaviest the Chinese capital has seen in six decades, according to the Xinhua news agency. Seventy-seven people were killed by drowning, electrocution, lightning and collapsed structures. The storm stranded cars and buses and turned the city into lakes of waist-deep water.

“The rain was pouring down, and everybody was running and trying to find a place to hide or get a cab,” said Dongyu Li, a student from Beijing. “But it was extremely hard.”

Li went to a concert with her boyfriend on that day despite the storm.

Li said she didn’t want to waste her ticket. “I didn’t get any alerts saying that the rain would be so devastating,” she said. “All I knew from the weather forecast was there would be a heavy rain today.”

As a graduate student in Washington, Li was “fortunate enough” to experience another superstorm Sandy on this foreign land. In contrast to the lack of information in Beijing, she was, instead, overwhelmed this time by all sorts of news about Hurricane Sandy.

“I searched the Internet to track the news of the hurricane,” Li said, “I found that both the New York Times and the Washington Post had updates on the current situations with their local angels, which were very helpful and informative.”

Wang agreed that the media played an important role during the hurricane here in the States.

“I used Sina Weibo (a Twitter equivalent in China) to find what was going on when the storm hit Beijing,” Wang said. “But here I felt like there were more channels, whether it was official weather report, or news alerts.”

Chinese Students Get Together to Celebrate Halloween

Costumes, beers, DJ and prizes. Chinese students in Washington spent a colorful and wonderful Friday night at Rhino Bar near Georgetown. The Chinese Students and Scholars Associations of American University and Georgetown University co-hosted a Halloween party called Halloween Pumpkin Pie, to get together all the Chinese students and young professionals in the District.

More than 70 Chinese students from American University, Georgetown University, George Washington University and Howard University dressed up and crowded at the small Rhino, chatting, drinking, socializing, and making new friends. Those who wore costumes would expect a surprise at the end of the celebration.

Chuan Ping, the president of the Association at AU said earlier that it was their intention to combine the Chinese Students and Scholars Associations in Washington to provide better service for Chinese students, and this was just one of their series of attempts.

Halloween Party held by Chinese Students and Scholars Associations.

Mid-Autumn Festival: A New Way to Celebrate for Chinese Students in Washington

For Chinese people, the full moon resembles reunion. Jmtimages’ photo via Getty Images, searched on Flickr under Creative Commons.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most important festivities in China, dating back more than 2,000 years. According to the Chinese lunar calendar, the 15th day of the eighth month is the exact midpoint of autumn, and the moon appears to be at its roundest and brightest, a symbol of family reunion. On that night, families in China usually gather together to eat moon cakes and appreciate the full moon.

But for Sheng Fei Yang, a Chinese student at American University who just came to the States in August, this year’s Mid-Autumn Festival is a little bit different. Not only because it’s the first time that she spent it without her parents, but because of an exceptional experience she had on that night.

George Washington University Chinese Culture Association and American University Chinese Students and Scholars Association this year co-organized a special dating game to help the single Chinese students in Washington get socialized and make friends.

“This kind of dating show is very popular in China. So I hope such an activity will attract a lot of Chinese students to attend,” said Chuan Ping, the president of AU’s association.

And he succeeded.

Hundreds of Chinese students from AU and GWU, as well as from Georgetown University, came to Betts Theater at GWU to enjoy this non-traditional celebration on Sept. 30.

Twelve single women from AU, GWU, and Georgetown U are waiting for the first male participant. Photo: GWU Chinese Culture Association.

Called “If You Are the One,” this dating game originates from a Chinese TV dating show with the same name. A pool of 12 single women watch each of the six male participants’ video about their lives and histories and asks questions about them. If interested, the young women can press a flashlight to determine which guy will stay on the stage and continue to be tested. In return, the six men will secretly choose their favorite woman before the game starts. Those who survive the trial in the end may have the chance to date her if she says yes to him.

As one of the 12, Yang dressed up and sat on the stage along with other female participants. With the flashlight on and off in hand, Yang examined each of the six bachelors, sometimes laughing at the jokes they made, sometimes applauding for the remarks they lobbied. Though the night only saw two “potential couples”, yet everyone was amused and enjoyed.

“I think the event is very interesting,” Yang said. “Though I didn’t find my ideal person, I made many friends. Also I think it’s a special experience in my life.”

Todd Morrill, a junior at GWU, was the only American participant of the game. He was also one of the two lucky guys who found his dream lady. Morrill said he never expected that.

Todd Morrill is introducing himself. Photo: GWU Chinese Culture Association.


“I guess I didn’t go there with high expectations. I wanted to go have fun… kind of connect to the Chinese community,” he said,  “But walking away with a girl was definitely a nice plus. It’s a lot of fun.”

Morrill has been learning Chinese for years and joined several Chinese culture activities. He thinks culture plays an important role in language learning.

“Chinese language is very different from American English. Every word has its history. Learning Chinese is more about the language itself, but the culture behind it. Like today’s dating game, though I didn’t completely understand what they say, I put myself into the context and tried my best to learn,” he said.

Seeing the dating show a success, Ping envisioned more events alike.

“Actually it’s our ambition to combine the three universities to provide a better service for Chinese students here in Washington,” he said.  “So this is just the first step, and we will have more activities to achieve our goal in the future.”