Chinatown Friendship Arch Picture

DC Chinese-Lunar New Year Parade Celebrates Chinatown’s Cultural Resilience

Chinatown in Washington, DC is among the smallest in the nation, with seemingly less to offer than its counterparts in other major American cities. A closer look, however, reveals a rich history of resilience anchored around the work of keystone community organizations.

Washington, DC’s Chinatown celebrated the Lunar New Year on February 11th, 2024, with one of its most anticipated and time-honored traditions: the annual DC Chinese-Lunar New Year Parade. Hosted by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) since the 1950s, the parade has since grown from its humble origins as a lion dancing and martial arts showcase. In addition to performers that one would typically expect at a Chinese New Year celebration, like the DC Dragonboat Club and the Yee Fung Toy Lion Dance Troupe, modern iterations of the parade now include a broad array of other ethnic and cultural organizations in the area, such the Tinkus Bolivian USA Dance Team and the Ballou Majestic Marching Knights High School Band. This year, over 57 cultural and community organizations participated in the festivities, which were capped off with keynote addresses from high-ranking members of Chinese community organizations and government officials.

The route of the parade, which starts near the CCBA headquarters at 510 I Street NW and circles around to end at 6th and H Street NW, reveals something unfortunate about the reality of DC’s Chinatown, however: it is considerably smaller than its counterparts in New York, San Francisco, or many other major American cities. Spanning just handful of blocks around H and I Streets, DC’s Chinatown has, for most of its history, faced major challenges that have threatened its very existence.

Chinatown’s Turbulent History

The history of DC’s Chinatown is one of a community’s struggle to preserve its culture. Initially established along the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue between 4th and 7th streets, Chinatown grew out of clusters of restaurant and laundries set up mostly by Chinese men who had immigrated to the United States throughout the 1800s in search of better economic opportunities. The enactment of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers into the United States, spurred Chinese communities like those living in Chinatown to establish native place and family associations (tongs) to support themselves and become economically self-sustaining. Over the next few decades, Chinatown expanded and grew into a neighborhood replete with drugstores, restaurants, barbershops, tailor shops, laundries, residences, and community organizations.

In 1929, the federal government initiated a redevelopment project, aiming to replace Chinatown with government and municipal buildings; consequently, hundreds of Chinese residents were forced to relocate from the area between 4th and 6th streets. The On Leong Chinese Merchants Association, the largest and most influential tong at the time, was instrumental in realizing Chinatown’s relocation. By 1931, the association had purchased and acquired several buildings in the vicinity of 600 H Street NW, out of which their members’ businesses could operate and “new Chinatown” could reclaim its community.

Chinatown would thrive throughout the next several decades, sustained by a strong network of Chinese family, business, and recreational organizations – the aforementioned CCBA, the Chinese Youth Club (CYC), the On Leong and Hip Sing tongs, and the Lee and Moy Family Associations.

From the late 1960s onwards, however, Chinatown faced more setbacks. In the aftermath of the deadly April 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., many of Chinatown’s residents opted to move to suburbs in neighboring Maryland and Virginia, such as Rockville and Fairfax. The construction of the Gallery Place Metro Station in 1976, the Washington Convention Center in 1982, and MCI Center (now known as the Capitol One Arena) in 1995 all dramatically altered the business landscape and demographics of the area; unfortunately, these changes further contributed to the displacement of Chinese residents and disruption of the Chinatown community. Between the 1970s and now, the Chinese population of Chinatown has declined from 3,000 to just 300. DC’s Chinatown has, accordingly, been popularly derided by its current and former Chinese residents as a mere “Chinablock.”

Chinatown’s Community Resilience

In spite of Chinatown’s struggles, both historical and recent, key community organizations and institutions have steadfastly anchored the neighborhood’s identity in its roots. The 1882 Foundation is one such example: the Foundation seeks to promote awareness of the continuing significance of the above-mentioned 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act through documenting and preserving the history of Chinese Americans.

The East-West Center in Washington spoke to Ted Gong, the President of the 1882 Foundation, who provided more insight into 1882’s contributions to the Chinatown. He spoke about the 1882’s Talk Story events, monthly community gatherings that spotlight the oral histories of Chinatown:

The 1882 Foundation provides some kind of preservation of cultural sense through its Chinese-related cultural programs, such as its Talk Story series. The core component of these is the process of telling the stories – not the actual informational value, but rather the idea of the open mic. The act of gathering and coming together to tell these stories is what creates the community.”

President Gong went on to describe 1882’s most recent Talk Story event, where a family from Chinatown – a grandfather, a father, and a son – spoke about three generations’ worth of experiences with the CYC nine-man volleyball team. The CYC, alongside the CCBA and Chinatown Community Cultural Center (CCCC), are also important organizations in the preservation of culture in Chinatown. The CCCC teaches kung-fu and Taichi lessons for free; the CYC has its own lion dance team and hosts the annual North American Chinese Invitational Volleyball Tournament; and the CCBA offers a bevy of practical and cultural services: social security assistance, sweeping of ancestors’ tombs, and – of course – the annual DC Chinese-Lunar New Year Parade.

Chinatown’s Future

While parade performers marched down H Street NW, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser delivered a speech likening the “growth, progress, and abundance” symbolized by the Year of the Dragon to her own hopes for the development of downtown DC. Although she may not have been explicitly referring to Chinatown, her aspirations of future prosperity for the city are just as applicable to one of its neighborhoods. After more than a century and a half of fighting to preserve its place in DC, Chinatown deserves more than its current state – it deserves its place as an indelible cornerstone of the city’s cultural landscape.

The author would like to thank President Gong for his valuable contributions to this article as well as Emily Brignand for graciously supplying a photo of the DC Chinese-Lunar New Year Parade.

Vincent Zhang is a Spring 2024 Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a senior at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, pursuing a B.S.F.S. in International Politics with a concentration in Foreign Policy. He previously interned at the 1882 Foundation as part of their summer 2022 cohort.