New documentary examines dwindling community and social, cultural issues in D.C.’s Chinatown

Chinatown Official Trailer HD from Yi Chen on Vimeo.

A documentary hoping to bring awareness to Washington, D.C.’s debilitated Chinatown premiered at the Our City Film Festival in the nation’s capital on March 10.

The absence of affordable housing and a Chinese grocery store have left Chinatown with a diminished population and little hope for revival. Yi Chen, producer, director and editor of the 30-minute film called “Chinatown,” explores the social and cultural issues of the community that only has about 300 Chinese immigrants remaining.

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The documentary began as part of Chen’s thesis project at American University where she studied film and media arts. She then saw a Washington Post article about the Wah Luck House, a 153-unit apartment building built in 1982 to provide homes for those displaced by redevelopment.

“The Wah Luck House seniors can live in Chinatown only because the Wah Luck House is in fact housing,” Chen said.

“If it wasn’t for that apartment building, they couldn’t afford to live there.”

Chinatown’s size and population gradually shrunk to “Chinablock” over the years due to redevelopment. The Gallery Place metro stop built in 1976 along with the Verizon Center, where the Wizards and Capitals play, constructed in 1997, caused Chinatown to shrink. The high rent costs due to the expansion of such infrastructure drove many immigrants away.

“I was curious about who lives in Chinatown,” Chen said.  “I’ve always been interested in people and their stories.”

For one year, Chen shadowed three Chinatown residents and their daily lives, including a Taishan man who moved to the United States in 1968 and the founder and president of the Wah Luck House Tenants’ Association.

Chen also follows an immigrant from Shanghai who organizes monthly grocery trips for Wah Luck residents. It became necessary for residents to make the 30-minute bus ride to the nearest Chinese market in Falls Church, Va., after the last grocery store in Chinatown closed in 2005. Chen said the trip normally takes a total of three hours and is a hassle for the mostly elder immigrants.

The Our City Film Festival, where hundreds of people came out to watch Chen’s documentary, started in 2008. Yachad, a nonprofit organization committed to affordable housing and developing communities, runs the event annually, and the films selected for screening typically focus on D.C.’s communities and rich culture.

“I think it’s a fantastic film. We are very proud to have it in the festival this year,” said Kendra Rubinfeld, the festival director. “Not just because it addresses subcultures of Washington residents, but also because it addresses issues of affordable housing.”

Helping the community is very important to Yachad, which is why ticket sales go toward providing affordable housing for residents of the nation’s capital.

Matt Shin, a freshman engineering major, was interested in the documentary’s focus.

“Chinatown is a big part of D.C., so it’s vital to maintain its population so the culture stays there,” he said.

“I don’t think a lot of people know the reality of those Chinese immigrants who live there,” Chen said. Hopefully [the film] could help preserve Chinatown or have a positive impact in the lives of the residents who live there.”



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