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Film Review: Authentic Voices for DC’s Chinatown

By Easten Law

As the nation’s capital, D.C. welcomes persons from all over the country and the world, 17.9 million visitors in 2011 alone. Many emerge from the Gallery Place/Chinatown metro in awe of our city’s grand Chinese archway, which is the symbol for Chinatowns across the nation. Sadly, that awe often melts into confusion as they wander H and 9th streets. Where are all the Chinese people? For many who live and visit D.C., Chinatown is becoming an afterthought to the lights and excitement of Gallery Place.

But although the population in D.C’s Chinatown is dwindling, those who take the time to look beyond the arch will be rewarded with stories of resiliency and strength embodied in long-time residents, business owners, and new immigrants.

1Local filmmaker Yi Chen captured some of these stories in her recent documentary, CHINATOWN. Named “Filmmaker of the Month” by DC Office of Motion Picture & Television Development in April, Chen’s documentary takes an intimate look at D.C. Chinatown’s present circumstances through the untold stories of three remaining residents who are determined to keep their Chinatown from disappearing.

CHINATOWN is a timely film, introducing some of D.C. Chinatown’s authentic voices for locals and visitors alike. Elderly immigrant residents of Chinatown’s Wah Luck House, like Jia Ting Xu, tell stories about how they organize their community. They take care of another by organizing trips to Chinese markets in Virginia, teaching one another English, and advocating for tenant rights along with the rest of the city. Meanwhile, 2nd generation residents like Raymond Wong resiliently carry on the torches of cultural tradition through the teaching of martial arts and lion dancing at the Chinatown Cultural Center.

My only critique is the film’s understandably limited scope (even the most skilled director can only squeeze so much into thirty minutes). Viewers may find themselves hungry for more after the credits are finished rolling. Behind the individual voices of the film’s highlighted residents is an unexplored chorus of many others. Community organizations like the Washington Chinese Youth Club and the Chinese Community Church, cornerstones of D.C. Chinatown, are without mention. The century long history of the community is largely ignored in favor of artfully capturing the present moment.

Ultimately, Chen’s film is a reflective piece that challenges viewers to ponder what it means to fight for community, both physically and culturally. Scope and history are not its priority. The narrative is moved along by the unique voices of the residents themselves, interspersed with quiet images of the neighborhood that beckon us to see the authenticity behind the signage. It is a beautiful snapshot, one piece of a much greater story. Let this film be a starting point for the rediscovery of our Chinatown.

Yi Chen’s CHINATOWN will be screened through September at the 10th Annual DC Shorts Film Festival. Showtimes and tickets are available at the festival website. More information about the film is available on its official website and Facebook.

Easten Law lives in DC with his beautiful, world changing, wife and a son of three and a half years who loves anything with wheels, legs, or sharp teeth.   He teaches intercultural studies at American University’s School of International Service with keen interest in inter-religious dialogue, ethics, and human rights. 

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