Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Chinese Street Food in DC? It Could Happen...

When I moved to Washington, DC, some three years ago, I was excited to learn that DC had a Chinatown. I grew up in an exurb of Cleveland, OH, a city with a rich immigrant history and some neat ethnic neighborhoods but no Chinatown. I moved here not too long after my time in China, and I was feeling sort of "reverse homesick." I pounced on any opportunity to recreate the things I was missing about China. Imagine my disappointment, then, when I actually visited DC's Chinatown and saw how lame it was. For those uninitiated, this (admittedly very cool) arch is the most Chinese part of the neighborhood:

Outside of the Friendship Arch, the area is a largely populated by corporate chains that have nothing to do with China. Restaurants include Hooters, Fuddruckers, and La Tasca (a Spanish tapas joint). Local ordinances require businesses to include their Chinese name on any outdoor signs in order to keep the historic atmosphere, but there's only so much you can do to make a Starbucks look Chinese:

Credit: KClvey
For the curious: the characters there are 星 (xīng, which means "star") 巴 (bā) 克 (kè) 咖啡 (fēi, which means "coffee"). The "bā" and "kè" are meant to be phonetic, so you've got a rough simulation of "star-ba-kuh coffee."

This is not to say that there aren't some pretty great Chinese restaurants in Chinatown...there are. They just get overshadowed by the slick corporate veneer of their neighbors. I still enjoy my occasional trip to Chinatown, but my expectations are much lower than they were before my first visit a couple of years ago.

Anyway, all of this here has been a lead up to sharing this article about the future of Chinatown in DC. The outlook is a mixed bag. I agree with the author's assessment that many of the changes that the city government is proposing are superficial and will result in a further "Disneyfication" of Chinatown. Red lampposts, dragon-shaped bike racks, and zodiac pavers do not an authentic Chinatown make. It's the community that matters. Fortunately, the article highlights some other changes that might be steps in the right direction:
Repairing and widening sidewalks for outdoor cafes, allowing street vending, adding bike racks and benches and street trees, and opening alleys to pedestrians are fabulous ideas for bettering the neighborhood. [Emphasis mine.]
I'm thrilled at the prospect that there might be some street vending in Chinatown! To my mind, the street vendors are a large part of what makes a Chinese street come to life. Businesses in China are not all encased behind doors and walls and windows--they are right there on the street, a very visible part of the community. I can only hope that any street food vendors who come to Chinatown are serving up authentic Chinese street food. There are a lot of delicious street trucks roaming DC right now--it has really invigorated the street vending scene in the city--but their hip offerings wouldn't do much to foster authenticity in Chinatown. It seems to me that adding some true Chinese street food to Chinatown would be great for Chinatown and great for the city's street food scene (which is always seeking new flavors). It seems like a win-win all around. I've got my fingers crossed. Don't drop the ball on this one, DC government...we're counting on you.


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