As the new PBS documentary Asian-Americans notes, many Asian-American immigrants maintained strong bonds to their home countries and were deeply affected by World War II conflicts that occurred in the Pacific theater. In fact, even before U.S. involvement and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Asian-Americans from the D.C. area closely followed the brewing conflict between China and Japan. Many still had close relatives in China, and Japanese imperialist expansion into China and the resulting Second Sino-Japanese War moved Chinese-Americans at home to organize. On July 7, 1938, in recognition of the one year anniversary of the war’s outbreak, D.C. Chinatown's shops and restaurants closed as the Chinese community gathered in the streets.
When walking the streets of downtown D.C. near Penn Quarter, Washington’s Chinatown is difficult to miss. The vibrant Friendship Archway marks the entrance of the neighborhood, and if you look closely, you’ll even be able to spot markers of the Chinese zodiac on the crosswalks. But despite the area’s seemingly thriving shops and restaurants, Chinatown’s Chinese population today is estimated to be as low as 300. Things weren’t always this way, though. In fact, Chinatown was first located in a different D.C. neighborhood altogether. So how did Washington’s Chinese community first develop? What was Chinatown like before, and how and why did that change?