Instagram walkabout: D.C.’s Chinatown

Chinatown archThe Chinatown Friendship Archway in downtown Washington, D.C. / Photo by Joe Newman

If you’re visiting D.C. for the first time, at some point you’re likely to pass through the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro Station. You might even emerge from the station thinking you’ll be in the middle of a bustling Chinatown.

Don’t get your hopes up.

While you can’t miss the Chinatown Arch, it’s the rest of Chinatown that you might have a problem finding. There’s just not a lot there if you’re seeking an “authentic” Chinatown experience that you might get in San Francisco, Los Angeles or even New York.

There are several Asian restaurants in the Chinatown district, though not all of them are Chinese restaurants. Back in the early and middle part of the 1900s, the area was home to thousands of Chinese immigrants and families of Chinese descent. By the 1990s most of those families had fled to the suburbs.

In fact, in the 1980s most locals would have warned you to stay away from Chinatown because it had become a pretty sketchy area. However, a new arena — the Verizon Center — and a slew of new restaurants helped revitalize the district, which today is a bustling entertainment destination.

I did a photo walkabout on Wednesday after work for my entry into Instagram Travel Thursday, a blog collective whose purpose  is to “promote the great travel experts on Instagram and Instagram as a source for travel inspiration.”

807095acfa3911e2bf6922000a9f1404_7It wouldn’t be Chinatown without some ducks in the window / Photo by Joe Newman

While most of my photography on this blog is with either my Olympus or Nikon, it’s a good exercise to every once in awhile put the mirrorless and DSLR away and just use your smart phone. The limited capabilities will force you to be more creative.

If you’re planning a visit to D.C.’s Chinatown, I’d recommend that you set aside at least 15 minutes, maybe even a half hour if you’re a slow walker. The Friendship Archway is at 7th and H Streets and most of what is considered “Chinatown” is within two blocks of the arch, though the majority of the family-owned Asian restaurants are to the east.

The ducks in the photo above were  hanging in the window of the Chinatown Express, which serves decent enough Chinese food. I usually head to the Full Kee restaurant, which is a block farther east, though occasionally it can be so-so.

ddf661f8fa3d11e29edf22000ae916b0_7The chef at Chinatown Express makes noodles by hand / Photo by Joe Newman

According to Wikipedia:

The Chinatown area was once home to many German immigrants; it is also the location of the Washington branch of the Goethe-Institut. Chinese immigrants began to move into the area in the 1930s, having been displaced from Washington’s original Chinatown along Pennsylvania Avenue by the development of the Federal Triangle government office complex. The newcomers marked it with decorative metal latticework and railings as well as Chinese signage. At its peak, Chinatown extended from G Street north to Massachusetts Avenue, and from 9th Street east to 5th Street.

When I said that Chinatown used to be sketchy, you could actually say that about a lot of D.C. By the time I moved here in 2007, Chinatown was revitalized and a lot of other neighborhoods in the city had gentrified. A lot of the ethnic Chinese residents who used to live in Chinatown fled after the 1968 riots and many others were displaced by the construction of the MCI Center, which is now called the Verizon Center.

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Though many of the businesses and restaurants in the Chinatown district are national chains, the city requires that their signage include their names in Chinese characters. This can cause some bewildered stares from tourists who don’t actually realize that they’re in the middle of Washington’s Chinatown. On my walkabout, I saw two tourists outside of La Tasca, a Spanish restaurant, wondering out loud  if it served Chinese food because of the signage.

Now the question, you’re probably asking yourself (or at least the one you should be asking yourself) is can a guy or gal at least get some decent dim sum in this rinky dink Chinatown?

Well, D.C.’s Chinatown is known for its dim sum said no one ever.

One option in Chinatown is the Ping Pong restaurant, where the decor, the dim sum and cocktails are trendy, if a bit over-priced. Sadly, there are no push carts in sight.

If you want decent dim sum at an affordable price, you’ll have to get on the Metro and head to the suburbs to the restaurants opened by the folks who left Chinatown in the last 40 years.

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Be sure to check out some of the other Instagram Travel Thursday posts. They range from tips on how to make your photos pop by making the best crop to a look at luxury pools.

Joe Newman

I'm Joe Newman, multi-media story teller, non-profit do-gooder, international street photographer, serious poker player, intrepid traveler. Bourbon drinker.

  • http://www.houseofanais.com/ Reeta @houseofanais

    This makes me want to explore properly the Chinatown here in London, have been meaning to do it such a long time. I miss good Chinese food as we moved from China to UK in February… Thank you for sharing and joining in on #IGTravelThursday!

    • Joe Newman

      Ah, I will have to put London’s Chinatown on my itinerary for my trip there in September. I’ve been to London but never to Chinatown there. You’ll have to let me know where I can get the best dim sum.

  • http://www.ChasingtheDonkey.com Chasing the Donkey

    Ohhh my mouth is watering. I want that duck so bad!!! I have been living in Croatia just 3 months, and already miss my Asian Cuisine. All I have here is rice and soy sauce, so not the same.

    • Joe Newman

      Oh, crispy duck is something else, isn’t it?

  • http://www.todestinationunknown.com Satu VW

    Well that’s misleading! The arc I mean. I saw it in Instagram earlier today and immediately imagined a busy Chinese quarter. Clearly I haven’t been to D.C. for a long time (one time when I was kid doesn’t quite count). Thanks for joining in this week, looking forward to more of your photos on Instagram (and over here in the blog too!).

    • Joe Newman

      Thanks! Yes, it’s the historic Chinatown but it’s certainly a stretch to call it that today.

  • http://www.hinessightblog.com Leigh Powell Hines @Hinessightblog

    I love your photos, Joe. And I”m so glad you linked up with us today. That first photo is fabulous. Love it. Hope you join us again. I am glad the area is thriving again.

    • Joe Newman

      Thanks, Leigh! The Instagram Travel Thursday is such an awesome way to connect and see some of the great ways fellow bloggers are using Instagram.

  • http://www.freshmom.com Hatton

    Love the photos! I lived in DC for two years and never spent any time in Chinatown- I will add it to my list next time I visit!

    • Joe Newman

      Depending on when you lived here, the area has changed quite a bit.

  • http://www.skimbacolifestyle.com Katja of Skimbaco

    I love Chinatowns, NYC’s being my favorite. Thanks for participating to the IGTravelThursday and I loved not just your photos but also all the info you gave about the DC Chinatown! Hoping to visit one day!

    • Joe Newman

      Thanks, Katja! You won’t remember but we actually met briefly at breakfast at Le Germain.