For Once in a Year, Chinatown Gets its Groove Back

Colin misses Chinatown LA.  There's so much more to do there, the dim sum is better priced, the pork dumplings are juicier and yes, even the bass comes straight out from the fully-stocked fish tank.

But apart from jetting cross country, we had to settle for the subdued rhythm and aura of New York's more conservative second cousin.

Video we shot from Chinatown Cafe.  Next year, come here to get a great view from your dining table.

For the rest of the year, visiting Chinatown DC equates to rooting for  the ruinous Wizards only to have your hopes dashed again and again or keeping up with the latest fashion or decorative trend trend at American Apparel or Bed and Bath.  Or perhaps even grabbing a Murphy's stout at Fado Irish Pub after an Ovechkin score.

Up ahead, the two jumbo electronic billboards flash colorful displays of anything from cell phones to under amor.  Then there's the music -- the soothing tone from New Orleans Jazz from the man with the scraggly beard or the street drummer using overturned paint buckets mimicking the beat of the street drum corps.

So there's not much China in Chinatown anymore.  Back before the Verizon Center revitalized this once edgie ethnic enclave,  Chinatown stretched 9 blocks from Judiciary Square to the old Convention Center (now a huge parking lot). It was a family-oriented neighborhood, and over the years as development encroached, the boundaries started shrinking.

Yes, there's still scores of authentic Chinese restaurants and locally-acclaimed holes in the walls where the duck still hangs by the neck in the window and where you still see the original denizens of  Chinatown still carrying out the day's business or mingling around eating chicken jook and drinking hot tea with ginger, the kind that warms your soul on a nippy February day.

But while the "China" in Chinatown DC has shrunk to virtual irrelevance, the "China" in the People's Republic of China has grown to be the world's second largest economy.

Anyhow, today, during the celebrations of Chinese New Year, the namesake of this town could get its groove back.  
This is the year of the Hare. And the rabbit wanted to run and dance.

H Street was closed to vehicle traffic.  For once in a blue moon, I could stroll directly under the Friendship Archway and admire the golden color of the tile roof and the golden dragons prancing.

One of the highlights of Chinese New Years are the firecrackers, and one of the most spectacular shows worthy to wait for is the veritable Dragon Dance. 

According to legend, Chinese New Year began with the fight of a mythical beast called the Nian who would come once a year to devour livestock and occasionally villagers.

But there was one little girl wearing red that Nian (means ripe grain) would not touch.  And the people realized that Nian was scared of the color red.  Therefore every New Year, the villagers would hang a red lantern in front of their homes to keep the ferocious beast away.

Red lanterns in storefronts
The other two things that Nian was afraid of was noise and firecrackers.  And there were loads of firecrackers going off, thousands of them in a volley that must have lasted five full minutes, painting H Street dark red.  Incidentally, fireworks originated in China dating to the 7th century.

Today we saw Nian with two of his friends.  They were dancing and sparring all over H Street with crowds admiring and drummers in red keeping the spectators safe.

It was the first time that we had such good view of the show. Today was the first day of the Lunar New Year.  The Lunar Calendar was written specifically to get people in tune with agriculture and Mother Nature.  The days are getting longer now.  Spring is only an earshot away.  Colin and I were delighted with the show and we were ready to head home to watch the Superbowl.  What a Sunday. First we dance with the dragons, next we cheer for the Packers.

As we headed back to our car, I glanced over at the ubiquitous Chinese restaurants that attracted tourists but still catered to the ethnic Chinese.  I couldn't help but think about the old men sitting in Full Kee Restaurant, drinking hot tea and playing mahjong as if this was just another day living in downtown DC.  These were the people who savored relationships, built trust and valued the quintessential importance of having face.

My ex-wife is Chinese. I remember her father having to go back to China to do work in the textile business.  He had just lost his business and he was deeply ashamed.  But he wouldn't quit.  He needed to start again, establish contacts, meet people willing to lend him face and build trust so that he could earn good face.  In China, they call this type of relationship, Guanxi.

This work required many, many trips back forth from his home in LA to China.  I always wondered why so much leg work and face time was required to operate in that country.

In many ways this is similar to the Western concept of networking.  We network when we attend professional events, volunteer, talk to other parents during school and sporting events.

In a cultural metropolis like DC, there is a plethora of opportunities from Meetup to "Things to Do", Cultural DC, and "Professionals in the City".

We do this to seek opportunities, learn new trades, and to see how we can best help each other succeed.

The only difference here is that the topic of face is not that critical or even required.  In some ways, networking now can be done on Facebook and LinkedIn, where you don't have to meet people in person.

My ex-wife's father is doing well now in his trade.  Having built the relationships and gained face to survive in business.  But the younger Chinese generation that are embracing social media are not as keen as their forefathers are regarding face.  Yes, it's still regarded highly as is tradition, but it's no longer an absolute.  Today, when you operate in China, be aware of it, be circumspect, but mostly, depending on the situation and the deal, let your judgement decide how to safe face.

As we got in the car, my son wanted to know where his lai money was (red envelope with money).  Happy Chinese New Year, son.  Hopefully the Year of the Rabbit can bring peace to all.

We hope to everyone, the New Year brings happiness and we hope that you can pass that happiness upon others.

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