Farewell To The Mayor Of Chinatown

Washington D.C.'s Chinatown

Washington D.C. has a small Chinatown. Many of its Chinese residents have moved to other neighborhoods. Michael Foley Photography hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Foley Photography

Andy Carvin is the senior strategist for NPR's social media desk.

One of the first things you notice about D.C.'s Chinatown is that you don't see many Chinese people around anymore. In recent decades, many of those families moved out to the suburbs, but there was one elderly couple that never left.

Several times a week, first thing in the morning, I'd see them strolling counterclockwise around the block down 7th Street. No — strolling is too strong a word. They shuffled at a slow, deliberate pace: The elderly gentleman slightly dragging one foot as his wife ambled at the same pace, sometimes supporting his arm.

I probably saw them hundreds of times over the last four years. Apart from colleagues I'd routinely see coming and going from NPR, they were the most recognizable people in our neighborhood. They rarely ever spoke; over those four years, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I heard them talking softly in Chinese. With quiet dignity, they'd stroll down the street, she in a sweater and he in a cap, his hands held behind his back as if deep in contemplation. Sometimes he had a mysterious smirk of authority on his face, almost like a small-town mayor making the rounds in his community.

Quan Chu

Quan Chu was a familiar face near the NPR building in Washington D.C.'s Chinatown. www.myfoxdc.com hide caption

itoggle caption www.myfoxdc.com

We never said hello; I never wanted to interrupt them. Occasionally he and I would make eye contact and nod our heads, but most of the time he was lost in thought, his wife paying closer attention to the pavement to guide them along.

I wasn't sure how old they were, but I always assumed they were in their late 70s. Sometimes as I'd pass them, I'd think about the lives they had lived. When did they come over to the U.S.? What did they experience during the Chinese civil war, or the Cultural Revolution? Did they experience any of it at all? I never thought it was appropriate to interrupt them to find out.

No matter how many times I saw them, I always thought to myself: If my wife and I are fortunate enough to reach that age, I hope we go on walks like them each day, contemplating the fullness of our lives.

For whatever reason, I hadn't noticed over the last week that I hadn't seen them. Then I got the news.

Last Friday morning, they were on their daily stroll, when a man on a bike came speeding around an alleyway corner and crashed into them. Both the husband and wife were injured, and yesterday, he passed away from his injuries.

I learned his name was Quan Chu, and he was 78 years old. He and his family came to the U.S. from China in 1982. They lived in a rowhouse about two blocks south of NPR. For years he worked at the local Chinese restaurants to save up enough money to send their children to college. And several years ago he suffered a minor stroke. As part of his therapy, he would go for that walk with his wife each day.

I never got to know him. I don't even know if he even recognized me each day in the same way that I always recognized him. But I feel a profound sense of loss with his passing — not only for his wife and family, but for Chinatown itself.

So much of what Chinatown once was is long gone. Perhaps it never really existed, except in the minds of the diners who flock to its restaurants. Nonetheless, there has been a Chinese community in NPR's neighborhood, dwindling with the passage of time.

To me, Mr. and Mrs. Chu represented a once-thriving community in its autumn years. Chinatown — or at least my perception of it — won't be the same without him.

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