Civil War to Civil Rights
—Downtown Heritage Trail —
dragons to bring rain,
More than 280 dragons,
crowned by 700 glazed tiles, look down from the Chinatown Friendship Archway before you. Symbols of the spirits that bring rain and prosperity in China, these painted and carved dragons are fitted together like a giant jigsaw puzzle in the ancient Chinese building tradition of "gong" balancing. Seven roofs weighing nine tons each are cantilevered, with no nails, almost 50 feet above the street.
This is the largest single-span Chinese archway in the world, designed by Chinese-born Washington architect Alfred Liu and erected in 1986. A joint project of the governments of Washington, D.C. and its Chinese sister city, Beijing, it marks the entrance to Washington's Chinatown in a statement of international friendship. Chinese and American craftsmen worked side by side to construct it.
The Chinese community in Washington dates back to the 1880s, when immigrants settled along Pennsylvania Avenue between Third and Sixth Streets, N.W. Forced out by construction of the Federal Triangle in the 1930s, the community relocated here with the help of the On Leong Chinese Merchants Association. They moved into homes once occupied by German Christian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Some of the city's oldest pre-Civil
War buildings, with flat fronts and sloped roofs, can still be seen beneath the neighborhood's colorful Chinese façades.
While many Chinese Americans have left the area for newer homes in the city and suburbs, the community is dedicated to preserving a slice of Chinese culture downtown. Calvary Baptist Church at 8th and H, the first to create a Chinese Sunday School here, is still involved with the community. St. Mary Mother of God Catholic Church near 5th and H has regular Masses in Cantonese. Chinese symbols and signs preserve the spirit of this special place, and residents of the metropolitan area flock to the annual Chinese New Year's dragon parade.