Civil War to Civil Rights
— Downtown Heritage Trail —
dragons to bring rain, prosperity and friendship
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 of 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 and its 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 the first immigrants settled along Pennsylvania Avenue between Third and Sixth Streets. 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 into homes once occupied by an earlier German and Jewish immigrant population. Some of the city's oldest pre-Civil War buildings, with flat roofs and sloped roofs, can still be seen beneath the neighborhood's colorful Chinese facades.
While many Chinese 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 on Eighth and H, the first to create a Chinese Sunday School here, is still involved with the community, and St. Mary's Catholic Church near Fifth and H, has regular Masses in Cantonese. Chineses symbols and signs preserve the spirit of this special place and the annual Chinese New Year is celebrated with a dragon parade and firecrackers to increasingly large crowds from the metropolitan area.