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Chinatown's Friendship Archway

Much of DC's Chinatown is about symbols. The neighborhood is small and fragile, seemingly forever on the brink of extinction. Its identity hinges on a smattering of things Chinese: the restaurants (of course), the red and green lampposts, the Chinese characters on street signs.

Photo by the author.

But without a doubt the most striking and enduring symbol of all is the great Friendship Archway, constructed in 1986 just east of 7th and H Streets NW, and said to be the largest in the world when it was constructed.

Boldly symbolic of Chinese identity, this project ironically was once plagued by controversy over what sort of China it truly symbolized.

Chinatown originally developed in the late 19th century around Pennsylvania Avenue NW at 4½ Street (now John Marshall Place). Chinese immigrants to the US in those days faced discrimination and downright hostility; the creation of Chinatowns in Washington and elsewhere in the country was as much a defense mechanism as anything elsea way to create safe havens where new immigrants could find shelter, sustenance, and employment.

Washington's original Chinatown was forcibly disbanded in 1931 when the land was taken over by the government for the Federal Triangle and other municipal projects. A new Chinatown was soon established (against the wishes of local businesses and landowners) along H Street NW between 5th and 7th.

By 1981, however, Chinatown seemed on the verge of extinction. Successful Chinese Americans, like many others, had dispersed to safer and more prosperous parts of the city and its suburbs. Chinatown still had a cluster of restaurants and grocery stores, but the decline of the old downtown area made many wonder whether commercial establishments such as these would remain viable in the future.

Two Chinatown leaders, Dr. Dwan L. Tai and Alfred H. Liu, wrote a paper entitled "The Future of Washington's Chinatown: Extinction or Distinction," in which they argued in favor of creating a visible attraction, such as an archway, to serve as a magnet for visitors. The idea began to gain traction.

In May 1984, Mayor Marion Barry and other top city officials took a trip to Beijing, and the dreamed-of archway project finally got its start. Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong had visited Washington the previous fall, and Barry was returning the favor to promote Washington as an international business and finance center.

After surviving a welcoming banquet that included fish stomach and beef tendon soup, Barry went on to participate in a ceremony establishing Washington and Beijing as sister cities. As part of the agreement, the two cities would work together on a project to build a traditional archway in Washington's Chinatown.

The principal designer would be Alfred Liu, a well-established architect and chairman of the Chinatown Development Corporation who had emigrated form Taiwan as a teenager and who had designed Chinatown's Wah Luck House, a distinctive apartment building for low-income and elderly residents.

Original rendering of the Friendship Archway. To the right is the planned Far East Trade Center, which was never built. Photo from AEPA Architects Engineers P.C.

Immediately a contingent of prominent Chinatown businessmen began to cry foul. They objected to the participation of the communist People's Republic of China in the archway project, many of them having strong ties with mainland China's rival, Taiwan.

The Washington Post quoted Lawrence Locke, chairman of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of D.C., as saying that the archway "might misidentify the local Chinese community with the Chinese communists." Locke reportedly had collected more than 50 signatures from Chinatown residents and businessmen on a petition opposing the project.

Locke also reportedly claimed to have assembled $250,000 in pledges for a separate project to construct an arch without any involvement of the mainland Chinese government. The arch's opponents had enough clout to get their DC Council representative, John Wilson, to introduce a resolution opposing the arch's construction.

In July 1985, a resolution of sorts was reached: there would be two arches in Chinatown, both on H Street, two blocks apart. The Friendship Arch to be built in cooperation with the People's Republic of China would be located, as originally planned, just east of 7th Street. A rival Chinatown Community Arch would be constructed two blocks away, just west of 5th Street.

The Chinatown group promoting the second arch wanted to put it at the other end of Chinatown, at 9th and H Streets, near the old convention center. In fact, they might even build two arches to serve as gateways at either end of Chinatown. In the end, however, specific plans never came together; doubts were raised about the wisdom of investing scarce funds in "rival" arches, and none were built.

The finished archway, or paifang in Chinese, is an impressive engineering achievement, standing 47 feet tall at the top of its highest roof, spanning 75 feet of roadway, and weighing over 128 tons. The roofing alone weighs 63 tons, supported by 27 tons of steel and 38 tons of concrete.

Over 7,000 glazed tiles cover its five roofs, and 35,000 separate wooden pieces are decorated with 23-karat gold. A riot of dragons, 12 carved and 272 painted, glare and grin from every angle.

The style is evocative of the classic Qing dynasty (1649-1911), a period when China showcased its imperial splendor. Indeed, paifangs were traditionally erected across alleys and roads throughout China, with the more elaborate ones, like Washington's, often to celebrate the emperor on the occasion of one of his military victories. The golden color of the tile roofs on the Washington archway is symbolic of wealth and honor, as were the yellow mandarin jackets bestowed as a supreme honor on Qing officials.

Construction began in June 1986. The District first built the reinforced concrete frame and supporting pillars, according to Liu's design. Major decorative elements, including the 7 pagoda-like roofs, were fabricated in China and installed on the arch by 16 skilled Chinese craftsmen brought to Washington by the D.C. government under the supervision of Liu.

The Beijing Ancient Architectural Construction Corporation was in charge of work in China, including fabrication of the 59 intricate dou gong supportscomplex, cantilevered contraptions of carved wooden brackets, balanced and interlocked with tenons and mortises rather than nails or screws and providing a sturdy and resilient support for the gracefully curved roofs. The dou gongs have a very festive appearance, almost like frilly Victorian bloomers peeking out from beneath the golden skirts of the roofs.

Nighttime installation of the central roof structure. Photo from AEPA Architects Engineers P.C.

In ancient China, these elaborate structures were painted to protect the wood from the elements. By the time of the Ming and Qing dynasties, the painting had become an opportunity for magnificent polychrome displays. One of the chief tasks of the 16 artisans brought to Washington was to apply red, blue, and green paint, gold leaf, and other finishing touches by hand.

The arch was constructed over a 7-month period, much of the work needing to be done at night so as not to block traffic on busy H Street. The finished monument was officially dedicated in November 1986.

Once completed, the archway was widely celebrated, and the political squabbles about how it should be built soon died down. The giant monument seemed almost shockingly bright and festive. Linda Wheeler, writing in The Washington Post, called it "a brilliant multicolored flower transported into a drab landscape."

Benjamin Forgey, the Post's architecture critic, observed that "Simply put, before the gateway there was not much to remember Washington's dwindling Chinatown by, and now there is.... It is a fitting, striking, and quite beautiful object." Forgey saw the archway as a signpost for the major tourist attraction that Chinatown could become. But that was still an unrealized dream in 1986. The arch's magnificence contrasted starkly with the drab landscape then surrounding it.

Both the archway and its neighborhood have had ups and downs in the years since its construction. In 1989, after the crackdown by Chinese authorities in Tiananmen Square, the DC Council enacted a resolution suspending relationships with sister-city Beijing. Council chairman David A. Clarke personally climbed a ladder to drape black mourning cloth on the Friendship Archway to commemorate the students killed in China.

Soon, the archway unexpectedly began to deteriorate. It turns out much of the mortar used to set the tiles in the roofs did not bond correctly. According to Liu, this was due to the fact that the Chinese artisans' visas were delayed, forcing construction to continue into October, when cold weather compromised the mortar. In any event, tiles began to fall off within several years of the archway's completion.

In June 1990 one of the 100-pound carved dragons fell off, striking the roof of a soda truck. It was an ominous event. Since such a gateway traditionally is, among other things, a manifestation of imperial splendor, some Chinese would say the fall of one of its dragons portends the emperor's own immanent fall.

Sure enough, on that same evening Mayor Marion Barry took to the airwaves to announce that he would be stepping down when his term ended and not running again in the fall elections, as he had been planning. Barry had been arrested at the Vista Hotel in a sting operation in January; he would be found guilty of one charge of possession of cocaine and sentenced to a 6-month prison term.

Meanwhile, DC workers removed the rest of the tiles as a safety measure until permanent repairs could be made. In 1993 a major renovation project was undertaken, funded by both the DC and Chinese governments. Artisans from the same Chinese company that had worked on building the arch again traveled to Washington to perform extensive repairs, including re-laying tiles with improved mortar, repainting decorations, and reapplying gold leaf. Since that time, there have been no more problems with falling tiles or dragons, which should come as a relief to the city's subsequent mayors.

The archway in 2008, before restoration. Photo by the author.

The paint applied in 1993 held up well but after many years became quite faded. In 2009 a second repainting and modernization project was undertaken with funding from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The entire archway was sanded and repainted, and several pieces of tile and wood were replaced.

In addition, a new lighting system was installed, using advanced, energy-efficient LED lights. The brilliant, vivid archway is now at the center of one of downtown's liveliest neighborhoods, and its bright colors now compete with gaudy shops, restaurants, and outdoor video displays.

It's as if the neighborhood, inspired by Alfred Liu's creation, has finally caught up. But however commercialized and un-Chinese the various nearby storefronts become, the Friendship Archway remains an enduring and unforgettable symbol of the neighborhood's heritage and the city's rich multicultural fabric.

Invaluable assistance for this article was provided by Mr. Alfred H. Liu, A.I.A., President of AEPA Architects Engineers, P.C. Other sources included Asian Voice, Friendship Archway Inauguration Edition (Nov. 1986); Francine Curro Cary, ed., Urban Odyssey: A Multicultural History of Washington, D.C. (1996); James M. Goode, Washington Sculpture (2008); and numerous newspaper articles.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.

John DeFerrari is a native Washingtonian with a lifelong passion for local history and writes about it for his blog, Streets Of Washington. His latest book about DC history is Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, DC. John is also a trustee of the DC Preservation League. The views expressed here are his own. 


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fantastic post. thank you.
i had no idea of all the background information.

by sina on Feb 9, 2011 4:03 pm • linkreport

It would be nice if the city would try to entice the owners of these establishments to move back into the city. Of course- the city has no interest in this kind of thing at all. The only reastaurant the city will sunsidize is Ben's Chili Bowl which gets a hefty property tax abatement.

by w on Feb 9, 2011 4:08 pm • linkreport

Did the Committee of 100 oppose this because of the now-blocked view-shed?

by William on Feb 9, 2011 4:19 pm • linkreport

Great post! Thanks!

Hopefully someday, they'll finally fill that vacant CVS across the street. It's pretty embarrassing that we've got a huge boarded up building at one of the most prominent intersections of one of our most vibrant neighborhoods.

by andrew on Feb 9, 2011 4:20 pm • linkreport

@ William: +1 :-D

by Jasper on Feb 9, 2011 4:28 pm • linkreport

There used to be Chinese doctors and pharmacies. I don't know if they're still there or not.

by Jazzy on Feb 9, 2011 4:44 pm • linkreport

Terrific article. It's ashame what has happened to the Chinese groceries and Chinese-run businesses that used to be in the neighborhood, though. But I guess that's the price.

by aaa on Feb 9, 2011 5:00 pm • linkreport

Nice article, but I have to admit that the drawing of the Far East Trade Center distracted me. Wow, would that be a huge improvement over the gutted CVS Memorial Building that now lurks on the northeast corner of 7&H.

by tom veil on Feb 9, 2011 5:34 pm • linkreport

@tom veil

I think the Trade Center would have been at the Southeast corner of 7th and H, where the Gallery Place development currently is. You can see the open first floor in that rendering, with people entering what appears to be the metro station.

by Alex B. on Feb 9, 2011 5:38 pm • linkreport

Alex is correct. The rendering is a view facing east, with the building that used to house the CVS store on the left side.

by John D. on Feb 9, 2011 5:44 pm • linkreport

How much did it cost originally?

by Randall M. on Feb 9, 2011 6:48 pm • linkreport

The archway cost $1 million, a fairly steep price due in part to the difficulties of building it over a street that could only be closed briefly at night. Press accounts state that the cost was shared between the D.C. government and the city of Beijing.

by John D. on Feb 9, 2011 7:16 pm • linkreport

All I want to know is what all those signs say in Chinatown. Chipotle really can't take 9 characters-that's got to be some awesome reverse Chinglish!

by redline on Feb 9, 2011 11:59 pm • linkreport

yes there are still Chinese doctors.
The Lee family runs a clinic on I street- this venerable family has been in Chinatown since the 1930's.

Sadly the DC city government , which is run by what is mostly PG County residents, sees no value in trying to maintain the ethnic authenticity of any neighborhood that is not of their own ethnicity.

by w on Feb 10, 2011 7:46 am • linkreport

What do the characters on the arch say? Someone once told me they were actually put on the arch upside down, and I've always wondered if it's true.

by Leslie on Feb 10, 2011 7:53 am • linkreport

The characters in the center of the arch reportedly say "Chinatown." I have not found anything to suggest that they are upside down. Since the work was all done by native Chinese artisans and overseen by a Chinese-born architect, I strongly doubt they would be installed wrong.

by John D. on Feb 10, 2011 9:04 am • linkreport

Remember when it took six months for a politician to resign from a scandal? Now it only takes three hours. Those were the days.

by Gavin on Feb 10, 2011 11:24 am • linkreport

The characters do in fact say "Chinatown" and they're not upside down.

as for Chipotle, if I remember correctly the characters there transliterate "Chipotle" into "qi-po-te-lei" and then add "roasted meat restaraunt" at the end.

The signage in Chinese in Chinatown is a mix of transliterated names and descriptions of what they sell. Urban Outfitters is "Mens and Women's clothing and useful household items" where Starbucks is the character for "star" plus "ba-ke" to give you sound of "buck".

The best though is "Hooters" which they put in as "Owl Restaurant". Kinda misses the flavor of the original.

by Moose on Feb 10, 2011 12:01 pm • linkreport

Moose-where'd you find these out? I'd love to see some of the other ones, especially the awkward descriptions instead of just transliterated names. I've always had a soft spot for Chinglish in China-makes it even better when it's close to home!

by redline on Feb 10, 2011 12:22 pm • linkreport

@redline BA & MA in East Asian Studies and way too many years studying Mandarin Chinese, so I just read 'em when I walk through Chinablock. :)

by Moose on Feb 11, 2011 9:50 am • linkreport

I've heard from native Chinese speakers that the label of "Chinatown" in Mandarin on the arch is a calque of the English term "China Town" and not a more syntactical translation, but I don't know for sure.

by Neil Flanagan on Feb 11, 2011 10:47 am • linkreport

yes there are still Chinese doctors.
The Lee family runs a clinic on I street- this venerable family has been in Chinatown since the 1930's.

Sadly the DC city government , which is run by what is mostly PG County residents, sees no value in trying to maintain the ethnic authenticity of any neighborhood that is not of their own ethnicity.

by w on Feb 10, 2011 7:46 am

I have a good friend whose family lived in DC's Chinatown from the 1960's up to the 1980's during the bad old days of Chinatown and he told me that his family was happy to finally leave (they're mostly in Montgomery and Fairfax County now) and gets annoyed when newcomers to the neighborhood bemoan the disappearing "authenticity". I remember him once telling me, "this was a hard, poor ghetto neighborhood for new immigrants who couldn't yet do any better. We shouldn't have to stay to be some tourist trap for white people."

Chinatown isn't disappearing for lack of government subsidies just like it wasn't created with government subsidies. It's disappearing because the neighborhood is rapidly evolving and changing and people who once came here out of desperation want a better way of life and choose the suburbs and the dispersion and integration that goes with it. I think it's a healthy development and this "Friendship Arch", while a lovely piece of architecture, is more a idealized, imposed testament to a time gone by than a natural part of the urban fabric.

by Mike O on Feb 14, 2011 10:54 am • linkreport

I don't disagree with the key points, but want to note that this is a vehicular arch; pedestrians pass alongside rather than through. Compare this with the one on Bush Street in San Francisco:

It's obviously a very different condition, but I see no reason ours couldn't also have made a gate that those of us who don't choose to drive downtown could pass through. It bears notice that even a gate like this betrays DC's pervasive automotive bent...

by Kim on Feb 14, 2011 10:46 pm • linkreport


The arch was originally intended to include pedestrian walkways, as the San Francisco arch has. The agreement with Beijing in fact specified a 4-column archway. However, when Liu developed the specific design, he found that the H Street sidewalks were simply too narrow to accommodate more than one column each. -Which perhaps only reinforces your point about DC streets being automobile-focused...

by John D. on Feb 15, 2011 5:58 am • linkreport

I would note that H Street is much wider than Bush Street is. The columns are indeed quite wide, but that's because you've got a substantial structure to hold up.

by Alex B. on Feb 15, 2011 8:03 am • linkreport

One branch of my family ran a restaurant in Chinatown for many years; they moved out to Montgomery County when their house was demolished for the Metro entrance. Living in the central city then, particularly in the tense aftermath of the 1968 riots, wasn't exactly a picnic. I think a distant cousin still runs a restaurant out in Annapolis or somewhere.

Many cities have seen Chinatowns come and go; indeed, my grandparents' old neighborhoods in LA and Boston are gentrifying, and even in Asian cities (Singapore, Honolulu, Hong Kong) old "Chinatowns" are prized by gentrifiers for their authentic grittiness. Like any other ethnic neighborhood in melting-pot America, it can only retain its character as long as it's sustained by a constant flow of new immigrants. Chinatown here never had the critical mass to spawn its own export industries, unlike in NYC where garment manufacturing, import-export, and food processing for a broader Chinese market provide entry-level jobs for new immigrants.

Speaking of transliterations, the one for Legal Sea Foods disappoints me; it's just "seafood restaurant." Surely in DC they could've worked in some reference to the law.

by Payton on Feb 22, 2011 4:01 pm • linkreport

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