Gateway to D.C.’s Chinatown

Happy Chinese Lunar New Year, from Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown…

I’m writing this blog from Chinatown Coffee Co., a gem of a coffee shop on H Street NW.

As we officially enter the Year of the Rabbit, I thought this would be a fitting day to write about the most visible symbol of the District’s historic Chinese neighborhood, the Friendship Archway.

DC Chinatown Friendship Arch
D.C.’s Chinatown Friendship Arch

Just a few blocks from where I’m sitting, it spans H Street NW at its intersection with 7th  St., which is considered the heart of Chinatown.

It was designed by Chinese-born local architect Alfred Liu and built by expert Chinese artisans from the Beijing Ancient Architecural Construction Corp.

The finished product melded Ming and Qing dynasty styles, boasting seven roofs, 700 tiles, and more than 280 dragons and other classical decorative features.

Measuring 75 feet across and towering about 50 feet above H Street, it’s supposed to be the largest, single-span archway in the world.

But the characters in the middle – which mean “Chinese District” – announce what is perhaps one of the country’s smallest Chinatowns.


The archway was completed in the fall of 1986 as a symbol of friendship for sister cities and respective capitals Washington and Beijing, and was also an attempt to bolster D.C.’s vanishing Chinese neighborhood.

It celebrated its first Chinese lunar new year a few months later – in the Year of the Rabbit.

Ironically, the two mayors responsible for the memorial – and whose names are still inscribed there – were destined for later disgrace: Marion Barry for cronyism and an FBI sting involving crack cocaine, and Chen Xitong for embezzlement and the Tiananmen Massacre.

Perhaps that’s why the engraving was partially hidden by a row of newspaper boxes.

Archway Inscription
The inscription at the base of the Archway by two controversial mayors.

Let’s hope that this Year of the Rabbit is a more auspicious one for the rest of us…

The archway itself wasn’t without some controversy either, particulalry in the beginning.

The idea came about from Mayor Barry’s trade mission to China in 1984, where it was agreed that the Chinese government would pay half of the $1 million price tag for the memorial.

Barry hadn’t consulted the actual residents of Chinatown, most of whom claimed allegiance to the nationalist government in Taiwan.

Some decried the building of a “communist archway” in their neighborhood, and planned a rival archway a few blocks away at 5th Street, which never came to pass.

The Arch-gate controversy eventually subsided, and the memorial became a unifying aspect for the neighborhood, even though its grandiose design dwarfed the down-on-its heels surroundings.

But just four years after it was installed, clay tiles and other pieces began falling off, including a 100-pound dragon head that hit a soda truck passing below.

The D.C. Department of Public Works had all the ornamental pieces removed, until a team of engineers and classically-trained artisans could travel from Beijing in 1993 to fix them and apply a fresh coat of paint and gilding.

In 2009, the archway was treated to another sprucing up by Alfred Liu, who restored ceramic pieces and rotted wood, and repainted its original bright colors.

Today the Friendship Archway is looking great, and the buildings around it have grown to match its size and glitz.

And while there is only a thin veneer of “Chineseness” to most of the new development, the archway is still a rallying point for the area’s Asian community – particularly around the annual lunar new year parade.

Come back next week for photos of this year’s parade. If you’re in town, it takes place this Sunday from 2 – 5 p.m., on H Street NW between 6th and 8th Streets.

Check it out, and grab a latte from Chinatown Coffee Co. – or “The Crazy Rabbit” cocktail they’re offering on Sunday – I think either one will keep you warm.

Chinatown Coffee Cappucino
A Chinatown Coffee Cappucino

And if you hear a loud boom around 3:45 p.m., don’t panic – apparently there will be a large firecracker to ring in the new year…


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