Painting Chinatown Red

In July, six Chinese artists left their homes in Tianjin for a four-month stay in Philadelphia. Their sacrifice was made in the name of the Friendship Gate.

If you’ve traveled down 10th Street en route to Chinatown during the past four months, you probably saw a mess of paint buckets and scaffolding. Above the scaffolding were artists and architects, busy restoring Chinatown’s Friendship Gate.

For months, these men and women repainted the gate, adjusted to American culture and even did a bit of sightseeing. They arrived in July and left earlier this month.

Chinese artisans finished revitalizing the worn-down Friendship Gate on 10th Street earlier this month. Philadelphia’s is the only Chinatown gate in the United States that was constructed by Chinese citizens (Anna Zhilkova/TTN).

The Friendship Gate, which was first given to Philadelphia from its sister city Tianjin, China, in 1982, straddles 10th Street, welcoming visitors to Chinatown. It is said to represent the strong friendship between Philadelphia and Tianjin. What makes the city’s Friendship Gate so remarkable is that it is the only Chinese gate in the United States that was crafted entirely by Chinese artisans.

Effects from wear and tear have begun to show on the paneling of the gate. The once vivid blues, reds and greens have faded. The gold leaf has chipped away from paintings of dragons and phoenixes.
After more than 20 years of welcoming people to Chinatown, the gate was in need of reconstruction.

With a team effort from the International Visitors Council of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation and Temple, artisans and architects from Tianjin were able to visit the United States and restore their city’s gift.

In order to use the project in an educational capacity, Scott Gratson, director of Temple’s communications program, asked one of his students to film the reconstruction process. Senior film and media arts major Bernard Downey documented the artisans in action. With video equipment over his shoulder, he climbed the scaffolding that encompassed the gate and gathered footage for his 10-minute documentary.

“It’s so exciting, just going up on that gate with them and just trying to learn,” Downey said.

Adelaide Ferguson, the interim vice president for the Office of International Affairs, said no actual records of the creation of the gate exist.

Downey is capturing and documenting a piece of Philadelphia’s history.

“It’s a wonderful and cross-cultural experience,” Ferguson said.

The process of gathering the necessary materials was not as easy as purchasing brushes and gallons of paint from Sherwin-Williams. Since the artisans worked in Chinese folk art, they insisted on using purely traditional methods to paint.

They requested fresh pigs’ blood to serve as a primer for the paint. In an effort to obtain gallons of fresh pigs’ blood, Nancy Gilboy, CEO of the International Visitors Council of Philadelphia, called Dietz & Watson to have it shipped from North Carolina. To Gilboy’s surprise, the pigs’ blood arrived frozen. In a panic, she contacted the city morgue and asked if she could store it there.

Downey witnessed the frozen pigs’ blood being turned into paint. In the middle of a large field, the artisans boiled it in a large wok. The process, which might seem strange, is a traditional method that has been utilized by Chinese artisans for centuries.

“It’s been a very interesting treasure hunt,” said John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation.

Chin searched for materials like raw cotton to be used in lieu of cotton balls.

Finding the resources they needed to restore the gate in a traditional manner was not the only issue they overcame. The artisans, who are from the northern Chinese city of Tianjin, had trouble finding suitable food to eat, as the majority of the restaurants in Chinatown offer southern Chinese cuisine.
The artisans returned home to Tianjin just two weeks ago, taking with them amazing experiences. But they didn’t just take away memories. They left them behind for everyone who was involved in this enormous project.

Soon, the scaffolding will be removed and Philadelphia will be able to enjoy this beautiful artistic feat.

Nicole Saylor can be reached at

1 Comment

  1. Great post! Good written. I can’t stop laughnig when I read about blood of pigs. I’ve never heard about such tradition. Thanks for post!

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