It's not as if the Chinatown International District is all that hard to distinguish from its surrounding neighborhoods. The area east of...

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It’s not as if the Chinatown International District is all that hard to distinguish from its surrounding neighborhoods.

The area east of Safeco Field has ornate dragon statuettes crawling on poles, an elaborate pagoda and Chinese characters written across window fronts.

But for decades, the Chinese community has been pushing for something that will, even more emphatically, tell visitors where they are.

In January, a traditional Chinese archway is scheduled to be completed, marking both years of effort and the place where Chinese immigrants settled more than 100 years ago.

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The 45-foot-tall archway, which straddles South King Street east of Fifth Avenue South, faces the Metro bus tunnel and future light-rail station.

The structure welcomes visitors to partake of the neighborhood’s cultural offerings: bakeries filled with egg-custard tarts and bubble tea, dim sum restaurants, and shops carrying unique Asian goods.

“You’ve heard of Chinatown, but we need to have a symbol that marks that this is Chinatown,” said Faye Hong, a longtime Chinese restaurant owner and board member for the Historic Chinatown Gate Foundation, which spearheaded the project.

“Lately I’ve been doing a lot of travel back to China,” he said. “Every place I’ve gone to has one of these gates. It’s symbolic of our Chinese culture. It’s very important to us.”

Hong said several attempts to create a gate over the past few years have fizzled because of a lack of initiative.

But this time, aided by architect Paul Wu, the project is in its final stage.

Wu spent time in China researching ancient archways, and even brought over two gate experts from China to work on the project.

“Everywhere the Chinese people go, they always want to leave a gate,” Wu said.

At the end of the 19th century, Chinese immigrants in Seattle eventually relocated to what is now the Chinatown International District after moving from the original settlement near the waterfront. A gate to designate the territory — such as those in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Vancouver, B.C. — never materialized.

Contributions

About seven years ago, Tuck Eng initiated another push and formed the nonprofit Historic Chinatown Gate Foundation to get two gates built in Seattle’s Chinatown.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the $500,000 archway was in the spring of 2006, but the gate’s foundation — rooted 85 feet deep to stand up to seismic pressures — was not finished until November of last year.

Community members contributed to the total $600,000 raised for two planned gateways, said Hong; the South Downtown Fund pitched in $100,000, Bellevue-based architectural firm MulvannyG2 contributed expertise, and King County and Seattle each pitched in $100,000, he said. Donor plaques will be mounted on the base of the gate.

The original plan was to build another gate marking the east boundary of Chinatown International District on South King Street — but there is not enough money left to build a twin structure, Wu said.

He is hoping that the appearance of the archway will inspire people to support the second project — which likely would be located on South King at 12th Avenue South.

Red, yellow and blue

Wu, who works for Puget Sound Energy and runs a Kirkland consulting firm, said he thinks the red, yellow and blue archway — decorated with good-luck statuettes and topped with orange glazed tiling — will add to the area’s tourism and, in turn, help local businesses.

Wu said the archway brings the Asian cultures together.

“This is good for business; this is not purely an ethnicity issue,” he said.

Vi Mar, who operated tour service Chinatown Discovery in the neighborhood for two decades, said the gates are crucial in helping tourism to the Chinatown International District.

Most Chinatowns in U.S. major cities have such gates — symbolic of many things such as strength, good luck and safety. Mar said Seattle is long overdue.

“It makes a statement that we are here,” Mar said. The grand opening for the gate is scheduled for Chinese New Year, which falls on Feb. 7 next year.

Christina Siderius: 206-464-2112 or csiderius@seattletimes.com