Monday, October 11, 2010

Ottawa Chinatown Gateway Arch--with Grace

This is Grace Xin (pron: "Shin"), whose tenure as Executive Director of the Somerset Street Chinatown Business Improvement Area (BIA) ends on October 15, 2010. Here, Grace is pictured Thursday afternoon, after pulling off a remarkable ceremony to officially open the Ottawa Chinatown Gateway.

While the project has been in development for decades, the first public expression was this 3D mural built on the wall of a neighbouring building in September 2007. It was made by Cairn Cunnane as a partnership between the Somerset Street Chinatown BIA and the Ottawa Police Service, hence the police officer in the final mural:

The Gateway was built as a partnership between the BIA, various donors, all three levels of government, as well as the Chinese embassy and the City of Beijing. It is built across Somerset Street West at Cambridge Street North, which is seen here in early April 2010 [edit: Justin Wonnacott's Somerset Online has a picture of it in 2006]:

The official groundbreaking ceremony was held on April 22, 2010, with a who's-who of Ottawa and of Chinatown in attendance. A traditional ceremony was held with firecrackers, incense and a roast pig, followed by a Western ceremony--a symbolic shovelling of a pile of dirt that had been specially carted onto Cambridge Street for the occasion.

Also in the audience at the ceremony were the labourers brought in from China to build the gateway:

The gateway was built in three distinct phases, the first two of which required Somerset Street to be closed to traffic for two months starting May 31, 2010. In the first phase a local contractor buried the adjacent power lines, then constructed the massive footings (which go down 28feet into the bedrock) and the columns and structural part of the arch. Here we can see the cylindrical forms for the steel-reinforced concrete columns that will support the 100-ton arch:

The second phase involves the Chinese artisans building and installing the roof pieces and decorative panels. They did this, using special wooden moulds built by artisans in China, in a staging area in the lot behind the Yangtze restaurant on Cambridge Street North (where some abandoned houses were demolished due to frequent fires).

Because of Ottawa's sister-city status with Beijing, Ottawa's gateway is a Royal Arch, with nine roofs--the greatest number in Chinese numerology. (Chinese numerology is also why the opening ceremony was at 3:58 instead of the unlucky 4 o'clock)

Built into the structure of the arch are sybols of good luck: five Chinese coins--one from the Tyng Dynasty, over 1000 years old, and one from the Ching Dynasty, about 200 years old--made of gold, silver, copper, iron & tin, and five coloured threads (red, yellow, blue, white & black).

By mid-June, four of the roofs had been installed:

In late June, three more roofs were added to the top:

These last two roofs were built just a little bit too wide, and didn't fit as they were supposed to, as Eric explained at the time. They would be modified and installed later, until which time they sat out on the road.

Eventually, all nine roofs were placed, and the glazed roof tiles were installed on top of them. Work was also underway to reconstruct the sidewalks in the vicinity.

Decorative panels were installed in the gaps under the arches in July.

And on July 31, traffic was restored under the gateway. New scaffolding was erected for the third phase: painting. This involved a different team of Chinese artisans that came in after the first team left.

The lowest part of the gateway is 5m (16') high, and the top is 11m (33') above street level. The two pillars are about 12m (36') apart, and the entire structure weighs about 130 tons (including the 30-ton footings). These artisans preparing the roof areas for painting are dwarfed by the massive structure:

Throughout August and September, the artisans continued to paint the arch in bright colours. I posted a photo at the time, with links to other coverage of the painting.

By the end of August, much of the painting was finished and the artisans turned to trimming the arch with half a kilogram (over 1 lb) of gold leaf. The dragon panels had not yet been gilded in this picture, and still showed the yellow paint:

By mid-September, the work on the gateway was complete, and the upper scaffolding was removed. The columns only had a coat of primer, and the lower scaffolding had yet to be reomved.

Fast-forward to October 7th, where sunny weather welcomed a large crowd in the official opening ceremony. Chinese Ambassador LAN Lijun, Federal Government House leader John Baird, Ottawa-Centre MPP Yasir Naqvi, Ottawa Mayor Larry O'Brien, and LIANG Wei, Senior Advisor of Beijing Municipal Government, all spoke at the event.

The two lions guarding the gateway were unveiled at the end of the ceremony by Somerset Ward Councillor Diane Holmes, Somerset Street Chinatown BIA Chair Peter So (owner of So Good restaurant), and other BIA representatives and contributors: Larry Lee, Peter Yeung,Frank Ling, Bill Joe, Ron Tomlinson, and Marion Hum. By this point, the invited audience members had all gotten up from their seats to join the media in taking photos, and those of us in the crowd took our own photos from beyond the fence. Robin Kelsey does a good job of explaining the symbolism of the lions on his blog.

Here is the male lion. Mayor Larry O'Brien and LIANG Wei then 'painted' the eyes of the lions to let them see, and a ribbon with the logos of Canada, Ontario, Ottawa, and Beijing was officially cut.

To top off the ceremonies, Chinese dragons danced at the base of the arch while everyone watched and celebrated:

The gateway is remarkably beautiful, and the artisans did an excellent job. Note the reflection in the red paint on the side of the roof section:

This great ceremony was all in a day's work for Grace Xin. Thank you and congratulations, Grace!

For more photos of this arch and others around the world, visit, maintained by Eric Darwin.


  1. Great job Charles! Future historians are going to love this post.

  2. Très belle architecture. J'espère pouvoir y aller la visiter un jour!