On Leong Chinese Merchants Association

The On Leong Chinese Merchants Association building, with its Chinese Eclectic architecture, is a landmark of DC's Chinatown.

The On Leong Chinese Merchants Association building is significant as the long-time home of On Leong Tong (from 1932 to 1997), the city’s preeminent Chinese benevolent association. Mutal aid organizations like On Leong Tong played a critical role in Chinese communities throughout the United States, as they served numerous functions, particularly for newly-arrived immigrants.

In 1851, Chiang Kai, DC’s first recorded Chinese resident, arrived. In the following decades, more Chinese – particular, male merchants – immigrated to the United States for work, despite federal restrictions in 1875, 1882, and 1924. Tongs (translated from Cantonese as “meeting halls”) are described in the historic landmark nomination “as fraternal organizations or merchants’ and workers’ benevolent societies not requiring family ties or geographic ones beyond a Cantonese origin.” On Leong Tong had chapters in San Francisco, New York City, and other cities, with DC’s On Leong Tong founded in 1912.

On Leong Tong provided legal and social services, including funerary services, as many Chinese in the 19th and into the 20th century wished to be buried in China. On Leong also functioned as a board of trade, as it negotiated labor and business disputes, worked with business and government leaders, and regulated where Chinese-owned businesses, such as laundries, could be located. It also provided loans, an important function at a time of racial discrimination in the banking industry.

This importance led to On Leong’s president being referred to as the “Mayor of Chinatown.” Over the years, however, due in-part to changes in immigration, On Leong lost its preeminent influence and in the postwar era the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association started to take responsibility for some of On Leong’s longtime functions and community services.

In addition to its community and charitable services, On Leong Tong and rival tongs, such as Hip Sing Tong, were once involved in illegal business like gambling. This led to violence and the "Tong Wars," which lasted from the 1890s to the 1930s.

Crucially, On Leong Tong played a pivotal role in the relocation of Chinatown to the H Street NW corridor in the early 1930s. DC’s first Chinatown was centered at Pennsylvania Avenue and 4th Street NW, but was forced to relocate and make room for the massive Federal Triangle development. The On Leong building shows the transformation of existing buildings to suit the community’s needs, as the building dates to ca. 1852 to 1857 and was originally two rowhouses. In 1932, following the relocation, architect Marcus T. Hallett extensively renovated the two buildings, combining them and adding Chinese Eclectic design elements. These Chinese ornamental features – including pagoda style roofs with upturned hip rafters and terra cotta S tiles, and balconies with Chinese fretwork patterns – reference historic Chinese architecture and cultural identity. The building’s well-preserved historic storefront, which now houses Chinatown Garden restaurant, is also significant.

DC Inventory: September 26, 1996
DC Inventory (Additional Documentation): April 25, 2024

This site is a part of the Finding Asian American History in Washington DC digital tour.

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618-20 H Street NW