Arts & Culture

Dragon mural in downtown Olympia dedicated to early Chinese immigrants

The Olympia Dragon Mural was dedicated Saturday to the Chinese-American community that was once prominent in the downtown area.

The mural features a dragon over the sea, with a red column on the right side decorated with the Chinese characters for peace, harmony and community.

Muralist Mymy Nguyen originally presented the idea to Anna Schlecht, who runs Volunteers in Paint at the Olympia Downtown Alliance.

“(This idea) immediately resonated with me as a powerful cultural artwork and wonderful thing for our downtown,” Schelcht said.

Nguyen and Schlecht then approached Debbie Leung of the Chinese healing and movement arts community, and it quickly gained momentum from there.

Doug and Cathy Mah, the Tacoma Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation Board, Aikido of Olympia, Heritage Bank, The City of Olympia, the South Puget Sound Community College Foundation, the Thomas Architecture Studio, the Olympia Downtown Alliance and others donated funds to get the project off the ground. Their fundraising allowed Nguyen and her team of painters to be paid for their work.

“The dragon is a symbol of strength, ordinarily depicted in great detail – scales, skin, features, expression: a sense of intention and motion. But in this dragon, we see only a silhouette – a ghost of the past strength, intention and motion of Chinese immigrants who left their homes, crossed the widest ocean, and came to Olympia for a better life,” Nguyen said in a press release.

“This is where they built a community. ... As a new immigrant, I hear the echo of their experiences; I feel it in my bones. ... This mural is a tribute to them; a remembrance that mourns the absence of their lost community here, and honors their bravery,” she wrote.

Olympia was home to a robust community of Chinese immigrants in the mid-1800s. According to the city of Olympia, they were drawn to the area by jobs as contract laborers, pulling stumps, working in lumber camps, harvesting shellfish, or filling service roles as cooks, house servants and other roles.

Over the years, economic scarcity, restrictive immigration laws, including the exclusion acts, meant fewer immigrants could make the journey to Olympia, and many moved to larger cities, reducing the Chinese community here.

The mural was finished on Saturday, where a block-party style celebration featured speakers and performers. Nguyen completed the mural by “dotting the eye” to “bring the dragon to life and complete the mural.”