New England had a long and thriving trade with China, which is well-documented in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. The Chinese did not favor tattoos, except possibly amongst regional minorities and the criminal classes, but Chinese art history of the period was rich in beautiful stylized designs in ceramics and textiles which became very popular in England and America.

Chinese dragons traditionally symbolize potent and auspicious powers, particularly control over water, rainfall, hurricane, and floods. The dragon is also a symbol of power, strength, and good luck. American sailors who had been to China often got dragon tattoos to commemorate their passage.

The animals in the corners are stylized bats, of the kind often found on brocade textiles and ceramic designs. The bat symbolizes good luck in Chinese art, because of a pun: The character “fu” for good fortune sounds the same (in the Beijing dialect) as the character for bat. (See the many character styles for “Being Lucky in Chinese” described on this site.)

Chinese immigrants have been part of Boston life since at least the mid-1800’s- Chinatown was established after a group of 75 workers brought to work in the Sampson shoe factory in North Adams, MA eventually migrated to Boston.

Boston’s first Chinese resident is buried in the cemetery in Boston Common, dated mid-1800’s. It was written about in the book “The Silent Traveler in Boston”, by Chiang Yee, published in 1959.

The face and details of this design were also inspired by a piece of trade porcelain in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum.


Trade history:

China, originally inward-facing, had little demand for foreign goods, while European nations had a great demand for tea, spices and other fine goods. China had a strong trading position and would only accept silver bullion in exchange. Britain began smuggling in opium, and sought to grow a domestic demand for the drug [Wikipedia]. As the Chinese attempted to stop the flow if opium into their country, Britain started two wars to guarantee their continuing drug imports, resulting in the opening of a series of designated trade ports (including Hong Kong) and a loss of status for China.[Wikipedia]

New England traders took part in the opium trade also, but had more of other goods to offer: There was a market in China for Spanish gold, American ginseng, & Northwestern sea otter pelts.


Volunteer friend and visitor from Seattle, painting a Chinese good luck bat
Volunteer friend and visitor from Seattle, painting a good luck bat.

Installation Crew:

Design and Layout: Liz LaManche
Inking: Liz LaManche, Emma Westling, Dan Alroy
Detail work: Emma Westling
Bats and clouds: Charlie Lieu, Dan Alroy