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Seattle’s Chinatown/International District: A Personal Reflection by Diane Sugimura

Appreciation for those who came before me.

Hope for those who come behind me.

As I think about Lunar New Year 2023, I am in awe of and thankful for the early Asian pioneers who not only faced the difficulties of settling and surviving in an unknown environment, they faced racism, displacement and physical harm.  But through this they persevered, creating a rich, cultural community that thrived and survived — though still very fragile — in spite of challenges from outside forces.  What can we learn as we move forward today?

Seattle’s unique pan-Asian community began in the mid- 1800s with the arrival of Chinese laborers. They initially settled at 1st and Yesler, a rough area, but the only area where they were “allowed” to live.  With unemployment rising, the Asian Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, prohibiting further Asian immigration.  Anti-Chinese Riots took place in 1887, physically removing Chinese from the area.  However, they were allowed back to help rebuild after the Great Fire.  Japanese started arriving in the late 1880s, Filipinos in the early 1900s, and Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians, after the fall of Vietnam.

Key Reminders of the Distant Past Remain Today

1904, Maneki restaurant, listed as one of “America’s Classics” by James Beard.

1909, Nippon Kan.  The Japanese pooled their resources to build their own theater/community center so they would not be relegated to the back of the balcony in local theaters.

1909, Louisa Hotel, an SRO hotel that was purchased by the Woo family in 1963.

  • A jazz club, Club Royale, was located in the basement in the 1920s, catering to Asian, Black and Jewish patrons who were not welcome elsewhere.
  • The hotel provided a place to sleep for Asian laborers such as the ‘Alaskeros.’  These men were subjected to discrimination in all aspects of cannery work — the jobs assigned, the wages, the living accommodations, the meals were all based on the color of their skin.  My father spent three summers in the canneries to fund his college education.  He went on to help design the electrical system of the first Boeing 747.  In Alaska he worked with “Tinky,” who went on to become the internationally renowned architect, Minoru Yamasaki, after graduating from the UW.  His designs can still be seen in Seattle including the Pacific Science Center, Rainier Tower and IBM Building (now 1200 Fifth); unfortunately the World Trade Center no longer stands in Manhattan.
  • The upper residential floors had to be vacated in the early ’70s due to the City’s costly fire safety requirements following the fatal Ozark Hotel fire; community-owned businesses, however, thrived on the ground level.  The Wah Mee incident in 1983 are a sad part of history.  A fire on Christmas Eve 2013 was devastating.
  • 2019, six years after the fire, the owners brought the whole building to life again.  Local businesses occupy the ground level, and 84 units of much-needed low and moderate income housing are above.

1910, the Panama Hotel with its sento bath.  During the incarceration of Japanese Americans, many were able to keep special belongings in the basement of the hotel.  A number of them did not return — some of their belongings can be viewed in the hotel.

1910, West and East Kong Yick, owned and built by selling shares to more than 170 Chinese men.  This was the only way they were able to own buildings.  The East Kong Yick building is now home to the Wing Luke Asian Museum, established 55 years ago.

1929, Chong Wa Benevolent Hall was designed by the 1st Asian to receive a UW architectural degree and the 1st Asian to receive an architectural license in the state of Washington.  The organization is the governing body of Chinese organizations throughout the state.

1942, all Japanese Americans on the West Coast were incarcerated, requiring them to leave their homes, businesses and belongings.  Nihonmachi was no longer.

1957, Bush Garden, a large Japanese restaurant, a fixture in the district and the first restaurant in the country to have a karaoke bar.

1960, United Savings and Loan, established by the Robert Chinn family, to provide banking services to the unserved/underserved Asian community.

1962, Wing Luke, Seattle City Council, the 1st Asian American elected to public office in the PNW.  He was a strong advocate for civil rights and fair housing.  Unfortunately, he was killed in a plane accident, before he saw the City adopt the Fair Housing Act. When he first introduced the bill in 1964, almost 70% of the population voted against the measure.

Starting in the 1960s, Bob Santos, affectionately known as “Uncle Bob,” led community activists, helping to save the Chinatown/International District community from strong external pressures — public projects, continued redlining, racism, gentrification/displacement.  We fought for affordable housing, community spaces, parks, elderly housing, not  wanting the district to become a parking lot for the stadium.  Some of the results of this effort:

  • 1968, International District Emergency Center, established by Donnie Chin, who dedicated his life and ultimately gave his life for the community.  He was caught in a cross-fire while on night watch in the district in 2015.  He trained two generations of emergency responders for the community … providing security, rapid response and overall care for the people.  The International Children’s Park, originally designed in 1981 and redesigned  by a UW Landscape Architecture studio led by Prof. Jeff Hou, is now named for Donnie.
  • In the 1970s, the community raised major objections to the development of the Kingdome — fearing negative impacts on this fragile community.  After many demonstrations, meetings, negotiations, the International Special Review District was formed, affordable housing was funded, public spaces were developed, all lasting longer than the stadium.
  • 1973 Hing Hay Park.  The name means “Celebrate Happiness.”
  • 1975, Danny Woo Garden.  Hundreds of community volunteers helped clear the land, terrace the steep site, add manure from Longacres, creating a garden for the community residents.  It has since been expanded and redesigned by UW students.
  • 2023, Recognizing a Legacy. Uncle Bob’s Place will soon open, featuring 126 low-income housing units, community and commercial spaces, including the reopening of the Bush Garden restaurant, where Uncle Bob was well known for his karaoke performances.

In spite of these successes, the external pressures from major public projects and gentrification continue today.  The needs of the 1960s and 70s still exist … affordable housing, affordable commercial spaces for local businesses, social services, and general public safety, which has been exacerbated by the increase in anti-Asian hate crimes.  Much work has been done; much is still needed.