This week’s excursion was to the International District in Seattle, a residential and commercial area of Asian Americans which is roughly bounded by 5th Avenue to the west, Yesler to the north, 8th Avenue to the east and Dearborn to the south. And, like many other Seattle neighborhoods, my wife and I had never taken the time to explore the area on foot. Prior to WWII, the Asian minorities about whom the most has been written were the Chinese, Japanese and Filipinos. While the demographics today are different, the ID, as it’s called for short, is still seen as an Asian enclave in Seattle. It is also called Chinatown, which refers to a smaller section of the ID where most of the Chinese businesses operate.
Weather-wise, today was predicted not to be as nice as the previous few (actually, many) weeks before: overcast with chance of rain in the morning, partially clearing in the afternoon. My wife and I decided to give it a go and hoped for the best. As it turned out, it didn’t rain at all, but it was blustery and cloudy for most of the day. Once again, it was a simple matter of hopping onto an express bus all the way from Bellevue to the ID.
We started off the day with breakfast at the Panama Hotel Tea & Coffee shop, which above ground has no pass-through to the hotel’s rooms, though originally the cafe area served as the lobby. To get to the hotel units, you have to enter the stairwell from a separate street entrance and climb to the second level of the building. Although we weren’t hotel guests, the manager allowed us to look around. The Panama Hotel (605½ S Main St) served as a residence for mostly Japanese residents and businesses until 1950. When it was built in 1910 by a Japanese American architect, the lower floors housed businesses while people lived in the upper floors of the five-story building. There was even a sento (bathhouse) in the basement. Though the bathhouse is still intact, it is no longer used. The hotel was part of a large, thriving Japantown. When Pearl Harbor happened, Americans of Japanese ancestry along the West Coast, including residents of the hotel, were ordered to leave their homes, businesses and belongings and put in concentration (euphemistically called “relocation”) camps. The belongings of many families evacuated from the hotel have been kept in the basement by the current owner for future claim by descendants. A portion of these items can be seen through a plexiglas viewing window in the café floor. The hotel is now a National Historic Landmark and has resumed renting out rooms, which have been completely renovated.
Danny Woo Community Gardens
Across the street, we noticed a forested setting rising steeply on the hillside. A torii gate serves as the official entrance to the Danny Woo Community Gardens though we entered it along the west side over a series of cascading stairways. This was the largest P-patch we had ever seen, spread out over 1.5 acres and picturesquely designed over terraces and sloped areas, where community gardeners had planted all manner of flowers, herbs and vegetables, many of them Asian. There was even a chicken coop where owners can harvest eggs.
Kobe Terrace Park
The gardens butt up against the Kobe Terrace Park to the northeast. A 200-year-old stone lantern gifted by Kobe, Seattle’s sister city in Japan, anchors a park that contains many mature cherry trees. The lantern was presented to Seattle on the occasion of the nation’s bicentennial. This is not a quiet respite because I-5 borders the east edge of the park.
Nippon Kan Theatre
We exited the park at S Washington St where we immediately came upon the old Nippon Kan Theatre (628 S Washington St), built in 1909 and center for the Japanese performing arts, cinema, martial arts and community activities back in the day. Like many other buildings in Japantown, it was boarded up when the war came. It is no longer a theater, but now houses a legal services firm. Still, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The name of the theater appears on two sides of the building. The Wing Luke Museum displays the original stage curtain (see below).
Though not seen as part of the historic International District, Union Station (4th Ave S and S Jackson St) has been in existence side-by-side throughout its history. It was constructed in 1911 by Union Pacific to compete with King Street Station that served Great Northern and Northern Pacific and now serves as the headquarters of Sound Transit, a transportation consortium funded by three adjacent Washington counties. Laying idle for many years after the railroad industry’s decline, Union Station became the focus for restoration efforts and re-opened in 1999. Walking into the central room, I was impressed by the massive vaulted ceiling, tiled floor, pilasters and tiled wainscoting that lined the walls and support posts. The sand-colored interior accentuates the soaring space, heightened by natural illumination through a large semi-circular window on the south wall and skylights along the top of the ceiling. Though we’ve seen the transit tunnel in the past, we went down for another look. Several stairways accessible through entry points between Union Station and 5th Avenue lead down to the tunnel platforms.
We continued south on 5th Avenue, then west on S King St. The first of a planned pair of Chinatown gates straddles King St. It was constructed with private, business and city government donations but has been the center of some controversy. The Chinese community considers it a source of pride and tribute to the old Chinatown while other Asian groups insist that the area has always been a Pan-Asian community. There is some doubt that the second gate of the pair will ever be raised because of this divisive issue. The gate is 45ft tall, painted in red (for luck), and lined with tiles imported from China.
Hing Hay Park
Further east along King St, at the corner of Maynard Avenue, is Hing Hay Park (423 Maynard Ave S), dedicated in 1975 and venue for a variety of community events. It isn’t unusual to see tai chi classes in session or a lion dance being performed during Chinese New Year. The public space is dominated by a pavilion donated by Taipei (in Taiwan).
International District Walking Tour
We’ve rarely regretted taking an organized tour, even of places with which we are familiar. So, we took one (“Touch of Chinatown”) sponsored by The Wing Luke Museum. The tour began in the Tateuchi Story Theatre where Don, our wonderful and knowledgeable guide, set the historical stage for the tour to follow. He pointed out the 15x30ft scrim that hung from the stage, the long-lost curtain from the Nippon Kan Theatre that only had a brief life (1909-1915) as a fire barrier between the backstage and customers. The scrim was unashamedly an advertisement medium of a grid of 48 squares (6 down, 8 across) on which a merchant could pay for advertising space. If the merchant was in arrears, his advertisement was rubbed out. In position #3 is a plug for Maneki, a restaurant that amazingly still operates today and considered the best Japanese restaurant in the ID.
In the lobby of the museum, Don reviewed the life story of Wing Luke, a remarkable saga of a boy of 5 years who immigrated to the U. S. with his parents from Canton, China, and eventually became the Assistant Attorney General of Washington state (1957-1962) and Seattle city councilman (1957-death), despite confronting racial discrimination throughout his life. He was a staunch defender of civil rights.
The first stop on the tour was the retail shop of Tsue Chong Company, manufacturers of a range of Asian noodle products that are sold widely. But, it is more popular for its fortune cookies so ubiquitous at Chinese restaurants. Also available are its fortune cookie seconds, affectionately known as “unfortune” cookies, which can be purchased in large bags here. The Unfortunes have become so popular, in fact, that the company now makes them deliberately in this way to sell. The noodle factory is behind the shop and takes up almost an entire city block.
In front of Eng Suey Sun Plaza on S Weller St are statues of two lions flanking the entry stairway. Such statues were historically found in front of the homes of the Chinese elite, though this is no longer the case. Don explained their symbolism. The male lion, on the right (as you’re facing a building) with his right paw on an embroidered ball, protects the building, while the female lion rests her left paw on a lion cub, representing nurture.
Our next stop was Canton Alley, unique because of storefronts that used to face into an alley. The Kong Yick buildings that line the east and west sides also had single room occupancy (SRO) units on the upper levels to rent to Chinese, Japanese and Filipino laborers. The east building houses Wing Luke Museum. In the 1950s, these storefronts were converted to apartments and remained occupied until 2005. The museum eventually purchased both buildings and restored apartment #6 to its former condition and is now an historic exhibit, which in general is accessible on organized tours. The storefronts are now painted in Cinque Terre-like pastel colors.
No tour of the ID would be complete without a stop at one of the many Chinese bakeries. Don took us directly into Mon Hei, the oldest bakery. My enthusiastic review of its cocktail bun is here.
We stopped briefly at the northern end of Maynard Alley. Perhaps to avoid its gruesome details, the Wah Mee Massacre was not mentioned, though one of the tour members asked about it. The only place Don mentioned was an aquarium shop that is accessible from the alley.
Tai Tung (655 S King), the ID’s oldest Chinese restaurant (since 1935), doesn’t get the attention that others in the area get but, as Don pointed out, it’s been serving generations of families. It’s become an institution of sorts, including long-time waiters.
Don took us to the Panama Hotel where we had already visited by ourselves.
The tour was a very good one with lots of history and anecdotes about the ID. One glaring omission was the Filipino connection. This may have to do with the fact that the everyday lives of laborers, which Filipinos primarily were in the ID, including labor organizer Carlos Bulosan, got short shrift at the expense of historic buildings and institutions that were prominent throughout the ID’s history. Also generally not well known is that the influx of African Americans to the ID during the war years led to Jackson Street becoming Seattle’s center of jazz, swing and R&B.
Wing Luke Museum
After lunch, we returned to the museum to look at the exhibits. The Wing Luke Museum is the only one in the country that is devoted to all Asian and Pacific Island Americans. Inside are snippets of their histories, photos, art, personal stories and oral histories, and artifacts. Photography of the exhibits is not permitted.