By Vera Ing
For Northwest Asian Weekly
I was one of the honorees at the Northwest Asian Weekly Dinner on Dec. 3. The event was held at the House of Hong Restaurant in the International District (ID).
My award was given because of my involvement in the district, during my early days in Chinatown, and for raising a family in the Mt. Baker Neighborhood during the Civil Rights movement.
Each of us were asked a question; mine was “How has the community (the ID) changed for the better since you were a child?”
I used the House of Hong Restaurant building as a point of reference for my answers. When I was born just before WWII, our family lived across King Street, in Canton Alley.
As a child, I would run through Mrs. Chin Han’s victory garden, which is now the Four Seas Restaurant, on my way to Safeway to buy bread and milk with ration stamps.
A big treat was a tin of corned beef.
Although early Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrants lived side-by-side in the ID, we rarely ventured from our separate enclaves.
The core of Chinatown, the four square blocks between 7th and 8th, King and Weller, was my entire universe.
The 1960s-70s civil rights movement changed all that. For the first time, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino leaders like Ben Woo, Tomio Moriguchi, and Bob Santos worked together to secure funding for a number of low-income houses and established bilingual social services.
Third-generation activists and businessmen played a large role in keeping the area from being impacted by the construction of I-5, the Kingdome, and expansion of the CBD (Central Business District). Alan Sugiyama and Frankie Irigon organized marches. Larry Imamura invested in the district by opening his Office Emporium Store in the abandoned Safeway building.
Open housing and immigration reforms expanded the community from three to more than 30 Asian ethnic populations, from 16 blocks to the entire greater Seattle Metropolitan area. Assunta Ng also started the Northwest Asian Weekly.
In the 1980s, political gurus like Ruth Woo emerged. With the election of Dolores Sibonga to the Seattle City Council and others like Ruby Chow, the Asian community became and has remained a power broker in local politics.
There have been Asian American public officials at every level throughout the state.
At that time, my husband, Joey, designed the original House of Hong Restaurant for Faye Hong. The building burnt down shortly afterward. It was the time of the infamous Wai Mee Massacre. Young activist Denise Louie was killed in the crossfire of a gang war shooting in San Francisco. Matriarchs like Yuen Lui and Mon Wai were murdered in their homes; their killers were never found.
I was worried that the Asian crime wave raging in the San Francisco and Vancouver Chinatowns would come here.
I believe that because of the diversity of the district, it never happened, and the House of Hong was rebuilt.
In the last decade, new community leaders like Ron Chew, Sue Taoka, and Diane Narasaki built new $21 million facilities for the Wing Luke Asian Museum, Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority/Health and Community Complex, and Asian Counseling and Referral Service. Jerry Lee, Faye Hong, and Tuck Eng were able to realize their fathers’ dream of building a Chinatown Gate.
All this occurred without the usual gentrification and encroachment of urban renewal. The buildings still look pretty much the same and serve the same purpose as when I lived in Chinatown.
How can we, as a community, continue to improve?
By moving on from a ghetto vision.
I miss the neighborhood Safeway, movie theater, New York Bakery, Jackson Street Jazz Clubs, and Chickamoto Ice Creamery of my youth.
While our public housing and services are holding their own, the area’s restaurants and stores struggle, due to the lack of business.
The buildings and streets look a bit worn.
Community activists should not be afraid of a little gentrification, mixing a little new with the old. It will help and not consume the district.
Let’s work together to improve the area to the standards that we now enjoy.
That way, we can continue to share a common sense of pride and history in what is truly the most diverse Asian hub in the United States. And those of us who have moved away will come to the ID regularly, not just for meetings, fundraisers, and community dinners. ♦
Vera Ing can be reached at email@example.com.