By Arnold Mukai
Special to the Northwest Asian Weekly
As we approach the anniversary of the death of community leader Donnie Chin, I wrote a tribute letter for my childhood friend, to share my memories of the guardian angel who protected the International District (ID). I know there are thousands of people who miss this man and his selfless mission to serve and protect the ID.
I met Donnie Chin when we were kids at Bailey Gatzert Elementary School. Back then, Donnie was small and a target for bullies. He had an easy smile, and made friends easily.
We were probably 10 or 11 years old when Donnie said to me, “I just opened my own candy store. Want to help me run it?”
He explained to me that his mother ran a store in Chinatown, and she gave him a corner of the store to display and sell candy bars. I said, “Sure!” What 11-year-old would turn down an offer like that?
We agreed to meet up after school, and begin my entrepreneurial career. When we got to the store, Donnie showed me his corner display and introduced me to his mother. She was kind and had the same smile as Donnie. She offered me some candy from China. Donnie told his Mother, “Arnold’s here to help me with the store.” Donnie’s mother explained the store was having a door prize drawing. I didn’t know what a door prize was, but Donnie insisted I should fill out an entry. “You might win candy,” he said. “Give me a pen, I’m in,” I said. After all, if the door prize was money, I would’ve bought candy.
Donnie prepared for customers as I watched him work. He was getting organized, taking inventory, and just looked like he knew what he was doing. At 11 years old, I never thought of being organized or prepared unless I was reminded countless times by an adult. Donnie’s mother was teaching him to be organized and responsible, though we were both oblivious to the lessons at the time. The wholesaler who provided the candy arrived and Donnie had prepared a list of candy bars he wanted. When the delivery man came back from his truck, Mrs. Chin smiled at the delivery man, and he winked back, as Donnie signed his name for the delivery. He knew she was preparing her son, teaching life lessons as he sold candy bars.
After the candyman was finished with his delivery, we were ready for business. We waited for customers to storm in. We waited and waited … then boredom became a factor. It was hard work to wait for customers, especially for me, since I had the attention span and patience of a bumble bee. I realize now that I was being taught patience. Eventually, I noticed 20 minutes had passed … that was the longest 20 minutes of my life! Coincidentally, that was the first 20 minutes that I ever worked.
When you’re 11 years old, 20 minutes of waiting was equivalent to 6 months in jail. I tried to endure it the best I could, but made an excuse to leave after almost an hour. That was the end of my career as co-owner of a candy store.
The following week, after returning home from school, my mother told me someone called and said I won a door prize. I couldn’t wait to see Donnie to ask what I won. If I remember correctly, there were 10 door prize winners — I won door prize #10. Donnie informed me I had won some coasters and candy from China. I did not know what a coaster was — nor did I ever use one. Mrs. Chin was happy to see me when I arrived later that day to collect my prize. The next time I saw her, 35 years had passed. I was living in Reno, walking through the Peppermill Casino. Donnie was pushing the wheelchair she sat in.
Donnie tried to refresh her memory and asked her if she remembered me. She shook her head ‘no’, but I told her I remembered her, and how kind she was to me when I was a kid.
That was the last time I saw Mrs. Chin. Although those are precious memories, the moments in your life once shared with people fade away and become your thoughts, for you alone … unless you make a conscious effort to write them down and share them. I’m doing that right now.
As adults, I ran into Donnie several times, mostly in the International District. One time, as I prepared for a show at Hing Hay Park, I was standing on stage, reading introductions to myself.
Donnie was patrolling the area. “Who the hell do you think you are”? Donnie snapped.
When I looked to see who it was, his posture commanded attention and respect. We talked for a few minutes. His language was colorful and his patience was thin.
His aura told me that this neighborhood belonged to him. His presence gave me a sense of calm. I felt he was there to serve and protect. The elderly leaned on him for his assistance and strength. Accident victims received first aid from him — it was not uncommon for him to arrive before the medics.
The crime rate decreased when Donnie was present. No longer a target for bullies, Donnie had transformed into a real life superhero for the residents of the ID!
After chatting with Donnie, and saying our goodbyes, I watched him as he walked away. His head turned from right to left and back again. He was scanning the streets, anticipating where he would be needed next.
His mission that day, like any other day, was to make sure all was good in his neighborhood.
He looked prepared and responsible for any emergency that might occur … Mrs. Chin had taught him well.