By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
No, you did not misread the headline. Yes, the Northwest Asian Weekly recently reported that Four Seas Restaurant will be demolished in 2019 for an affordable housing project.
Dynasty Room a.k.a. The Wolf Temple just opened on April 2 inside the Four Seas Restaurant. The old Dynasty Room has been completely transformed into a chic, cozy, and stylish lounge. The only original artifact that remains is the Cantonese opera wood carvings. This is I-Miun Liu’s new vision. He is also owner of the Oasis bubble tea shops and the Eastern Cafe in the Chinatown International District. Why did he invest so much energy and money into such a short-term project? Will this enterprise be a bust or boon? Is this an experiment? Is he brilliant or nuts? Or just a big-risk taker?
“This is current,” said one of the visitors at Dynasty’s opening party, who was admiring what Liu did with the space. Although Liu leases the whole restaurant, the bar uses only about half of the restaurant space. Other International District (ID) lounges are just old, he added, implying that they are unattractive. “Did you see (former governor) Gary Locke’s photo on the mural?” he pointed out to the Asian Weekly reporter. The mural is part of the new wall-to-wall artwork, illustrating the history of Seattle, at the bar’s entrance. At the end of the hallway stands a dramatic and gigantic paper mache of a wolf howling. A pagoda-shaped structure was stacked on its back.
Inside, the bar is nothing you can imagine. One visitor said, “Definitely, there is a story here.” The wall is printed with an original design of a reversed white Chinese character on black ink. Its tabletops are screen-printed with a brownish-gold Chinese theme.
Who made all these? I was curious.
“We did,” said Liu, beaming with pride. “We did everything. From floor to ceiling, installing lighting to painting, building the bar benches to shelves and tables. We worked 10 to 12 hours a day without a contractor. It saved us a lot of money. We have invested a lot of money in the artwork.”
Overnight, the bartenders, staff, and owner became carpenters and handymen. Since signing the lease last December with Interim, the developer for the Four Seas housing project, Liu said his team of under 10 people worked non-stop for close to three months.
Michael Chu, Dynasty’s general manager, said his wife had doubts about the project. Now, she is excited with what the team has accomplished.
“She can’t wait to see the bar open,” Chu said. It’s not surprising that the families of Chu and Liu didn’t believe in the project at first because of the restaurant’s condition. Chu recalled there were holes in the floor when he first walked in. “The restaurant had been dying and neglected for a decade,” Liu said.
Why the bar?
“I know a lot of people think this (Dynasty) does not make a lot of financial sense,” Liu said. “Just because it doesn’t make financial sense doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Not all businesses have to make money. It may not be possible for me to make money (out of the bar). What I get (from this project) is the satisfaction to create.”
The late Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder, once said consumers don’t know what they want. But if you make something great, they will buy it. And Liu believes if he builds it right, people will come.
Liu built Dynasty just like he did Eastern Cafe. He felt that there wasn’t an affordable cafe for the community to hang out four years ago. So he built the cafe from scratch (from remodeling to shopping for furniture), and it’s now a popular meeting site in the ID. The knowledge he gained from building Eastern helped him to create Dynasty from something useless and decaying. He built it to something beautiful, vibrant, and functionable.
Simultaneously, Liu is creating a couple more venues — another bar on Capitol Hill and a donut shop. His entrepreneurial spirit and zeal is beyond the ordinary and he is only 37 years old.
How are Dynasty’s cocktails different?
“We serve craft cocktail,” said Chu. “It’s not common in the ID.” An experienced bartender for over a decade, Chu knows the nuts and bolts of cocktailing.
Creating his own drinks, Chu said mixing cocktails with green tea, lychee, rosebuds, and oolong tea is the trend.
“Wait, those are bubble tea ingredients,” I said.
Clever! Liu’s tea ingredients can now serve at least three of his businesses — Eastern, Dynasty, and Oasis, and possibly more later.
Dynasty drinks cost $9 and up. It’s reasonable compared to bars outside the ID, which sell for $15 to $20, Chu said.
Dynasty also serves Chinese and Korean food.
Is the bar going to be profitable?
Liu may have pride in the product after constructing the bar, but the guy is no dummy. He does ponder the results, and not just the process.
Imagine a customer ordering a couple of dishes and drinks at Dynasty. The tab can easily add up to $30 to $50. It’s a known fact that drinks have a much higher profit margin than food.
Liu’s other Asian neighborhood restaurants are much more labor-intensive. Workers have to wash, cut, and cook a lot of bok choy or pho before they can make 10 bucks from one customer. Don’t forget Dynasty has more than 20 parking spaces. That’s a competitive advantage compared to many ID restaurants, which have none.
Whoever said Liu is crazy to start the bar, think again! Liu, the former banker, has definitely done his math.
Whatever he learns from the Dynasty experiment, can be duplicated elsewhere because he has learned how to apply the formula for success. He sees possibilities when other people see nothing.
Old Dynasty was full of history
The old Four Seas had a glorious past. There are many stories between the old and new Dynasty.
“I have so many great memories of the Four Seas, particularly while my father Abe Lum owned the restaurant (1962-89),” said Judge Dean Lum, who used to work at Four Seas. “Lots of famous, infamous, and not so famous people came through the restaurant in its heyday,” said Lum.
It was once “the drinking place, a place to see all the friends,” said Al Quan, owner after 1989.
When you sip your cocktail, appreciate and reflect that Four Seas was where the Asian community rallied together to build political power. Many Asian Americans running for office would fundraise at Four Seas. Mainstream candidates, who lured Asian community’s support, held their events there.
Between the 1990s and 2010s, the late Ruth Woo, a political guru, organized fundraising events tirelessly for Sharon T. Santos, Lloyd Hara, Martha Choe, the late Kip Tokuda, Ron Sims, Dolores Sibonga, Velma Veloria,
Gary Locke, and many others at the Four Seas. Both Asians and non-Asians would pack the room. It’s a statement the Asian community made to the mainstream, “We’ve got clout.”
The late Al Sugiyama would also host many big parties to honor Asian Americans who had broken the glass ceiling.
The Northwest Asian Weekly’s first community dinner of 250 people to honor Mayor Norm Rice was held at the Four Seas in 1989. Over the decades, even national political figures visited the Four Seas to meet the Asian community.
“The Dynasty Room was a de facto clubhouse for politically involved folks: a very young (then City Council member) Norm and Constance Rice would be in one corner, Bob Santos and Bernie Whitebear in another, Senator Warren Magnuson and wife Germaine in another, with Seafair executives and (famous restaurateurs) Victor Rossellini and Ivar Haglund nearby, planning business partnerships with my dad when they all weren’t at the 410, 610, Andy’s Diner, or one of Ivar’s joints.”
According to Lum, many celebrities wined and dined at the Four Seas, including John Wayne, Danny Kaye, all the professional athletes (Sonics, Seahawks, Mariners, Sounders, etc), and business and political figures.
“Movie star Mickey Rooney came in one night, looking to play golf the next day,” Lum said. “My dad accommodated him.
“But what really sticks out in my mind was the year before the Sonics won the 1979 championship. Many people forget that in 1978, they lost the championship, during the seventh game at home to the Washington Bullets. Ten minutes after the game ended, I got a call at the front desk from General Manager Zollie Volchok, who said, “Get three bartenders! We’re coming down!” And all of them did. To say they were disappointed would be a gross, gross understatement, but I always remembered how gracious Lenny Wilkens was. For some reason, they went elsewhere (Henry’s Off Broadway) to celebrate winning the next year (the championship).”
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.