By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The aesthetic Nagomi Tea House inside the old Uwajimaya has been dismantled. Nagomi, once a community gathering space, is gone unexpectedly.
For the past seven years, Nagomi was the natural gathering place for the community to mourn, laugh, rage, engage, lobby, debate, and celebrate. It was a community asset because of its location, affordability, availability, and size.
When legendary community activist Bob Santos died in 2016, InterIm quickly organized a gathering a few days later. Over 200 people came. People not only hugged each other for comfort, they huddled together crying, sharing grief and what Uncle Bob meant to them. It was reassuring to see Bob’s widow, Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, holding it together. Nagomi, which means “harmony,” made community members feel comforted in times of sorrow and crisis.
There were historical moments at Nagomi, such as a series of meetings on the murder of community hero Donnie Chin. There, I witnessed the increasing anger, anxiety, and frustrations of the audience to hold the Seattle Police Department (SPD) accountable. It was empowering to see how community members stood up together for Chin. Big shots from SPD standing on one side of the audience, couldn’t really say much about the unsolved case. After each meeting, community members walked away from the tea house, sighing and moaning, without seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
When I visited the closed tea house recently, I imagined the sign “Justice for Donnie!” still hanging up on the wall during those community meetings. Now, the tea house’s traditional Japanese light fixtures are lying on the floor next to that wall. The place is now cold, lonely, and empty.
If you attended last year’s API Candidates Forum, you would remember 10 Seattle mayoral candidates at the packed Nagomi, some demonstrated or pretended they had deep ties with the Asian community through warm greetings. Whenever those election forums were held at Nagomi, the community’s attendance exploded, compared to other venues. Location matters.
Julie Pham, a key organizer of the Ethnic Media Candidates Meet n Greet, said, “We held the [event] at Nagomi Tea House for years. It was the perfect place — near so many ethnic media offices, a parking lot for the candidates who were hopping from one event to the next.”
Nagomi provided a huge space of over 8,000 square feet. No one had to worry about making room for surprise guests. In addition, several cultural programs were held there, including karaoke contests, lavish tea ceremonies, and festivals for youth and holidays.
Why I’ll miss Nagomi
The Chinatown-International District lost Asian Resource Center when it was sold in 2015 to make way for Summit Charter School. The ID Community Center is not always available to the community, since it has its own programs and classes, and restricted hours. I have rented the Community Center’s gym before, it’s the most expensive facility in the ID.
Nagomi offered its space almost free of charge for emergency meetings and was often low-cost for community events. All we had to do was make a phone call to or email Tomio Moriguchi, Nagomi’s founder and former Uwajimaya chair. It was convenient. There was little paperwork, no deposit requirement or reference checks to rent the site. Never mind the sound system was not perfect. Never mind the restroom was not in the best shape. And oh, there was a kitchen to prepare food, an important element for Asian community events.
Since the new Uwajimaya was built across the street 18 years ago, the old store has been rented to retail antique stores. Later, parts of it were leased to Oasis Bubble Tea, and the Uwajimaya family had plans for the remaining space for new restaurants and a karaoke site. But the deals fell through.
In the meantime, the tea house idea was born. Tomio Moriguchi didn’t own the tea house. It was a gift from Sekisui to Japan Fair Matsuri. Eight years ago, the tea house needed a home, since the original guardian of the tea house retired. And it landed at the old Uwajimaya site.
Nagomi used to host up to 60 events during the year. It never made any profit, according to Moriguchi. The only reason Nagomi was able to survive is because it didn’t need to pay rent, since the Moriguchi family owns the property. Since the sound system was so bad, Moriguchi said the number of events declined dramatically in recent years. Elaine Ko was one of the staff members to lay the groundwork for Nagomi programs. But she has retired, and was not available for comments.
Uwajimaya is now run by the third generation of the Moriguchi family, and Moriguchi’s daughter, Denise, is Uwajimaya’s CEO and president. Tomio’s nieces and nephews work in different departments of the business. Uwajimaya has three other stores in King County and one in Oregon, in addition to real estate developments such as the Publix.
Moriguchi said, “It (Nagomi) would need at least $250,000 to fix the lights and the sound system. The new generation (of the Moriguchi family) didn’t want to invest (in the venture). I was disappointed.”
Moriguchi, 82, said his family has other plans. At his age, he “doesn’t want to push it (the project) because if he does, he would have ended up doing it himself. If the family decides to remodel Nagomi, he said they would have to step in and be involved in the project.
To some extent, the community has taken the tea house for granted. I’d like to say thank you to Tomio and the Moriguchi family for allowing us to use the facility for many years.
Nagomi is gone, but not forgotten. And the tea house is now boxed in wooden containers, waiting for a new home.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.