By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Trapped by millions of dollars in debt after her family’s hotel collapsed in 2013, Tanya Woo walked the streets of the Chinatown-International District (ID), heading for an emotional collapse of her own. Old people would come up to her and ask if they could live there—after it reopened.
She was not sure if it ever would. She took up bartending for a while. Then she found an outside family to invest in the hotel.
On June 17, the Louisa Hotel reopened with fanfare, Buddhist chanting, lion dancing, and tours of jazz-era murals, artifacts from its heyday when it was the center of life in the ID.
However, one thing had changed. It did not appear that many Chinese, at least those that currently live in Chinatown, would ever be able to live there again.
A combination of skyrocketing prices for land and housing has forced family owners like Woo to embrace new options to retain control of their properties.
In the case of Woo, her family partnered with Greg Gorder of Gaard Development to transform the decrepit, gutted hotel into a shining interior space of 84 apartments, available to renters with incomes between $35,000 and $85,000 per year.
The arrangement was part of an affordable housing contract developers entered into with the city.
In most cases, the city supplies tax breaks. And in exchange, the developers cap the rent at prices affordable to those that otherwise would not be able to live in that area—the working class.
Gorder is a member of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s Affordable Middle-Income Housing Advisory Council, which was designed to help middle-income families rather than low-income households.
“We will have teachers and firefighters and others living in the building,” said Woo in a telephone interview. “I already met the first tenant. He was so excited to be moving in,” she added.
But, asked if he was Chinese, she responded softly that he was not.
And for the poorest of the poor that are still living in the ID—the kind of old people she might have met on the streets during her malaise—the hotel might as well have burned to the ground in the fire that only partially damaged it in 2013.
They cannot afford it.
The average income for a new immigrant Chinese elder on government support is $197 per month.
Yet the Louisa Hotel is only admitting people who have an income of between $2,916.67 and $7,083.33 per month (calculated based on the $35,000 to $85,000 per year range).
That means it would take a new immigrant Chinese elder 14 months to save up for one month of rent in the Louisa Hotel—and she would have to go without food the whole time.
Still, this outcome is the result of circumstances that are changing the face of the nation and devastating Chinatowns.
“The second generation of the families that own these buildings in Chinatown are still trapped,” said a leading community activist in the ID, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of ongoing relationships. “If they want to retain control of their properties, they have to do it this way.”
“If we didn’t do something, we would have been forced to sell,” said Woo.
What can be preserved
In the months before the opening, Woo focused on the artifacts and historic nature of the building that would be preserved.
She took television crews down a dingy stairwell to show them murals of top-hatted patrons of a jazz club.
“It was a place where different ethnicities could gather together,” she said. “The murals are ethnically ambiguous.”
During the opening, however, she chose to focus on Chinese themes.
Buddhist monks from the nearby Fa Hsing Temple performed a ritual to appease any ghosts still lingering in the area. The performance was an acknowledgement of the community’s “need to heal,” said Woo.
A cellar adjacent to the hotel was once the most vibrant gambling den in the community—and the site of the city’s bloodiest massacre, when 13 people were shot to death in a robbery in 1983.
The ceremony, according to Buddhist practitioners familiar with the ritual, involves chanting sutras for any spirits that are trapped through anger at being killed. Woo’s decision to reopen the hotel as a site dedicated to preserving the original material culture of the region was endorsed by various community groups.
Jacqueline Wu, a representative of the Chinatown-International District (CID) Coalition, said that ideally, the city and state governments would supply money to a trust established by the ID community.
“And the community would decide what it wants to do with it,” she said in a phone interview.
The newly reopened Louisa Hotel, although rebuilt with a developer targeting the middle class, may serve as a model for such idealism.
Its apartments preserve the original window frames and other features. Its interior is hung with decorations, some in Chinese, from earlier eras. And Woo has already glassed off the original murals.
Yet Woo has also teamed up with an outside marketing team to attract desired tenants.
The hotel’s website, under the “Amenities” section, shows a blonde woman in a dress pulling up one leg to put on her socks.
“Room to spread your wings,” it advertises.
A hard-fought battle
Yet for Woo and others fighting to preserve what they can of the ID, the battle is both hard fought and personal.
Across the nation, according to a recent study by the American Legal Defense Fund, more non-Asians now live in Chinatowns than Asians.
And as for the poorest of the poor—those living on a government subsidy of $197 a month—many have already left, to housing south of the city or to families that can still take them in.
“And some have moved into homeless shelters,” said the community activist.
And yet, says Wu, of the CID Coalition, “The city is not tracking them, nobody is tracking where they’re going.”
A personal triumph for the community
And yet Chinatowns have survived dissolution before.
At the end of the 19th century, politicians and mobs up and down the West Coast drove Chinese out of Chinatowns when they were no longer needed for labor.
In Tacoma, mobs led by a German-born mayor burned the Chinatown to the ground. In Seattle, miners, jealous of the flexibility of Chinese miners that had built houses along China Creek in Newcastle, torched their dwellings.
And it was not until 1943 that the nation finally repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which limited more Chinese immigration.
For Woo, just preserving the original building—rather than having it torn down and replaced with a skyscraper, as is happening all over the neighborhood—is a triumph.
At ground level, retail spaces will offer venues for Asian-themed restaurants and other shops in keeping with the flavor of the original neighborhood.
“A Korean barbecue has already committed,” she said.
Even one of the original businesses that operated in the building before the fire is coming back. The Gospel Bookstore will continue to offer English-language classes and Bible studies.
Besides that, Woo has preserved the signs of some of the original businesses that once populated the ground floor, such as a bakery and a seafood restaurant. They hang now, in the lobby, for any newcomer to see and at least get a feel for what life was once like.
Then there is her devotion to her family.
Woo said she is not making a single cent from the building, although in a decade, if the building shows profits, her family may.
“I guess a part of this is I still want to gain my father’s approval,” said Woo.
Her father, Paul, bought the hotel in 1963. He died of a heart attack when she was a teenager.
Around the same time, Woo dislocated her kneecap, ending her professional career as a traditional Chinese dancer and ballerina.
“I still like to dance, though,” she said.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.