By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
I never expected so much drama in a small neighborhood election board such as Chinatown. But last month saw one of the most controversial election years since the International Special Review District (ISRD) board was established by the City of Seattle in 1973. The election outcome was dramatic, muddled with conflict.
The assumption was that young Asian American activists who dominate the English media would be the natural winners of the election. And the disadvantaged immigrant and non-English speaking senior residents would not play a role in it, as they struggle to adapt to their new environment, complicated by the culture and language barriers. The International District (ID) consists of Chinatown, Japantown, and Little Saigon.
Just look at the recent Seattle City Council election. Didn’t young voters push the young and progressive candidates to victory? Yet, the ID election outcome reversed that pattern—all activist candidates lost. It must have been a nightmare for them. The older and moderate candidates won the Nov. 19 election. The turnout was record-breaking for the ISRD, whose mission is to preserve the history of the neighborhood through building designs.
Young activists have repeatedly accused developers of gentrification, displacement, and eliminating affordability. They also claim their immigrant grandmothers need protection from such development. Surprisingly, grandmas do have a mind of their own. When they make up their mind, they act. Instead of casting votes for the activist candidates, they came in droves to vote them out.
Low-income and affordable housing make up 68 percent (more than 20 buildings) of all housing in the ID, compared to only 32 percent market-rate housing.
The activists who favor low-income and affordable housing in the ID have organized protests this year against market-rate developments, such as the Koda Condominiums’ groundbreaking on 5th Avenue South and South Main Street and the Jasmine project at 614 Maynard Avenue South (Bush Garden and its adjacent garage). Both projects are Asian-owned.
What has changed over the past few years with these residents? My interviews with them in their native language reveal they are no longer passive, sitting on the sidelines. They have a clear vision of what they want the neighborhood to be. They understand it is important to stick together for their community. While Asian American activists paint them as marginalized, low-income, and helpless, the residents have become activists in their own way—by voting. They welcome a revitalized neighborhood, attracting more businesses and diverse people living, working, and visiting the ID.
An unexpected candidate
Of the seven candidates running for the three ISRD board seats, only one has a long history of involvement with the ID, as long as four decades.
Former House of Hong owner Faye Hong’s name on the ballot surprised many community members. He is one of the three winners, including Matt Chan, a former business owner and community volunteer who lost last year, and Russ Williams, business owner who was re-elected to the board.
Chan said, “I ran for the ISRD board because the CID is under heavy pressure to be redeveloped and in my position, I wanted to make sure the community had an advocate on the board.”
Whenever someone asked Hong to do something for the past three years, his response was, “I am retired.” At 78, Hong is one of the most respected leaders in the Chinese community. And he has been grooming younger leaders to take over much of his volunteer work. As founder of the 1,000 Dinners for Seniors in the ID (a 3-day event at the House of Hong that feeds over 1,000 seniors for free), he has raised money and organized the annual dinner since 2015. What Hong did was foster a sense of community among Chinatown seniors.
In 2008, Hong, capital campaign chair for Seattle’s Chinatown Chinese Historical Gate, succeeded in building the gate on South King Street and 5th Avenue South in just four years.
“For the last 40, 50 years, there were several attempts to raise the money to build the gate and it’s always fizzled,” Hong told the Northwest Asian Weekly in 2008. He had to conquer community skepticism and anger as former organizers took the money, and nothing happened. The gate now welcomes visitors to the ID, and has been featured in several tourist magazines.
The gate wasn’t the only thing Hong was involved with. He’s a co-chair for the Kin On Community Health Care Center and founding member of the Business Improvement Area (BIA) in the ID, which helps to attract more businesses, promote the ID, and perform other functions in the area.
If you Google Chinese media, Hong was a key donor and organizer of fundraising events to benefit victims of the 2011 Japan tsunami, Katrina, and the 2014 Oso landslide. He inspired some of the most stingy people to give to charitable causes related and unrelated to the Asian community.
Why did Hong break out of retirement to run for the ISRD board? His sense of duty. Like the late leader Al Sugiyama said, “If I don’t, who else will do it?”
“I know very few community members are willing to serve on that board,” he said. “So I have to step up.”
Why seniors vote?
”We didn’t understand why the Jasmine project (Bush Garden building) took so long,” said Chiang Hwa Liu, who has lived in the ID off and on for the past decade. Liu, 80, is a volunteer translator that translates from Mandarin to Cantonese and vice versa. She now lives permanently in the ID after helping to raise her grandkids in Kirkland.
“We support it,” said Liu. “It’s a good project. It’s been two years now. Why do they keep on stalling the project? I feel the Chinese community has no voice. They (the ISRD board) don’t listen to us. We have been ignored and bullied.” Over 300 residents and 63 businesses have signed petitions to support Jasmine and also showed up at ISRD board meetings. Yet, the board said Jasmine needs to do more community outreach.
Moving from Beacon Hill to the ID, Auntie Guan, 74, who asked that her real name not be used, said this is the first year she voted in the ISRD election.
Guan said she felt that “the board is not balanced. The Chinese community needs to unite and fight for their rights.”
Liu Juan Li, who has lived in the ID low-income housing for 17 years, is thrilled with the election results.
“I support the Jasmine development to bring in small businesses and more people living in the community,” she said. “We need more new buildings in the area. We have too many homeless problems, too many car break-ins, businesses and seniors getting robbed. Since the death of Donnie Chin (a hero and patrol volunteer), public safety has been a big problem.”
“There is nothing wrong with developing both market-rate and low-income housing in Chinatown,” said Li, an active member of a Chinese dance group. Her husband is a volunteer Tai Chi instructor at the Bush Hotel.
Kam Tai Chun, 74, who has been voting for the ISRD board for 20 years, said she voted for Hong, Chan, and Williams.
“We all know what Faye Hong has done for the community.” Although she is concerned with the affordability issue, she said, “I support the Jasmine project because it will make Chinatown nicer, cleaner, safer, and better for the community.”
So why did the residents vote for the other two candidates, Chan and Williams, even though they don’t really know them? Their experience, some said. “I like their background,” said Chiu Feng Peng, 88, an active senior originally from China.
Li said, “I studied their profiles in Chinese (translation provided by the ISRD board). I like to vote for candidates who are older and have more life experience.”
Originally from Hong Kong, Liu has talked to different sources about Chan and Williams’ background and liked their connections with Chinatown.
What the seniors are betting on is that the newly elected board members won’t be one-sided and ideology-driven— they won’t see every issue merely as black or white—they won’t be pressured or intimidated by protesters at the ISRD meetings—and they would look at different angles and merits of any development to balance the needs of the ID.
One senior, a property owner who asked not to be identified, said, “The ISRD board doesn’t really have that much power. [ISRD Coordinator] Rebecca [Frestedt] is the one who guides the board.” A former employee of an ID nonprofit organization said, he was not surprised that Hong got elected, but was surprised that Tanya Woo lost.
Regarding displacement and affordability issues, he said, “There are so many low-income and affordable buildings (more than 20) in the ID,” and there has been no displacement because Koda is on an empty lot, and Jasmine (Bush Garden) has no residents living there.
“I actually wasn’t surprised at the results of the election, especially when you consider who was qualified to vote in the election and who actually turned out to vote,” said Chan.
The ISRD election requires registered voters to be residents, property owners, or business owners of the ID. Each organization is only allowed four employees to vote.
Seniors are frustrated
The number of seniors who voted in the ISRD election is not known, but Peng said seniors from at least 10 ID buildings voted. Those buildings are located on the far west side of the ID, from 1101 South Weller to downtown on 4th Avenue South, four buildings in Japantown, to buildings on Maynard Avenue South.
Each building has its own representative,” said Peng. “They inform seniors about different activities and events.” Do the seniors realize they are community organizers, sort of?
How did seniors learn about community organizing? They had learned through Nora Chan, founder of Seniors in Action Foundation—she has been organizing residents to participate in community events since 2006.
Although Chan was in Hong Kong during the past few months, ID seniors have certainly applied those principles themselves.
However, immigrant seniors have hurdles to overcome. And they are frustrated.
“Not knowing English is a big disadvantage,” said Liu. “We don’t know what’s going on in our community, like at the ISRD meetings…” Most don’t talk like native speakers who speak with the microphone forcefully, not to mention some seniors have never held a mic before in their lives.
At the Nov. 12 ISRD meeting, Liu complained, “There were no translators. Our people were not given the chance to speak although we had close to 20 people signing up to speak.” And no one said anything on their behalf at the meeting. Even with translators, their message and the meeting discussion could get lost in translation. To be fair, the ISRD board has tried hard to provide translators. But at that meeting, the board was not expecting the seniors to show up. With new board members and a new year coming, I am hopeful that it will provide thoughtful leadership to move our community forward to build a healthy neighborhood.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.