By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
If you walk around Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (ID), you might wonder if it has been deserted—with businesses and buildings boarded up. It’s true we barely survived the coronavirus. Miraculously, despite vandalism and looting rampages during recent protests, we are still here.
The ID’s new temporary image of close to 200 sites being boarded up might not be a pleasant sight, but there is no need to be alarmed. Businesses are still open, just closing.
“It’s sad when we drive around (and see this condition),” said Cindy Martin, owner of Seattle Pinball Museum, the first ID business to close in early March.
An ID resident who also works in the ID, Y. Chan said she was “horrified” by the “altered face” of Chinatown when she returned to work on Monday. Too frightened to go out, she locked herself up in her apartment during the weekend havoc.
Belinda Louie of Tacoma, said, “When we saw Chinatown being boarded up, we felt wounded and violated! We came on Saturday when many store fronts were covered by broken pieces of glass. I talked to some store owners. One told me that she was stunned by what happened.”
Someone said, “The recent Seattle protests (over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a police pinned him down), is worse than the World Trade Organization (WTO) riots in 1999.
What happened to the ID during WTO, when 30,000 protesters descended in Seattle for a week? Nothing. There were zero incidents. No protesters ever stepped foot in the ID. Our community was spared.
Unfortunately, looters took advantage of the situation and targeted the ID this time. Forty-four buildings in Seattle’s downtown core were damaged, 22 sites (20 buildings) in the ID, and three in Capitol Hill. The downtown core is 71 times bigger than the ID (only 23 acres). Imagine the impact of destruction in the ID.
How it began
It began on the night of Friday, May 29 after 7 p.m. A group of about 150 people, not associated with those who organized protests, gathered at the Hing Hay Park.
It was a warning sign when I saw a white guy carrying a stick in his backpack.
“Why are you carrying a stick?” I asked.
He mumbled that he needed a stick to load things. Then I asked one of the organizers. “Why did you pick Chinatown to protest?”
“We know that Chinatown is targeted with racism,” he said. “We protect Chinatown. We’ll do this quick, and we’ll get out.”
That sounded reasonable and there was no need to be concerned, I thought. In the meantime, several cops were hanging around the park. One officer said he didn’t think the ID protest would be a big problem.
“Tomorrow’s (protests) downtown will be a big one,” he said. I believed him as I spotted 10 police cars parked on Maynard Avenue South, close to the park. Before 8 p.m., the park was empty and all the police cars were gone.
What a damned miscalculation!
A few hours later, there was mayhem and destruction. Vandalism occurred before 11 p.m. when the police pushed protesters from downtown and Capitol Hill to both ends of South Jackson Street. I hope the organizers from the park protest were not part of the looting storm. It was horrendous to watch some of these looting videos posted online.
Both mom-and-pop and corporate businesses were targeted in ID. Among the victims were the husband-and-wife owners of Dim Sum King. Amy Eng said, “Someone threw a rock so hard that it broke our front glasses and counter shelf. We couldn’t open the next day. It was a mess and we spent the whole day cleaning and fixing the store.” Dim Sum King was the first ID restaurant to close during the pandemic in mid-March, and reopened three days before Mother’s Day.
Looters thought damaging big businesses, such as banks, would send a message to the establishment. But do they realize that these ID branch employees are 95% Asian Americans and people of color? Who suffers the most from the pain and headache of cleaning up after a break-in? Not their bosses.
Washington Federal Bank (WFB) ID branch manager Albert Chun said his branch was the only one out of 235 branches in the United States being attacked, and not just once, but twice—on Friday night and again on Sunday morning. The second time, thieves went after the ATM machine. No money was stolen, said Chun. But the cost to fix the front and back doors would likely be $15,000 to $20,000, according to a contractor who fixed the glass doors. The WFB downtown headquarters suffered only minor damage.
ID being abandoned?
Chun said he was impressed with the number of young volunteers who showed up to remove the graffiti when he arrived at the bank on Saturday morning. He believed the destruction to his bank was a random act. But the break-in on Sunday was not related to the protest, he said. The bank was closed for two days before reopening.
Jade Garden Restaurant was another establishment that was victimized twice. On Saturday morning, owner Eric Chan said the thieves stole some ingredients and $100.
Both Chun and Chan asked, “Where’s the police?” Chan actually watched the robbery on his phone on Saturday at 11 p.m. and called 911. No one came. But at the time, SPD was dealing with downtown protests.
Chun said, “If it is not life-threatening, the police will not come.” He tried calling the police and his call was automatically switched to another number.
Chun said he is “grateful that nothing happened to his staff members. When they (looters) were here, we were not there.”
The destruction from Friday night brought Mayor Jenny Durkan and her team to visit the ID on Sunday afternoon.
“CID is the first one being hit with the pandemic,” said Durkan. She has asked City departments to prioritize cleaning up and helping board up small businesses in the ID.
“The mayor asked Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) to support the CID business community that was damaged by graffiti and vandalism over the weekend,” said Sabrina Register, SPU public information officer.
SPU immediately assembled a team, working side by side with other departments and Port of Seattle staff, to remove broken glass and widespread graffiti from storefronts, sidewalks, and streets. In all, SPU and its partners boarded up 130 businesses that requested support, and has continued to fulfill more than over 30 requests for assistance in C-ID. The Northwest Asian Weekly building was one of the beneficiaries. We were not hit, but our neighbor’s glass window was broken.
One owner who boarded her small storefront the day before the protest, said it cost her a few hundred dollars to buy a few pieces of plywood. Now, many hardware stores have run out of plywood.
Later in a closed meeting, Durkan met with Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation Authority and Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area to better coordinate with the City for future emergencies, and address funding needed before and after a disaster.
The community is divided as usual. Several restaurateurs and other community members were there to welcome the mayor, and elbow bumped with her.
Others confronted the mayor about police brutality during the protests. The mayor said she would review reports and tapes, and invite further dialogue. But it was cut short when someone yelled at the mayor.
We condemn the senseless killing of Black men and women, and we don’t endorse the violence and criminal activities of the opportunists. We also support the thousands of good cops whose good deeds often get overlooked.
Can CID survive?
With so many crises striking the ID all at once, how long can we hang in there, with a divisive community?
So far, only one ID business out of 160 restaurants has announced that it is closing, and it’s not a locally-owned business. Specialty’s Café & Bakery is closing 50 restaurants all over the U.S.
I glanced at several business owners busily helping SPU boarding up their storefronts. They don’t complain. They still had smiles on their faces.
“It’s beyond our control, everyone’s in the same boat,” said Ben, owner of Hong Kong Bistro.
They do what they have to do to survive. Their resilient spirit amazes me. They will persevere no matter what. That, to me, is comforting.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.