By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
This past year the Chinatown/International District was hit with the devastating fire at the Louisa Hotel, the ruins creating an omen of darkness and loss for the community. The fire happened on Dec. 24, 2013, a week before the new year, destroying most of the building and seven businesses. The fire’s impact carried on into and throughout 2014.
In January, the $15 minimum wage pushed by newly elected Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, split the Asian community apart.
The rail connecting between Chinatown and Capitol Hill and downtown (which almost killed some ID businesses due to the construction mess), was finally completed, but is left untouched. Manufactured by Czechs, the streetcars arrived late. Should Chinatown ask for compensation from the Czechs or the City? Or will government officials just turn a blind eye toward us?
Perhaps it’s a good thing not to have the streetcars yet. The ID had convenient spots for protesters at the Hing Hay Park and S. Jackson Street during the year. The International District welcomes free speech! Do the ID folks practice it themselves, though?
Nickelsville announced their plan to move to the I.D. Many ID residents and businesses were upset, but they didn’t really speak out much. If they had fought Nickelsville, wouldn’t they be perceived as hypocritical since many of them were homeless refugees prior to landing in America?
A promising Asian American attorney, Sher Kung died from a collision with a truck on 2nd Ave. while riding her bicycle in downtown Seattle in Sept. A second cyclist also collided with a vehicle within just one week on the same street after Kung’s death even with the City’s attempts to provide improved visibility on the road.
However, a breath of fresh air graced the ID at the end of the year. The comprehensive Bruce Lee exhibition at the Wing Luke Asian Museum was unveiled, drawing thousands of visitors to Chinatown, dedicated fans, and certainly earning new fans as well for the Seattle icon.
Was the Year of the Horse that disastrous for the Asian community? Or are there valuable lessons we can draw to prepare for a better year?
If the Louisa Hotel fire had a silver lining, it would be the elimination of the Wah Mee Club inside the building. The Wah Mee Massacre is one of the notorious chapters of Seattle Chinese history, in which 13 people were killed in 1983.
The locked, empty club since then had reminded us of the painful and ugly segments of our community. The part of the building where the club was located is completely destroyed. So it will be gone for good. Hopefully, new energy will be restored and new ventures will be formed after the building’s renovation is done. It’s time for the community to move on.
Kshama Sawant’s act
It was fascinating to watch Councilmember KshaKshamama Sawant’s politics. Initially, many members of the Asian community were glad that we had a new addition to the City Council as Sawant is not only Asian, she’s a woman, gutsy, and never afraid to speak her mind.
Political guru Ruth Woo used to complain that the Asian community only had .5 percent representation at the Council because Bruce Harrell, the only Asian American councilman is half Japanese and half African American.
Soon the public has learned that socialist Sawant’s style is not only unconventional, but her trump card is organizing protests.
And she knew how to steal the spotlight from Mayor Ed Murray and the Seattle City Council members. Mayor Ed Murray announced a press conference on the $15 wage issue, and then Sawant would schedule one too, after his. So we reporters had to jump from the 7th floor of the mayor’s office to the City Council’s second level to hear her response. Good thing, they were located in the same building.
Frequently, Sawant would lecture her colleagues in public meetings. When Sawant was supposed to ask questions like all council members do, she would prepare long political statements, interrupt City Council committee chairs to show that she is the one in control. How you depict Sawant’s behavior is debatable, politically savvy, rude, or just lack of public grace.
Too bad, we really need another Asian American voice in the City Council. Unfortunately, she doesn’t represent the Asian community’s interest. She distances herself from the community and vice versa.
Her Asian fans’ original excitement toward her winning the office has now become cold water. Asian Americans realize that it’s important to build alliances with other council members and especially Mayor Ed Murray to get things done. The same should go for Sawant—relationship matters.
$15 minimum wage
This issue really split the Asian community, between employers and employees, and among many ethnic groups.
The conflict lies in the fact that many of Vietnamese, Korean, Indian and Chinese immigrants, own labor-intensive business such as restaurants, grocery stores, motels, and laundry shops. Whereas other Asian ethnic groups such as Filipinos who favor wage increase are mostly employees.
Asian entrepreneurs have struggled seven days a week and under minimum wage themselves to keep their businesses going. They become entrepreneurs not by choice. They ignored the $15 increase at the beginning. When they fought back, it was too late.
The defeat of the minority businesses in the wage battle is a wake-up call. Employees and employers have to communicate with each other better.
The $15 issue is a game-changer for many especially ethnic businesses. Just working hard doesn’t solve all problems. The immigrant community needs to be familiar with the political process, and be open to working with diverse groups for their common good. Ignoring what’s happening in the outside world can be detrimental to their lives and business. They have to carve out time to network with their peers and learn what they can do together to make their community a better place.
Rally Asian American leaders
The most recognizable Asian American leader globally is former U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, who is now home.
I had the privilege of listening to many former US Ambassadors to China, I met and spoke with previously, but Gary has my vote. I also attended some events recently, where Gary was the speaker. His crystal-clear voice, humor, concise words and appropriate anecdotes, and brevity, all command the audience’s attention.
The upcoming Asian American rising stars can learn from Gary and use him as a role model. He has conquered several glass ceilings from two-term governor to U.S. Commerce Secretary.
This year, Asian Americans in Washington State have made milestones. Two out of three major television stations have Asian American anchors. Besides KOMO TV anchor Mary Nam, KING TV anchor Lori Matsukawa is now the anchor in prime time since the departure of former anchor Jean Enersen. On the bench, Asian Americans got amazing appointments also, including King County Superior Court Judges Sam Chung, John Chun, and Washington State Supreme Justice Mary Yu. In the corporate world, Microsoft appointed Satya Nadella to be CEO, the Asian community has gained huge stride.
But the sad part is, there are those who couldn’t make it and have numerous obstacles, and we didn’t even hear about it. We need to support and empower our own leaders so they can reach their potential.
Amazon is back
It’s wonderful Amazon produced “Castle in the High Tower,” a movie in the heart of Chinatown in 2014.
In 2008–2009, Amazon left the ID, moved over 3,000 workers to Lake Union, and caused a big void in our community. The restaurants’ business just tumbled. What the ID needs is to bring the mainstream in, to use our resources and appreciate the merits of Chinatown.
We have to educate and re-educate the mainstream constantly that Chinatown is an asset. The ID is a place of history and cultures.
The CID Business Improvement Association conducted a marketing study during the summer and found that the ID needs to attract more specialty retailers and companies to move into the area.
You can all contribute by bringing friends to patronize the businesses. You can blog more about ID restaurants and resources, and introduce them to outsiders.
A new era for restaurants
A new group of restaurants have opened in Chinatown. Both Chinese and Taiwanese have invested hot pot-style restaurants in the I.D. Hot pot means boiling soup in a pot for customers to cook their own meats and veggies. Since the biggest restaurant Ocean City closed a month ago, China’s Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot has leased its two-floor building with over $2 million remodeling, and made into the largest hot pot restaurant in N. America.
The move has demonstrated that the old school of management for traditional American-style Chinese food restaurants, the mom and pop model, would be hard to sustain in this competitive market. In 2014, the ID added two new Korean restaurants. Both are popular. Uwajimaya is even more creative—by taking out spaces from their not-busy gift section, and transforming it into an attractive Greek yogurt booth.
The lesson for Asian restaurants is that, the same old pattern doesn’t work. Cooking a good meal is not enough. Restaurants need to offer new options, change constantly, adapt, improve, and develop flexibility. If you only hope for the best, nothing happens.
Remember, many successful entrepreneurs will tell you: hope is not a strategy. ■
Assunta Ng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.