By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
Within less than a month, Mayor Ed Murray reversed his decision to close down all of the city’s hookah lounges after lounge owners and supporters’ two protests at City Hall.
Murray’s initial reaction to shut down the lounges was in response to Donnie Chin’s slaying on July 23 near Kings Hookah Lounge in the Chinatown/International District. Now the city wants to work with lounge owners to ensure that they comply with the state’s indoor smoking ban.
Dean Leong who works in the International District, said, “The mayor has capitulated to higher power. The city should regulate (hookah bars).”
Bob Santos, a protest leader against Kings, said too much attention has been focused on hookah lounges. What about solving Chin’s murder? These are two separate issues, he said.
Uwajimaya Chairman Tomio Moriguchi, said he was not surprised that the mayor reversed his decision. His guess is that there are too many legal ramifications that the city has to deal with if it closes all of them.
Santos said from the beginning of Chin’s death that he only wanted Kings to shut down. “I don’t know the other hookah lounges. Based on Chin’s reports to the International District Emergency Center, he cited (Kings) problems of shooting and violence after the lounge closed and disruption of lives (of the residents and seniors across the street).”
International Community Health Services (ICHS) in the neighborhood, supports closure of two hookah lounges (Kings and Medina) in the International District because of its “close proximity to our health clinic and to a fragile and vital residential pocket of our neighborhood,” said Ron Chew, executive director of the ICHS foundation.
These hookah lounges “have provided a haven for gun violence, rowdy behavior, fights and car races that have taken place up through the early morning hours, disrupting the safety, peace, and health of our residents,” said Chew.
“The mayor is trying to be sensitive to the needs of the legitimate owners who are trying to make a living in their new country while cracking down on those establishments that have been problematic,” said Dorothy Wong, executive director of Chinese Information and Service Center.
“Mayor Murray’s response shows that the City needs to make sure that it uses its resources and tools, like the Racial Equity Toolkit, when creating policy,” said Andrea Akita, executive director of InterIm. “The tools are in place to promote a vision that eliminates racial inequality.”
“By regulating these businesses, thereby allowing the City to monitor their operations, it will help those owners know what they need to do make their business work,” said Wong.
City needs to resolve Chin’s murder
Mark Okazaki, executive director of Neighborhood House, said he has mixed feelings about hookah bars. “But I am pissed off about Donnie’s death and want whoever is responsible brought to justice as soon as possible.”
“The City needs to address its persistent neglect of the Chinatown-International District,” Akita continued. “Our neighborhood has been vocal about challenges we continue to face. We have shared our ideas about changes to community policing and about the need for investment to make the Chinatown-International District as healthy and as safe as other Seattle neighborhoods.”
“What are the roles and responsibilities of club owners and the City in ensuring that neighboring residents are not impacted by after-hours crowds? “ asked Maiko W. Chin, executive director of the SCID Preservation Development Authority.
On the violence issue, Wong said, “These owners have said that the violence is outside their establishments, although it is unclear if the perpetrators are also their clients. Regulating the hookah bars may identify the owners’ responsibilities around this matter.”
Moriguchi suggested that the International District Special Review board revise its guidelines for the new businesses located in the area, since they were created 30 years ago.
Community leaders would like to see the owners use a more neighborhood-conscious approach in their businesses.
Wong said the lounge owners as licensed businesses have a responsibility to call Seattle police and report on the noise and violence.
Hookah lounges’ role
Questions remain in the Asian community although some community members are unaware that the City has changed course.
What role should hookah lounges, (which cater mostly to African Americans) play in the Asian community now that the City allows them to operate?
Franklyn Smith whose life was saved by Donnie Chin, said at one of the African American community meetings with hookah lounge owners, there was too much focus about the pros and cons of hookah lounges.
The issue instead, he said, should be, “How are you (business owners) going to enhance the community? How are you going to enhance safety?” The owners are directly and indirectly responsible for their patrons, he added.
“How are you going to help or educate your patrons” and “develop higher understanding” of the community your business is in? Smith asked.
“It’s tragic that it took the death of our beloved leader Donnie Chin to draw attention to this longstanding problem,” said Chew.
The impact of steamed smoking
In compliance of banning indoor-smoking, hookah lounger owners will use steamed stones rather than flavored tobacco or turning their businesses into private clubs.
According to Sharon Bogan of Seattle-King County Health Department, a limited research is available on the health impacts of steam stones.
“Preliminary information suggests there may be negative health impacts,” said Bogan. “There are multiple types of steam stones made with different additives that can impact health. We do know that some steam stones have nicotine which is addictive and harmful to health. Currently, there is no federal oversight of these products. Because of this, there are no safety checks for what goes into steam stones so a consumer ultimately doesn’t know what they are inhaling.” For any smoking in public places violation, the place of business receives a warning. If they are in violation of the smoking ban on the follow-up inspection, the Health Dept. will issue a Notice and Order, plus a $100 fine. Violators also receive a $170 re-inspection fee.
Ahmed Ali, executive director of Somali Health Board, who opposes hookah lounges, said he has never been to any hookah lounges. “It (hookah lounge) attracts folks I feel uncomfortable to be with. I don’t know anything about steamed-stone smoking. Hookah lounges are not part of Somali or East African culture. It’s Middle Eastern and Turkish.”
Ali is concerned about uneducated youth meandering into hookah lounges, including steamed-stone smoking.
Even in the African community, the issue of hookah lounges is controversial and divisive. (end)