By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
If buildings could talk, Eng Suey Sun Plaza would tell you hundreds of stories of triumph and defeat, perseverance and struggles, and even hope and hopelessness. But a fire destroyed many dreams on June 25. What the community has lost is still too early to estimate.
When the plaza was built in 1989, there were few new buildings in the Chinatown International District (ID). It was a unique commercial building with 24 parking spots, an important asset in the ID. It also housed many diverse and pioneering businesses, owned by refugees and immigrants from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
Multi-million-dollar tenants to mom-and-pop stores
“My 30 years of hard work disappeared,” said Steve Le, owner of Sweet & Fresh Bakery, when he stood watching firefighters spray water on the fire and smoke. He opened his 800-square-foot bakery when the building was barely completed. A few days before the fire, he bought paint, planning to reopen in July after closing in March due to the pandemic. With the fire now, he has some tough decisions to make.
“Everyone can agree, these are already difficult times,” said another tenant, Nigel Lo, CEO of Kin On Health Care Center. “When we thought we were adapting to the ‘new normal,’ we are faced with more adversity.” Kin On’s home care division has been located inside the plaza for over two decades.
“We have no words when we and other business owners saw what the fire did to our business,” said Winnie Che, president of Greenland Inc., which makes nutritional drinks outside Seattle, with headquarters inside the Eng building since 1992. Che said she and many other business owners just cried together.
The ID’s first Chinese American chiropractor, the late Dr. Austin Chan, signed early on as a tenant. Today, his sons Michael and Brian are both chiropractors and running the clinic, Back & Neck Pain Center. The question for the sons is, would they want to continue their practice in the ID after some of their expensive equipment was destroyed, including an X-ray machine that costs over $80,000?
When the plaza first opened, the now-defunct Washington First International Bank was the first big tenant. It was also the first commercial bank started by Chinese Americans in Washington state. (The bank moved to 7th Avenue South in the early 2000s, then closed, and was later sold to East West Bank.)
While there were mom-and-pop businesses, there were also established businesses such as the Herrmann Law Office, which hired former justices in the office.
Youth play an active role
Fighting back tears, Hengda Li, founder of the Hengda Dance Academy, said hundreds of students traveled as far as Tacoma, Vancouver B.C., and Port Angeles to learn Chinese dance and ballet.
“The studio has practically raised my two children,” Li said. Leah, Li’s daughter, is an accomplished dancer. Parents echoed the same sentiments. One parent said, “There were so many memories at the studio.”
Also, the studio was used for rehearsals for dance performances at Meydenbauer Center, McCaw Hall, and other big venues, despite the school having another location in Bellevue.
Li still remembers when he built the school 23 years ago, he did all the remodeling by himself. He added to his investment when water from upstairs leaked down to his 1,100-square-foot space several years ago. A whole new dance floor, A-V system, mirrors, costumes, and lots of props and tools were stored inside the studio.
There was also the Waters Academy, a tutorial center for math and science, and SAT preparation, founded in 2013. About 200 students enrolled in the school, from kindergarten to first-year college students.
“It’s sad and unfortunate,” said founder Dr. Kwan Leung Chan. “We have some hard-working students who have improved so much that they skipped a grade after studying with the program for a year. Some even finished the whole high school math program when they were still in middle school.”
Since the school’s closure on March 15, Chan has been offering classes online. “It is much harder to do online classes for grade school kids.”
The plaza’s role
When the plaza initially opened, it stirred up excitement in the ID and among all the Eng Family Associations nationwide.
Many local community leaders and national Eng officials came to Seattle for its grand opening. It was a major achievement for the Association’s 110-year history. I was there also.
Seven chapters in the country, including Eng’s headquarters, had donated money to build the plaza. Most of Seattle’s Chinese family associations rent a small space as their headquarters. What the Engs did, probably inspired other associations to buy property and establish their headquarters, such as Soo Yuen Benevolent Association, Lee Family Association, and Yee Family Association. This is significant because some associations which didn’t own property, like the Lockes, lost their visibility and even shut down their doors in the ID later.
Several businesses have told us that the Eng Family Association rarely increased rent over the past three decades, which helped them to sustain their business better.
Stay in the ID?
“Yes, we will stay in Chinatown,” said Nora, Austin Chan’s widow.
“My sons said dad loved Chinatown and they wanted to practice here even though it’s not our own property.” The Chan family owns other clinics outside of the ID. Nora, an ID resident, said she is comforted by phone calls and support from friends after they found out about the fire.
Le of Sweet & Fresh Bakery said he can’t afford to open another bakery.
“The insurance company said the most it can pay out is $110,000. That’s hardly enough to buy all the equipment, such as a mixer, oven, and walk-in cooler. Those items cost over $110,000.” He said he will just retire.
When asked if Che of Greenland would return, she paused.
“Two years ago, the homeless broke the door and robbed our company of nice decorations, gift cards and other valuables, and even ate in here.” Although she installed fences and more locks, the robbers came back a month later. Her family called the police, but they never showed up, she said. She doesn’t know yet if she would be back to ID. But many of her customers like to come to ID to pick up their orders.
Other businesses have been broken into, too, including the bakery, Waters Academy, Hoover Law Group, and Kin On’s home care network. Kwan Leung Chen of Waters Academy told us, “Yes, we’d like to stay in Chinatown.”
“[We] will be exploring various options that will provide a safer environment to work in,” said Lo of Kin On. “We have had at least two break-ins in the Chinatown office this year.” Laptops and other equipment were stolen. Lo said it seemed to be better when the homeless camps nearby were removed a couple of months ago. The home care team will be running the programs from its Bellevue office, while maintaining a presence in the ID.
Lost historical records
While interviewing one of the former donors for the building, Tuck Eng was wondering if any of the historical records and photos of the Eng Family Association could have been saved.
“My family’s and father’s portrait were there,” said Tuck. “He’s a major donor. He donated at least $10,000. But I don’t have a copy of the photo.” The Association has stored over “100 years of stuff” of our ancestors, Tuck said.
“We don’t know if we are able to save them after the fire and with water marks on them,” said builder manager Nelson Eng, 83, early on Sunday.
Although many tenants still wish to go inside and retrieve their property, Eng said the city decided it was too dangerous to enter.
With the sudden demolition of the building, the tenants never had a chance to save their treasures, because everything they have worked for, has now been reduced to rubble.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.