By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Halfway around the world on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi are a series of hands stenciled on the walls of a cool, damp cave. A neighboring cave has the image of a Babirusa, dating back roughly 39,900 years. Scholars call them the first human figurative art. The murals bear testament to a people and their way of life. They seem to say: “We were here!” “Look, what we lived through!”
Seattle in 2020 seems a long way from those rudimentary images, but in Chinatown-International District (ID), the rock face is boards covering storefronts and the artists have access to more color and technology. While some murals simply depict what stores sell, others echo the social conversation in the city. The murals are a sign of solidarity—a community coming together to awaken, heal, and help. And it all began on King Street at Jade Garden.
In March, Keoke Silvano was driving by the restaurant on King Street and noticed construction workers boarding up windows. Wondering if they were going out of business, he went over and spoke to Eric Chan, whose family owns and runs the restaurant. He found out the business had been vandalized and decided to board up to prevent further damage.
“It was completely organic. I didn’t set out to start a movement,” said Silvano, who is Filipino. He shares that when he sees something, he is compelled to do something about it. “Boarded up businesses, homes, or warehouses make it seem like nobody is there, nobody cares for the neighborhood. I didn’t have a personal connection with the restaurant owners, but this is my neighborhood. I live in Chinatown,” he said. “My aim was to make sure Jade Garden kept going and people knew that it was open,” he added.
A mural, Silvano felt, could do that. He put a callout on Facebook seeking volunteers to help protect Jade Garden and make it look aesthetically pleasing.
“I was expecting to put more work on the request, but within 30 minutes, I had five volunteers. The artists were from the Latino community and really emphasized that our strength is in unity with other communities,” he said.
“Especially with the work that Uncle Bob, Larry Gossett, Roberto Maestas, and Bernie Whitebear put into developing all our communities of color,” Silvano said. “It’s a reflection of what they envisioned our communities doing to support each other,” he said. The Jade Garden mural even pays homage to the Gang of Four. This instance soon gained momentum and Silvano is pleased.
“The Jade Garden mural served its purpose and business picked up,” he said. Other restaurants on the same block—Tai Tung, Kau Kau, and Harbor City—benefitted, too. The owner of Kau Kau approached Silvano.
“He was apprehensive about boarding up because customers might assume the business was closed,” he said. Turns out businesses are responsible for clearing out graffiti from their property. Otherwise, they can be fined by the city.
However, the threat of fines did not deter Chan from celebrating the murals that sparked this movement.
“It is a beautiful gesture of solidarity. It was touching how the community came together to support us,” he said. Chan hasn’t been fined yet, but expects to be next year. That said, he isn’t taking the murals down anytime soon. “We’re thinking about donating it to Wing Luke Museum,” he added.
After the Jade Garden mural went up, more ID businesses decided to board up their windows after damage from violent protests.
“Che Sehyun helped organize a lot of other artists and material for a lot of murals to go up,” Silvano said.
“Everybody pitched in. I got some paint, the artists got some material, and people came together and pitched in for supplies,” Silvano said. “We’d put out the time, place, and date, and people would come,” he added.
A young artist, Vivian Mak, saw Sehyun’s post on Instagram asking for people to sign up to paint murals in the ID, and said why not.
“I showed up there by myself to create my first mural. There were so many artists and supplies. It was a unique experience with people from all walks of life and cultures —a true representation of Chinatown and Seattle,” Mak said.
Mak’s mural adorns the storefront of the Washington State Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine Center on King Street.
“It was inspired by my last sculpture—a ceramic mask. I was inspired by Blue Willow china. Just like how those traditional blue and white plates or tea sets tell a story through each symbol, I wanted to tell my own story. Each symbolic gesture encapsulates our moments of uncertainty and entangles it with resilience and hopefulness,” she said.
“It was special because Chinatown is close to my childhood when we would go to temple. Having a little part of me inside, it is really nice. The whole process was also different from normal artwork, which is done in isolation. Here, people were passing by and wanted to know more about me and the art I was creating,” Mak said. She also mentions how the owners of Tai Tung kept her well fed with snacks and drinks and made sure she took breaks during the two days she was painting the mural.
Sophia Haddix, a visual artist who painted the mural at Sun Bakery, also heard about the movement through Sehyun and came out to paint her first mural. She collaborated with her friend Lucy Htoo to do the mural.
“We wanted to do something that represented the business. The owners said they wanted something sunny,” Haddix said. So, Htoo and she decided on a vision of the times. “We wanted to show that even though we are in this darkness, there still is light present. Even in the night, the sun and moon are still shining and we also wanted to make it fun and incorporate some food,” she said.
“I’m a part of Seattle and the ID is part of the community. To be able to stand in solidarity in support of this community and see what we can do to beautify and bring joy in these sombre times just felt right to me,” Haddix said. While she didn’t paint a whole mural outside the ID, Haddix went on to help other artists complete another mural in Pioneer Square.
Silvano’s favorite mural is the one done at Tai Tung.
“It pays homage to the history of Tai Tung and its connection to Bruce Lee, whose favorite restaurant it was. He is iconic in films and took a strong stance against colonialism through his films,” Silvano said. “The presence of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with Lee calls to attention the Black Lives Matter movement. It illustrates the unity Lee believed in, the social justice work he was doing in the 1970s, and what that means for us today in contemporary times,” he said.
Silvano remarks that Seattle today is one big art walk all the way from Chinatown through Little Saigon, and Japantown to Pioneer Square, Downtown Seattle, Belltown, and CHOP. Murals across town convey messages talking to different issues.
“All these artists and creatives from different cultures who are going beyond the norm and expressing what these times mean to them when businesses are shutting down and people are losing jobs,” he said. “There is a lot of talent within the community and the murals give them an opportunity to channel their art and express themselves in a positive manner,” he added.
What’s more important to him is what happens to these works of art 100 years from now? “If another quarantine breaks out in the future, we are going to be a point of reference. Just like we looked to the Spanish Flu pandemic,” Silvano said. “In 2020, we have the technology to preserve this art. Where do we go to record this? What happens to the art? This is for years to come, this is our answer to a crisis. We have to find a way to preserve it so people in the future can look to us for answers,” he said.
Janice can be reached at email@example.com.