By Becky Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
Deng Zuolie’s award-winning painting on the charred wall looked submerged in moving water. The molten glass frame swirled like a wave obscuring the serene watercolor scene along a river. The April 27 fire began outside the door of his shop on King Street, burnt through the entrance and caused a wee hour evacuation of residents housed above in the Gee How Oak Tin Family Association building.
Boarded up and awaiting insurance assessment, Deng’s art studio and gallery has been the target of at least three break-ins since the fire. Each time, thieves pried open the plywood or broke a lock and took what was left.
Deng spoke of his plight at a May 12 community meeting at Hong Kong Bistro in the Chinatown-International District (CID). The luncheon was sponsored by Hop Sing Tong and organized by a group of CID leaders out of desperation to protect their beloved neighborhood. The meeting united businesses, plus more than 20 fraternal organizations, family and benevolent associations to strategize for a solution. Officers from Seattle Police Department (SPD)’s Alternative Response Team attended and listened to the group’s concerns.
A follow-up meeting at Hop Sing Tong on May 23 was attended by 50 community members.
“We want to show our community that we care. We love our seniors, and we want to do something for them,” said Faye Hong, a senior himself who has spent 65 years doing business in Chinatown. He was also one of the organizers of the meetings.
The new safety patrol will comprise students of the Mak Fai Kung Fu Dragon and Lion Dance Association and volunteers. Four or five patrol members will walk the blocks in Chinatown together. The focus beat is Chinatown center, which includes Fifth Avenue, King, Jackson, and Weller Streets, and up to I-5 every night, every hour from 5 to 9 p.m. Other areas such as Little Saigon and Japantown won’t be patrolled.
Hop Sing Tong is donating 30 green and red “Chinatown Safety Patrol” vests. Not to be confrontational, the patrol will call 911 if appropriate. The pilot project beginning June 1 will test its effectiveness for two to three months.
“[SPD] told us [the victims] to call 911. We used to call and 5 minutes later, somebody would show up. Now, when we call 911, we probably won’t even get anybody. Maybe half an hour later, we might get a case number,” said Hong, who wanted a more immediate response to those in need.
The CID has suffered multiple setbacks that began with the pandemic, continued with the subsequent unrest in downtown that bled into CID, and persisted with the current rise in anti-Asian hate crimes. Many businesses are still boarded up, some permanently closed. With businesses shuttered, there is less pedestrian traffic. Fewer eyes are on the streets.
On Feb. 25, Noriko Nasu and her boyfriend were brutally attacked with a rock-filled sock not far from Deng’s art studio near 7th and King. Despite Nasu being Asian and singled out by the perpetrator, the aggravated assault was not considered a hate crime.
On May 18, SPD arrested a man involved in 14 purse-snatchings between April 8 and May 11, targeting elderly Asian women at Asian markets. Several occurred at Lam’s Seafood Market on King Street, which has since beefed-up security. Most victims, feared for their safety or inhibited by language barrier, waited sometimes too long to report to the police.
“Chinatown is the window to Seattle. It’s not a Chinese city; it’s an American city. Ninety percent of the residents here are Americans,” Deng decried the anti-Asian hate in a recent interview with Northwest Asian Weekly. He couldn’t say for sure if his studio fire was fueled by that sentiment. The magnitude of the damage caused him to believe that incendiary was used, besides the few newspapers stacked at the door.
The Seattle Fire Department estimated the damage to be $80,000 and the cause was “undetermined.” The case has been referred to SPD’s Arson and Bomb Squad.
“Thirty minutes later, the whole building would’ve gone up in flames,” said Deng as he pointed to the torn up, blackened ceiling inside his studio.
The unimaginable for the community leaders is a fire in a residential building housing elderly people who lack mobility.
“We’re law-abiding citizens, and we pay our taxes. We shouldn’t be afraid to walk around, and we shouldn’t be afraid that people are going to burn us out,” said Hong.
Tsue Chong, the noodles and fortune cookie factory on 8th Avenue and King Street, escaped serious damage to a fire burning in the back of the building, thanks to quick reactions of witnesses who put it out. But the factory did suffer from several break-ins. So did Vuu’s Beauty School next door, according to Sue-May Eng, secretary of the Chong Wa Benevolent Association and attendee of both meetings.
“We’ve been through this before so we can sense when things are getting bad. We can tell when it’s getting more dangerous,” said Eng.
Eng made it clear that she’s not pointing fingers at the homeless population for the rise in crimes in CID but added,
“The history of these encampments in Chinatown is that when they get big, criminals use them to hide their activities. It’s no mystery that inside these large encampments, there’s open air drug dealing, stolen goods hidden, and unauthorized weapons.”
A May 23 Seattle Times Project Homeless article reported that there were 78 people living at an encampment underneath an overpass in CID last year. That encampment may be the one behind Tsue Chong, separated by a wire fence where someone snipped a hole for passage. The article also mentioned a 50% increase in tents in some hot spots since the pandemic. Those hot spots may include some in CID, which has had a long history of encampments.
All agreed the encampments in CID need to be addressed.
Dora Chan, who attended both meetings, considers Chinatown a second home. She helped her family run a friend’s restaurant when she was little. A marketing professional in the tech industry, Dora assists and volunteers with Nora Chan (no relation), the founder of Seniors in Action Foundation. The two handed out personal protection equipment and arranged vaccinations for restaurant workers in CID. In doing so, Dora is in touch with all the owners and workers, and heard many complaints about frequent disturbances at their businesses.
Video credit: Assunta Ng
“It hurts me,” Dora lamented on the current state of Chinatown. She’s also sad to see fewer seniors out walking around on a sunny day.
Dora claimed there is a disconnect on messages presented to the Seattle government. A group called Chinatown International District Coalition submitted over 200 signatures to the City of Seattle, calling for the defunding of the police.
“This group doesn’t represent Chinatown,” said Dora. “We want [the police]. We need them. And we want to partner with them together to create a safe environment for visitors, for those elders who live in Chinatown, and for all the business owners in the community.”
The consensus from the two meetings was police defunding correlates with the rise in crimes in CID. The CID leaders have started a 600-signature collection effort to send to Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City Council, telling them that “community members in Chinatown, Japantown, and Little Saigon do not support defunding the police.” They are asking city leaders to provide additional police presence in the neighborhoods.
Sgt. Randy Huserik of SPD Public Affairs, responding to an inquiry from the Northwest Asian Weekly, stated, “the greatest impact in the defunding effort is the number of officers leaving the department…SPD is down 200 officers from this time last year.”
According to SPD’s online Crime Dashboard, the data for K3—the beat representing CID in the West Precinct—in 2019 and 2020 are comparable in violent crime and property crime. Numbers from the first five months of 2021 show those crimes are on course to be the same. In arsons, there had been three cases to date already, while there were 5 and 4 cases for all of 2019 and 2020, respectively.
Both Eng and Dora agreed that many crimes go unreported, and the actual number of incidents may be higher. Attention avoidance, language barriers, and time are some of the reasons people don’t go to the police. If it’s minor, most just let it go.
Deng tries to let it go. He said, “I can’t wash my face with tears.”
As he brushed the soot off his studio’s massive mahogany sign, the three carved Chinese characters are barely visible and loosely translated as “House of joy in art/Seattle,” Deng said, “Life is filled with difficulties, the most difficult is to resolve.”
The community leaders hope taking matters in their own hands will help resolve some of the difficulties in the neighborhood to provide a safe and welcoming place for all.
Becky can be reached at email@example.com.