By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The Year of the Tiger may belong to the Gee How Oak Tin family association, representing members with last names of Chin, Chan, Chen, Tran, Woo, and Yuen. It’s Seattle’s only Chinese family association so far, able to host a Lunar New Year community banquet on April 24, even though it has long passed since Feb. 1, the first day of the lunar calendar.
The reason is obvious. Covid-19. Washington state has reopened for large indoor events and the mask mandate has been lifted since March. Checking for vaccine cards is no longer required at restaurants.
About 300 people gathered for the first time in two years at Joyale Restaurant to celebrate its accomplishments. It has bought a building at 414 8th Avenue South, in Chinatown-International District (CID), one block from its own headquarters for $3.3 million. The building has 10 residential units, three retail spaces, and a huge basement, all fully occupied. Built in 1900, the building has an interesting history. It was one of the CID buildings being cut in size to accommodate the I-5 freeway construction in 1969. About 30% of the building was reduced in size.
One of its storefronts housed the first location of the Wing Luke Museum for two decades, and then the Northwest Asian Weekly for 12 years. In 2013, a temporary outlet for the post office was set up inside Associate Travel, which had moved out in 2015. But the agency’s name is still on the building. And three characters, Oak Tin Building, is now added on top of the building.
Other accomplishments were showcased at the newly acquired building’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. Dignitaries included Lt. Gov. Denny Heck, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, and First Lady Joanne Harrell. It reflects the members’ political involvement, especially in 2021. The association’s elder Michael Chen told the Northwest Asian Weekly that last year, Oak Tin members who lived in Seattle voted for Harrell. That’s a large block of Asian votes.
Also, 51 members of the Oak Tin from Canada and the U.S. chapters representing 29 chapters, joined the celebration. Among the out-of-town guests, the highest ranking member of the association, the East Coast National President of the Oak Tin National Association of America, came. The West Coast National President is none other than Larry Chan from Seattle’s chapter, who was elected in China in 2019 during its global convention. He was unopposed out of 80 delegates. Larry, 67, is a retired manager of Honeywell.
Why another building?
“Our ancestors came, and they didn’t know English and they were afraid to invest in properties,” said Michael. “But the banks’ interest is so low and the stock market is so unstable.
“Our association has been doing a lot of calculations. We have the ability to buy properties. We approached the Eng family association a few months after their building burned. But Eng members said they were not selling,” said Michael.
In his late 70s, Michael, who came to the U.S. in 1984 from China, said his English speaking skills are not strong, but he understands the language. He also doesn’t see this as a handicap.
“I mentor people who speak good English. And they listen to me. I explain my vision and they agree with me.” An accountant for a state-owned factory in China, Chen said he had quietly learned to be a leader, rising from the lowest level to the top.
Chen said the association plans to improve the building over time. As soon as one tenant moves out, they remodel the unit. So far, it has remodeled two units.
“After remodeling, it’s beautiful. It rents out quickly.”
“I have great confidence in Chinatown’s prosperity,” Michael said. “Yes, we have many public safety issues now. But I believe the government will fix the problem, and make it safe. Chinatown’s future is great. Our job is to ensure the economic vitality of Chinatown.”
At the dinner, Larry Chan mentioned that Seattle’s chapter of 122 years has a much longer history than the San Francisco headquarters of 102 years—something the Seattle chapter takes pride in. It was established earlier because the first wave of Chin immigrants arrived in Seattle, not San Francisco. Chin is one of the top five last names in the U.S.
However, challenges remain with the Seattle chapter and other Chinatown community organizations.
“Our organization needs the younger generation to take over, to get involved,” said Larry. “Ten years from now, we won’t be here. We did the right thing to buy the building. It strengthens our organization’s finances for the future. We did our part. And we need the younger generation to carry the torch.”
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.