By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
This may be the worst year for Chinatown businesses since the pandemic.
From July to September, three big retailers, Starbucks, Bartell Drugs, and Viet-Wah Food Market, closed their doors in Chinatown. About 19 businesses have exited from the area either by shutting down, moving away, or suspending indefinitely. (These numbers don’t include those that closed early in the pandemic, pre-2022.) And the list is growing…
Within the Chinatown-International District (CID), the Little Saigon neighborhood was hit the hardest in terms of crime, shootings, and homelessness affecting business operations. Nine Little Saigon businesses have been discontinued. Beyond Viet-Wah, Little Saigon Deli, Shabu Shabu Hot Pot, Ten Leaves Bistro, Hue Ky Mi Gia, Sushi Place, Hardwok Cafe, and Seven Stars Pepper have ceased operations. Fashion Hair Salon has just announced it will close after Oct. 31. Many of these businesses have attributed their closures to local crimes and the homeless encampments in the area.
Presently, there are about 15 homeless camps near CID. Since Mayor Bruce Harrell took office in January, his administration has tried to clean up Little Saigon with police patrols and cops checking in large gatherings around 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street. But the homeless folks have now dispersed around 12th Avenue South and 10th Avenue South, as well as between South King Street and South Jackson Street to evade police patrols. Several businesses, such as Lam’s Seafood, have fenced up to prevent homeless folks from trespassing onto the property, despite Lam’s Seafood’s earlier resistance to fencing (they objected to their store looking like a prison.).
The cost of losing small businesses
“Local small businesses are the hearts and souls of our communities,” said Sen. Patty Murray, who recently visited the CID.
A community thrives when businesses can enhance residents’ and visitors’ quality of life by providing a variety of services and products. In the CID’s case, these came in the form of cafes, hair salons, restaurants, doctors and dentists, law firms, accountants, grocery stores, florists, travel agencies, bookstores, banks, travel agencies, dry cleaning services, and many other retail operations. Additionally, these businesses also provide jobs for residents. When these businesses collapse or relocate, jobs and money for the community will erode simultaneously.
Some businesses were reluctant to talk to the Northwest Asian Weekly about their demise for fear of losing face, a burden in many Asian cultures.
Remembering how many obstacles they had to overcome to reach success, all they could do in the past three years was to stand by helplessly as their businesses crumbled to pieces, day after day, first due to the pandemic, and then compounded by public safety issues. The pain of closing their businesses, which owners and their families have sweated over years to build up, is simply unendurable for many. To these immigrants, closing their businesses represents more than personal failure. Even though the closures are not their fault, many owners view them as shaming for their families and their community.
“I am relieved now,” said a business owner who made the hard decision to close down this year. He said that he didn’t want to point fingers at the nearby homeless population due to concern for his employees’ safety. He admitted that the final blow which propelled him to close his business permanently was when a homeless man assaulted his employee while also shoplifting.
“My employee fought the guy for stealing, and he hit her hard,” said the business owner.
The business owner said the homeless problem began two years ago. “It was not severe then. Now, they have no fear at all.” Employees’ safety and the business owner’s lack of confidence with the Seattle Police Department (SPD) finally pushed him to close the business.
Another victim, Green Leaf Restaurant closed in June and has only now agreed to be interviewed. House of Hong Restaurant has been closed indefinitely after it was broken into many times during remodeling. 85C Bakery, which has been closed since the pandemic, is in limbo. The bakery’s storefront glasses have been broken a few times this year, and its outside is a constant hangout for the homeless. The bakery is in a 30-year lease and apparently still wants to reopen at some point, according to a neighbor. “It is more a labor issue, as it is unable to find enough employees to open its store,” said the neighbor.
Several businesses moved out of CID this year. Bayani Travel, one of the few Filipino businesses in the CID, moved out in July after staff at the agency were robbed at gunpoint. Law firm Buckley and Associates, with more than 30 employees, moved to Renton more than a month ago. Spic ‘N Span Cleaners moved to Rainier Avenue South when their lease expired. The current owner of Tsue Chong Company, which makes noodles and fortune cookies, moved their whole operation to Kent earlier this year. The original owner, Tim Louie, still owns the property that the former factory sits on, and he intends to sell it. It is right in front of several homeless camps on 8th Avenue South (the camps run all the way up to 12th Avenue South). Louie said he saw no choice but to sell, with the homeless at the back of his property and even setting up tents on his front entrance before he blocked access to it.
The Asian Weekly reported in July that a petition signed by neighbors was asking the Washington State Department of Transportation and the City of Seattle to clear the land after a fire in the homeless encampment behind the length of the block threatened the building in April. Louie said, “Nothing has been done so far.”
Green Leaf Restaurant, which specialized in Vietnamese cuisine, was once a media darling with numerous positive reviews when it first opened in 2006. It sat right on the edge of homeless camps on 8th Avenue South. Green Leaf shut its doors four months ago. Owner Peter Kuang didn’t want the Asian Weekly to know of his restaurant’s fate initially. Now, however, he is revealing that he was literally forced out of business because of the homeless problems.
“Several needles and foil paper for burning drugs were found outside my business every morning,” Kuang said. “We used to have great business, busy day and night. Customers loved our food. [But] when the homeless folks started hovering outside the restaurant, my customers were afraid to come into our restaurant. Some ordered takeout and told us to bring the food to their car. They were afraid to get out of their cars and walk to our door.”
Kuang said that the homeless people who loitered around his store seemed to have mental illnesses. “Those addicted people are young and pale, and their mind is gone. They looked lifeless. They not only slept outside the restaurant, they endangered the store with fire for smoking drugs every night. They yelled at my customers and refused to let them go through the door. I was hoping I can keep the restaurant so my [eight] employees wouldn’t lose their jobs,” added Kuang. “But the situation got worse. [And] it’s not just the homeless issue. There were shootings. The business was in decline. I felt terrible that I had to halt my restaurant. But the fear that our lives were endangered was real. It’s not worth it if we get hurt. We watched the fresh vegetables in our restaurant turn to rotten greens. And no customers came to our block at all. My chef, who knew I was losing money, said, ‘Boss, we are unhappy about the situation. We understand if you have to close it—so be it.’ I didn’t want to close it, but I had no other choice.”
Kuang finally ceased the business because he couldn’t afford the rent. Kuang also said he felt much lighter after closing his business. “There’s no pressure,” he said. “There’s no fear now.”
Mary Zhu, a paralegal at Buckley & Associates, said public safety was the reason the firm moved out of CID. “A few of our colleagues’ cars in the parking lot were broken into a few times,” she said. “There were also strange people hanging out in the parking area. To protect ourselves, we always left together after work, especially the female employees.”
The law firm surveyed its employees a year ago, to see if they wanted to stay in the CID or move out. The majority voted to move because of safety issues.
Other disturbing scenarios include many people running through their office building’s dumpsters. Zhu said when they moved out of the office, they threw away furniture such as chairs, shelves, and sometimes papers. Every day, the dumpsters were a mess because people ran through the garbage picking out what they needed and left all the trash on the ground.
“It’s uncomfortable to have someone rummaging through even our useless papers,” said Zhu. “Since then, we shredded our papers inside our office first, instead of going to the dumpster directly.”
Despite safety concerns, Zhu said she actually voted to stay in the CID. “It’s always easy to meet my clients in Chinatown as they can shop and we can meet in a restaurant. My clients like to meet in CID.”
Bayani Travel, which moved out in July to Tukwila, had experienced a robbery earlier this year. The robber(s) entered the store and put a gun behind the manager. Allegedly, the robber was a woman who made the manager open the safe and give her $7,500, according to Bayani’s neighbor. (Bayani didn’t respond to the Asian Weekly’s request for an interview by press time.)
Fashion Hair Salon, a one-woman business ran by Hong Chau, was a busy business before the pandemic. Although she was often fully booked, she would try to squeeze as many walk-ins as possible. The reason for closing is fear of crimes and homelessness in the neighborhood, Chau said. She said that purse-snatching is rampant with people hanging around looking for targets. “My daughter told me to quit,” she said. “The neighborhood has been deteriorating—I have no choice. My husband used to pick me up after work. Now, I don’t have a ride home. And I am scared when winter comes. It will be dark outside.”
“It is sad we have to close the store,” said the business owner who was quoted earlier. “We don’t want this to happen. We are forced to do it. There is no way out. We just don’t know what to do. The City can’t deal with the homeless crisis. It’s also hard for us to deal with people who have mental problems. Our employees’ safety is important.”
Jay Lee, former operator of Spic ‘N Span, now owns Crown Cleaner on Rainier Avenue South, which is about 100 feet away from Chinatown.
When asked about the difference between the new and old location, Lee said, “Every day, two to three homeless people were sleeping outside the CID shop daily, and customers couldn’t get in. I had to pay them to go away.” Lee said he had paid the homeless to leave his old business location for more than a year before he himself left.
When asked about his response to the County deciding not to expand the SODO homeless shelter, but to keep the existing shelter instead, Kuang said, “You can build whatever you want and how big you want, but these homeless people are not going to stay there.”
Despite the fact that homelessness is a major concern in the CID, not everyone believes the homeless population are those causing problems in the CID. Some younger community members have said to the Asian Weekly that “it’s the people who prey on them. Drug dealers who come to where their clients are.” Also, they said, the government has failed to take care of them.
The problem is that it is hard to distinguish whether CID crimes were committed by homeless people or by criminals living outside the CID.
“Whoever said the homelessness is not the cause of problems in our community is being irresponsible,” said Kuang.
Two recent cases were committed by homeless individuals. In daylight, a homeless man punched a couple of seniors in the CID, resulting in them bleeding. The man who assaulted the seniors had been terrorizing the community for 15 years and was in jail for three days before being released.
The second case involved a homeless woman who was panhandling outside a restaurant before going to Oasis Tea Zone. There, she assaulted and bit an Oasis female employee so hard that she needed a tetanus shot and then three months later, an HIV test.
Not all business owners want to express their views about CID’s homeless challenges on the record. One owner said, “I don’t want you (Asian Weekly) to write about it. Anything you publish will discourage people from coming to Chinatown. My business is so bad now, if you write more about this, I will have zero business.”
Dr. Xiao Ming, a chiropractor, said, “Since the Navigation Center for drug addicts and homeless was established in Chinatown, crimes have skyrocketed. Businesses on my left and right have all been broken into several times. My business has not been affected much because most of my clients are CID residents. However, I notice that some clients who live outside Chinatown won’t come to see me if their pain is not severe enough.”
Meanwhile, Kuang is looking for opportunities to open a restaurant again. He hasn’t ruled out the CID as a potential location in the future. His heart is still in the community, he said. He just wishes CID public safety would improve so that he and his employees can feel safe again.
Assunta Ng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.