By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Playing ping pong in Hing Hay Park ought to be a delight. Sunlight shifts through the ginkgo trees. Chinese elders sit around talking. The ball spins and spits over the metal tables, catching the edge of paddles that hit it back and forth. Community members of all stripes, Black, white, and Asian, join in the games.
So it was something of a violation when Susan Lee Woo and another ping pong player were accosted last month.
A man, who frequents the park with his friends, turned up intoxicated, according to Woo, and began to let loose a stream of profanity and racial slurs.
He ended up standing between the ping pong players, violating a space that heretofore had been respected by everyone, and prevented the game from proceeding.
While relatively mild on the scale of violence that has overwhelmed the area over the recent four years, it represented to Woo a culmination of events that signals yet another change in the precipitous decline of a once thriving community.
“It’s getting worse,” said Woo, who has organized or been part of citizen-led patrols of the neighborhood since before the pandemic.
A first responder
Woo’s family is one of the oldest in the neighborhood, and the incident was part of a string of events that has epitomized just how bad things have become.
No one is safe, the incidents seem to suggest. And no place is safe, be it inside a car, in innocuous comments on social media, or in a place of joy that is welcoming to the entire community—ping pong tables in Hing Hay Park.
During the height of the pandemic, Woo was out on the streets with a patrol every night of the week. She and others would chronicle the destruction of the district with photos, videos, and comments on their official Facebook page. She and others continually cultivated relations with police and other authorities to call for help when trouble arose.
Many of her photos, videos, and alerts were the first to document fires or dangerous situations. They appeared in the Northwest Asian Weekly or other venues and alerted authorities to perilous hazards, such as fires in encampments.
More recently, she and a smaller group, the Seattle Chinatown Block Watch, heads out twice weekly to patrol the streets.
But 80% of her time is done so alone. She comes in before and stays after. She comes on weekends.
In the end, with her luggage cart with a bag on top and her phone, wearing her black mask, and patrolling the streets at all hours of the day or night, either in her car or on foot, she operates almost like a patrol officer.
“I did once want to be a police officer,” she said, holding up her mask to cover her blushing face (she is shy, which somehow makes her devotion to the community more intense).
A first responder
But the month of September has given even her pause.
On Sept. 16, she was driving down South Jackson Street and saw a tall, rangy figure inside the closed off area of the House of Hong restaurant, which is being remodeled.
The time was 9 p.m. and she could barely make out the orange sweat coat and hoodie he had on as he bent over some equipment, apparently scavenging something inside the chain link fence that cordons off the area.
She called the police. They arrived shortly.
She then took out her phone and began video recording the man, who at that point was still far away.
The video she shared with Northwest Asian Weekly shows the man running out into the darkness of the street.
He turns, apparently having caught sight of her, and twisting and turning, as his clothing flies around him, he makes straight for the car.
The speed is incredible.
One moment he is at the end of the street, a wraith barely touching the surface of the asphalt.
The next moment, he is upon her, yelling, “Give me your f***ing phone!”
Woo drops the phone and the picture wheels up to show darkness outside the window.
“I don’t know what happened, but it was a miracle. After that, he just disappeared,” said Woo.
Still, she sent a photo of the man to the police.
He has not appeared in the neighborhood again.
“I hope you are the next”
A week later, still shaken, Woo saw a little bit of light.
Two officers had just graduated from the Seattle Police academy. She knew that one of the reasons for the lack of police presence around the city at various times was due to a shortage of staffing.
She knew the police had come under intense criticism.
“But every small business owner in the CID wants more police presence,” she said.
As an indication, however, of the kind of tensions in the community and bad rap the police are getting, rightly or wrongly, on a recent walk through the district with a police officer joining her patrol, she was shouted at by a pedestrian for selling out.
A little of that fury showed up but in a much scarier way online after she congratulated the two officers for graduating from the academy during this time. She praised their “resilience” on the page of the Seattle Police Department.
Below her congratulations to the two officers, someone wrote a comment, referring to a recent incident that happened after she had made her comment.
“They laugh at people they run over.”
Another person added, “Too bad it wasn’t you or your family member they killed and laughed about. I hope you are the next.”
A week later, on Sept. 24, came the final episode in the trifecta of threats to her safety and service to the community.
That was the verbal assault at Hing Hay Park, when the interloper began to yell racist threats as he was led away by a bystander.
For now, Woo continues to patrol the streets. But she’s making some changes.
“A local business owner told me he doesn’t even drive down 12th and Jackson anymore. At the very least, when I take photos or videos, I’m going to keep my windows closed,” she said.
She’s also going to keep more of a distance from the people whose movements she follows.
“Many have guns and knives these days,” she said.
Finally, she may start carrying pepper spray again.
With her usual nonchalance, she gave away her personal bottle.
The ping pong, however, will continue.
During a recent break in her patrols, she invited Northwest Asian Weekly to play her.
Asking the two men that were occupying the table with their swerves and their chatter if she could have it for a few minutes, she pulled out two paddles from her bag.
Blindingly fast, she served the ball, then let up and allowed this reporter to get into an easy volley with her that somehow he was able to keep up for a few minutes, while others talked and chatted around him.
Finally, when time was up, she took back the equipment and complimented him on his play.
“I did get better as I went on,” he said.
“You kept it on the table,” she said, “which is more than some people do.”
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.