By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The flames that engulfed an abandoned building on the 4200 block of Rainier Avenue South also destroyed the physical legacy of a community space that was unique to the city. While restaurants and cultural spaces in the Chinatown-International District (CID) and elsewhere still host community events, the Jumbo Seafood Restaurant and Lounge was once home to a wide variety of relatively unique events. Its size, its ample free parking, and its atmosphere were irreplaceable, say community members.
The building, which housed a Safeway prior to Jumbo’s tenure, had been vacant for 8 years. And the fire that engulfed it on Nov. 28 was started by unhoused people living on the premises, according to residents who lived nearby.
But its history remains embedded in the memories of those who took part in its unique character.
According to Betty Lau, the official historian for the Chong Wa Benevolent Association, it was the free parking in a vast lot that was a key factor in its hold on the community.
“Many community wedding receptions and baby parties were held there because of the ample parking. Also community organizations like SCAA (Seattle Chinese Athletics Association) held their awards banquets there,” said Lau, in an email.
According to a reviewer who gave his name as Jasper P., it was, indeed, the parking that helped make Jumbo such an attractive spot to have dim sum.
“Instead of Chinatown, [where] you have to pay for parking and spend up to 10-15 minutes to find parking, Jumbo has an open free parking space for anyone who dines in.”
Indeed, CID businesses and restaurateurs frequently complain that the need for parking is overlooked in their neighborhood, and lament that the city has not provided them with a parking garage, like other neighborhoods.
Moreover, the need for parking is especially acute for AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islanders) and perhaps BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) families in general, since events often involve multiple generations that may need transportation by car.
“That’s a cultural norm most city officials don’t understand—that for extended family members living together, cars are still the best way to transport the youngest to the most frail of elderly family members together,” said Lau. “The concerted efforts to eliminate parking in the CID has depressed revitalization efforts and harmed small businesses. A place like Jumbo filled the gap, enabling cultural celebrations to continue, but when it closed some years ago, it left few places in South Seattle for larger community events.”
Cultural celebrations and events
And what cultural celebrations they were!
The place was packed—and tables unavailable—on Mother’s Day, according to reviewers.
There were luncheons after funeral services.
There were “hundreds and hundreds” of wedding receptions, birthday parties, and other gatherings, said Wendee Ong, former assistant girls coach for the SCAA.
Besides attending SCAA awards ceremonies, Ong met up regularly with a group of women colleagues from the Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team at the restaurant.
She called them her “Joy Luck Club.”
Because of the ease of parking, Ong also regularly took her mother there to eat.
When former Seattle City Council member Cheryl Chow retired, she was feted with a party at Jumbo—that even involved a bit of mild raillery.
“We had a big piece of butcher paper that we kept unrolling,” recalled Ong. “On it, we wrote the story of her life, and punctuated it with pieces of candy. For instance, we would say, ‘She snickered at someone [who was a political opponent],’ and we would add a Snickers bar at that point.”
Jumbo was so large, but at the same time intimate, that people would always be running into each other, she added.
“That place provided such a contribution to the community as a meeting place,” she said. “It’s heart wrenching to see what happened to it. It’s really a shame. But maybe something good will come of it,” she said.
Diversity Makes a Difference
The Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation celebrated its Diversity Makes a Difference scholarship at Jumbo in 2010 and then again in 2013.
This newspaper’s publisher, Assunta Ng, created the scholarship in 1994 after hearing the word, “diversity,” from former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, during his campaign. Through the scholarship, Ng orchestrated funding for BIPOC students—despite wonderment from the community that it was sponsored by a foundation associated with the AAPI community.
“No, just because the scholarship program is run by the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation doesn’t mean that we will consider only Asian students,” wrote Ng in 2010. “Our application form has not specified that the scholarship is for Asians only. In fact, there were years when we did not award the scholarship to any Asians because the Asian candidates did not have strong qualifications.”
In fact, during one event at Jumbo, Ng was greeted by one of the recipients, a Black woman.
“You are … Ng?” the woman asked.
When Ng turned around, the woman said, “You gave me a scholarship. I am now at Seattle U.”
Diversity in action
In the evenings and into the night, karaoke and singing were part of the staple at Jumbo.
“Really sad to drive through the south end and no longer see Jumbo’s doors open…..There was once a time when this huge banquet and lounge not only served delicious dim sum and authentic Chinese seafood cuisine throughout the day, but also catered lively music events throughout the weekends….I especially loved the fact that they had karaoke night for both Vietnamese and Cambodians simultaneously, and often brought in Vietnamese and Cambodian performers/singers…,” wrote a reviewer, Tay H., in 2018.
The karaoke nights also brought together people of different backgrounds.
“I can recall having so many wonderful nights with endless buckets of coronas, dancing, and singing among crowds of Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodian, and even African patrons here…They need to bring Jumbo back again!” wrote Tay H.
Of course, none of this would have been possible without authentic food. Reviewers rated the food at Jumbo as among the top in the region.
“Jumbo is the only dim sum place I know of that serves beef tripe. DELICIOUS!” wrote Amy Greger, in 2016.
Others commented on its fabulous dim sum and authentic seafood.
“My dearest darling husband has been picking up our delicious Chinese feasts from Jumbo Chinese for years. Their food is excellent, Easily worth 5 stars,” wrote another reviewer, Carrie L. B., in 2009. “Oh man, do I especially love their pot stickers. The dough is light with just a little toothiness. When it breaks open the flavor of ginger explodes in your mouth. We always get three orders so we can each pig out to our hearts’ content.”
Lau and other community members said they went there frequently with family.
Seeds of decline
Nevertheless, the restaurant was vulnerable and, in a way, may have contained the seeds of its own impending destruction.
Between the 1930s and the late 1960s, the site was occupied by three dry-cleaning facilities, according to the state department of ecology. The dry-cleaning shops were built atop timber piles that had been treated with creosote, which over the decades leached into the soil and groundwater. In 2022, the department of ecology published a study which showed contaminants above toxic levels at the site that could have contributed to the ferocity of the blaze.
Moreover, complications of a different kind may have contributed to pressures on the management.
A lone news report, still extant, from Aug. 21, 2012, states that the Drug Enforcement Administration raided the “Jumbo Chinese Restaurant” in a “joint investigation with Eastside Narcotics Drug Task Force.”
The report, issued by Fox News, did not provide any other details.
Another rumor laid the blame for its difficulties in an entirely different direction.
“Unfortunately, the owner of the restaurant had a nasty ongoing divorce with his ex-wife who ended up taking a good chunk of his assets….which is ultimately what led to the restaurant’s closure,” wrote the reviewer, Tay H., from Kent, in 2018.
Nevertheless, as the building stood there, shrouded in soot, and surrounded by deep lakes of water, left by the firefighters, it served, ultimately, as a symbol of the broader forces that have brought about decay and destruction in the city and the country.
Observers in the neighborhood wrote on social media that tents had obscured a gigantic hole that had been bored in the side of the building, allowing squatters to force their way in.
As it stood, last week, its entire middle portion, where families and the entire community once celebrated, blotted out and collapsed, it seemed a fitting symbol of the sense of abandonment many in the community have felt at the hands of authorities.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.