By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
There aren’t many places that are farther afield from Korea than Port Angeles, at least 50 years ago. At the age of 5, Sung Yang had come with his family to the United States. They settled first in New York, where his father was a taxi driver—although he spoke virtually no English. Then in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where his father, with an engineering background, became a gardener on a grand estate. And finally in Orange County, California, where his father worked for Hughes Aircraft.
But his father and mother wanted to start their own business. His family had originally come from the northern part of Korea, which before the Korean War was the center of culture and commerce. They were proud of their education and accomplishments. So they found an opportunity to become small-time business owners—in that fog-shrouded, mountain-enveloped port at the very edge of the continent: Port Angeles.
While the dense forests and greenery may have resembled parts of Korea, the demographics certainly did not. Yang, a freshman in Port Angeles High School, was only one of two Asians.
(Things haven’t changed much in 50 years. Today, the Port Angeles School District has only a little over 1% Asians.)
But then something dramatic happened, that changed the young man’s destiny. A counselor picked him out of the crowd and urged him to apply for student government.
“There were four positions for student senators,” said Yang, in a recent interview. “As it turned out, there were only four people that signed up, so I automatically got the position.”
It changed his life. He joined the debate club. He joined the homecoming committee. He eventually became student body president.
It also somehow fit his temperament and his experience bouncing around the country.
“I tend to be more introverted as an individual, but as somebody who has come from the outside, if you will, it always fascinated me, growing up, having lived in different parts of the country, just to observe, just to see people’s psychology, how they operate and what motivates them,” he said.
His experiences also set him on a path that would eventually lead him into local government. He went to the University of Washington (UW), then law school, and became perhaps the first Korean American nationwide to be appointed as a staff member for a city council member (Martha Choe). He went on to become deputy King County Executive and chief of staff for King County Executive Dow Constantine. Now he is the chair of the Seattle Downtown Association (SDA), which is tasked with improving the quality of downtown in concert with the city government.
One gets the sense that, despite his accomplishments, Yang almost has a sense of unfinished business, particularly when he talks about his family. But then again, this may simply be due to the disruption his family went through, and the legacy of the Japanese occupation of Korea, when his grandfather left, or was taken, from Korea to work in Japan as a tailor.
After Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and up until the second World War, hundreds of thousands—eventually it would be over a million—of Koreans were forced to work in Japan in difficult industries or were pressed into service for the Japanese imperial military. The trauma and legacy of the deportation and enslavement still haunts the community, as well as roiling politics between the two countries.
When Yang’s father and mother first moved to the United States, they brought the entire extended family with them—both sets of grandparents. Yang’s father’s parents settled in Chicago. His mother’s in Los Angeles.
But one memory that stayed with him, and was perhaps particularly unsettling, was his paternal grandfather’s sense of bitterness about being moved and then his remorse about complaining. His grandfather had not wanted to move and rebuked Yang’s father for uprooting the entire family. But after living in the U.S. for some time, he eventually apologized. His view had completely changed.
“My grandfather told me he was really upset and disappointed and unhappy when my dad told him that he was going to leave Korea and because he thought he was breaking up the family and was taking his grandkids away from him; he saw a lot of risk going to a whole new country,” said Yang. “But then he revealed to me later, after he came and spent time here, and had settled in, that in retrospect, he was sorry that he felt that way towards my father because he clearly saw that it benefited our family.”
Such reversals were played out in his parents’ lives and his own, as well.
On one hand, the freedoms and opportunities beckoned and became symbolic of what they hoped for.
His parents ran a motel in Port Angeles, and Yang worked there after school. The motel, however, was only viable in the summer, when tourists visited the area. In the winter, it basically shut down. So on the day after Yang graduated from high school, his parents shut down the motel and moved back to California.
Yang said his father “wanted the sunshine, wanted to be able to move about outside.” But four years can be a heartbreakingly short—or long—time to run a motel, as other immigrants have recounted in books, such as award-winning novelist Ed Lin, whose breakout novel, “Waylaid,” details the traumatic experiences his entire family of Taiwanese immigrants had running a small motel.
Still, Yang said because the hotel was in a rural community, they were spared harsh experiences.
Nevertheless, at one point in his life, Yang himself tried his hand at small business. He started an apparel company. In the long run, it did not succeed. “We had to wind it down,” he said. But he said it taught him a lot of life lessons.
Today, he is philosophical.
Yang said he spent much of his life trying to understand why this country’s “system and its freedoms appealed so much to my parents that they would completely uproot their family to bring them to a foreign land that they had very little, if any, kind of sense about—so that’s always spurred my interest in why our country is the way it is.”
He added, referring to the many problems faced by Seattle and nationwide, that he has been interested “in its many great ways, but also in some of the ways that maybe we haven’t lived up to its promises.”
Other unfinished business: his daughter’s longing, it appears, to embrace Asia and Asian culture. For the past several years, she has been enrolled in Korean language classes on Saturdays while studying Chinese in school. She went with her school on a trip to Taiwan. She has pen pals in Asia. And besides the UW and Scripps, she has applied to New York University (apparently her top choice) in part because of their program in Shanghai.
Yang also spoke very highly of this publication, returning to its role in the community again and again (he even recounted the beginning of one of this reporter’s articles).
The SDA, which he helms, also has a lot of unfinished business—plans, projects, challenges. Many are in the works that Yang said will further tie the Chinatown-International District (CID) to downtown and the rest of the city.
“The CID is critical to the health of downtown for many different reasons,” he said, mentioning its historic aspects that must be “preserved” and how it helped “define Seattle’s identity.”
The CID, itself, he described as at the center of Asian identity in the region.
“I think regardless of whether we live in Seattle or live in the CID, it’s always been the anchor through which everybody from the Asian community feels a sense of connection,” he said.
Among the projects in the works are the Elliott Bay Connections, a plan to recreate the waterfront with bike and pedestrian paths (“greenways”) and increase foliage which, he said, will draw more people to the entire area, benefitting the CID.
In addition, a project that has been in the works since 2017 is the Culture Connector, a streetcar to connect the whole area around downtown, including the CID, on one line—a veritable boon for tourists and residents, who can hop on and hop off to partake in the city’s attractions.
Also included are arts and culture plans.
“DSA is organizing and convening a group of stakeholders to work on a more active intentional downtown arts and culture plan in concert with the city of Seattle and the office of arts and culture within cultural institutions downtown,” he said.
Finally, the downtown ambassadors, who are currently operating, keep the streets clean.
For the CID to consider a similar program, however, it would need to come from the Seattle Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area—a different boundary area.
One way, however, that CID concerns are reflected in downtown projects is that a board member of the SDA is always chosen from that community. For instance, currently Joel Barraquiel Tan, the executive director of the Wing Luke Museum, is on the board of the SDA.
Long-term, Yang sees the SDA continuing to work with the city to address the high-stakes problems confronting both downtown and the CID: homelessness, affordable housing, and fentanyl use.
One of the things that drew him to the DSA, in the first place, was its civic values.
“I don’t know how many people know that the very first affordable housing project in downtown was a project started by the DSA,” he said. “It has now become Bellwether Housing, one of the largest affordable housing organizations within this region. The leadership saw affordable housing as an important and needed issue, and so that kind of civic leadership and that history remains strong, and that’s why I wanted to be a part of a group of people who were involved in that kind of area of focus, and to this day, it’s really such things that it works on that continue to motivate me and make me feel proud of my connection to this organization.”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.