By Doug Chin & Peter Bacho
(This is an excerpt of a three-part series that ran in 1984 on October 17, November 21, and December 19 in the International Examiner)
South of Seattle’s downtown, the International District, otherwise known as Chinatown, sits inconspicuously. It’s not a major attraction like San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Seattleites speak proudly of Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market, the Waterfront, University District and even Capitol Hill. But seldom do they talk about the International District.
It doesn’t have chic restaurants full of ferns; just simple and plain Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, and Vietnamese eating places.The area isn’t exotic. Not enough Buddhist temples, curio shops, bamboo, or rickshaws. Besides, the neighborhood looks sort of run-down despite the new and renovated buildings and the decorated street lights and brick-paved sidewalks. The International District is just there.
But, mainly, little is known of the International District because it is different. Its commerce and people are predominantly Asian American. The District is an urban, ethnic neighborhood. It is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, with roots that begin with the founding of Seattle. It is also an area which was settled and developed by Asian Americans. It’s the only neighborhood in America where Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos settled together.
The District is an enclave that has overcome many obstacles and changes. It continues to persevere as an Asian American community while other such immigrant colonies have vanished.
But clearly, the history of the International District is not merely the story of the growth, development and changes of a neighborhood. The history of the District is a story of Asian Americans in Seattle. It is a story of bitter struggle and perseverance. The history of this neighborhood is one in which it people continually tries become a viable ethnic enclave.
The history of the International District begins with the emergence of Chinese immigration.
The Chinese who came to North America were mostly from seven districts: Namboi, Punyu, and Shuntak (where the people spoke the Sam Yup Cantonese dialect), and Sunwui, Hoiping, Yanping, and Toishan (where the people spoke the Sze Yup dialect). All seven districts are in Kwangtung Province, south of Kwangchow and around the Pearl River Delta.
In the middle of the 19th century circumstances in Kwangtung Province as well as the United States encouraged immigration to North America.
In 1849, when the wave of Chinese immigration to North America began, China had just lost the Opium War, which was fought against the British who had insisted that China buy opium from them. China had lost its prestige as a nation. Additionally, there was widespread exploitation of peasants by ruthless landlords, famine, and “over population.” Heavy floods in the Pearl River Delta made conditions worse.
Meanwhile, in the United States, gold was discovered in California in 1849. Stanford Lyman, a scholar on Chinese Americans, wrote: “The announcement that fold had been discovered in California, that the passage was cheap, that indentured labor could be secured, and that Chinese merchants had already pioneered a settlement electrified the peasants and handcraftsmen who had begun to overcrowd the port cities of Canton, Macao, and Hong Kong.”
In the years that followed, the Tai Ping Rebellion (1850-1864), an uprising of peasants in southeastern China, uprooted the “Mandate of Heaven,” by which the emperor of China ruled. This uprising, which shook the political and social fiber of the country, created rebellion among the peasants and a deepening feeling of discontent towards their country. Meanwhile, the increasing demand for “cheap labor” in America’s Western Frontier provoked capitalists and their agents to recruit additional Chinese labor.
By 1880, more than 300,000 Chinese had come to the United States. Most were male sojourners who had come to America with the intentions of staying for a short period of time to seek economic gain, and then return to China. At the time of the first Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, over half of those who migrated to this country returned to China, including a few who made their expected fortune.
San Francisco was the main port of entry for the Chinese. Although this city was to become the main Chinese settlement in America, by 1870, Chinese could be found throughout the western United States, particularly in California, working in a variety of occupations: farming, railroad construction, mining, fishing and canning, and in the woolen, cigar, textile, and other industries. Chinese also served as domestic workers, doing laundry, cooking and house-cleaning because of the shortage of men to do “women’s work.”
The first recorded Chinese in the Pacific Northwest came here in 1789. They were part of Captain Mears’ crew which landed on Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. No one knows what happened to them, but there is some speculation they integrated with the native Indians. Other Chinese joined the crews of British ships which came to the Northwest as part of the Canton trade route. But, these Chinese crewmen never settled here.
The 1850 census showed that there was one Chinese in the territory. He was nineteen-year-old Ah-long, a servant to Captain Rufus Ingles at Vancouver Barracks in Clark County. There is no record of what happened to him.
Ten years later, there was still only one Chinese recorded in the territorial census. He was probably Chin Chun Hock, who is also on record as the first Chinese resident in Seattle.
He came here in 1860 and began as a domestic worker just nine years after the first white settler, Arthur Denny, landed at Alki Point.
In 1867, Chen Cheong began manufacturing cigars on Commercial Street (now Occidental Avenue). He has the distinction of being the first Chinese to begin a business in this city, and the first person to establish a cigar business in what was then Washington Territory.
One year later, Chin Hock took his savings and began a general merchandising store. The Wa Chong Company, as it was called opened next to the tide flats just south of Henry Yesler’s lumber mill on the foot of Mill Street (now Yesler Way). The store advertised an added feature, opium, which was apparently legal at the time.
Chin Hock, taking the opportunity of the growing Chinese population and the need for workers, also became a labor contractor. His company additionally labeled itself as a “Chinese Intelligence Office” in its ads, asking anyone wanting to employ Chinese to contact him.
The Wa Chong Company became, by far, the largest Chinese business in Seattle and Chin Hock became a very wealthy and powerful person in the community. By the time he died in 1927, he had married several times. His first wife was an “Indian Princess.”
By 1870, there were 234 Chinese in the Territory, but only a few in Seattle. Most were in eastern Washington seeking gold. They followed the trail of white miners from California and worked their abandoned mines. With the depletion of gold in that region, many headed west of the Cascades to Puget Sound to work on the railroads or in the coal mines, hop farms, lumber mills, fishing industry and other jobs.
Largely because of Henry Villard, who financed railroads and allied industries, Seattle’s economy steadily grew during the next decade. Two of his major projects, the Northern Pacific and the Oregon Improvement Company, eventually were instrumental in bring the Chinese to Seattle. The Northern Pacific’s terminus point was nearby Tacoma and, at one time, employed 15,000 Chinese laborers, many of whom were shipped here to work on the project. The Oregon Improvement Company was an exporter of soft coal and had many Chinese working in its coal mines around Seattle. Another railroad project, the construction of the Seattle and Walla Walla Railroads, which Villard’s firm eventually controlled, also employed many Chinese.
By 1873, there were 100 Chinese among the town’s 2,000 inhabitants.
The Chinese, a source of reliable and “cheap labor,” attracted capitalist entrepreneurs interested in expanding or venturing into new businesses, and others who demanded that the territory develop rapidly. At the same time, many Chinese sought employment opportunities wherever possible in order to quickly return to their homeland and family.
Within Puget Sound, many Chinese laborers were contracted out to various job locations by Chinese labor contractors headquarters in Seattle. Once their jobs were completed, most headed for Seattle or Tacoma, which were the largest towns in the area at the time to seek other employment. Some of the more fortunate Chinese accumulated enough money working in the outlying areas and came to Seattle, and eventually become successful labor contractors themselves.
As the economy of Seattle grew, others came here from China. Some arrived there through Port Townsend, where the U.S. customs house was located. Others came via Port Gamble and Port Blakely, where they had worked in the lumber mills. In 1874, the first boat run between China and Seattle took place. Some Chinese came here from points as far as south as Portland, and as far as north as Canada.
Until 1876, the city’s population reached 3,400, of which 250 were Chinese. There was an additional “floating population” of 300, a transient Chinese labor force contracted to the various work sites, as noted earlier.
Until the mid-1870s, the Chinese quarter was primarily a base for Chinese merchants. Thereafter, a commercial-residential area developed as increasing numbers of Chinese found work in the city.
During this time, the Chinese quarters gradually shifted from the Commercial-Mill Street area to Washington Street, between Second and Third Avenues. The new location of the Chinese quarters, next to an area similar to San Francisco’s infamous Barbary Coast, was only several blocks away from their initial quarters.
Chin Hock led the shift by moving his prosperous Wa Chong Company to Third and Washington Street. Soon thereafter, other Chinese merchants leased buildings along Washington Street from wealthy white property owners.
According to one early settler, the movement of the Chinese into the area brought about such resentment by whites that it resulted in the depreciation of property values and the unnatural growth of the city’s business district.
“It instantly depreciated all surrounding property for business purposes,” wrote J. Willis Sayres in his book This City of Ours. “It is entirely likely that had it not been for those Chinese leases just at the time, business in Seattle would have followed the easier grades of lower Washington, Main, and Jackson Streets, instead of up the steep hill of First Avenue, which was a high bank on the east side and drop off to the waterfront on the east side.”
The new location quickly became congested. “In 1877, Washington Street was Chinese headquarters,” wrote Clarence Bagley, the late University of Washington history professor. “On that street there were 27 Chinese houses in about a half a block. … During any alarm of fire they poured out like rats from a burning house.”
The Chinese engaged in a variety of occupations within the city. Some worked in small businesses owned and operated by Chinese merchants. These small laundries, restaurants, and dry good stores were patronized by whites and Indians as well as Chinese. The Indians, in fact, regularly patronized dry goods stores and some Chinese employees learned Indian sign language and Siwash (an Indian language).
Other Chinese peddled vegetables, which had been planted at either of two gardens: one in the northern section of town on what is now the Seattle Center and the other on the Duwamish River, south of the city’s commercial area. Some worked in factories and others became domestic laborers. Still other found jobs in the lumber mill. Some worked on public works project such as street clearing and paving. A gang of Chinese dug the first canal connecting Lake Union with Lake Washington. Other Chinese engaged in net fishing in Elliot Bay. There was even one Chinese who peddled ice cream on a converted wheelbarrow.
In 1882, a school for Chinese children was established at the Methodist Episcopal Church at Fourth and Columbia. About 40 children attended these classes. According to Bagley, the classes were taught by two women: “The efforts of these two ladies and of the church to better the conditions of the Chinese and their customs were commended by the newspapers of that date.” Such recognition, it might be added, suggests a racist attitude towards Chinese culture, inferring that it was inferior to American culture.
Economic conditions grew worse in the early 1880s, when a depression swept the country. As conditions got worse, antagonism towards the Chinese increased. By the time of the anti-Chinese riots in Seattle, in 1885-1886, there were about 400 Chinese in the city, a small increase in 10 years.
Antagonism towards the Chinese existed in the Territory of Washington even before the Chinese arrived in large numbers. When Washington Territory was created in 1853, legislators immediately adopted a measure denying them franchise. It is doubtful that there was even one Chinese in the Territory in that year, although there is a record of one in the territory before then.
By the mid-1860s, additional anti-Chinese laws were passed by the state legislature and local jurisdictions. One law barred Chinese from providing evidence against whites in court cases and another measure was entitled “An Act to Protect Free White Labor against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor and To Discourage the Immigration of Chinese in the Territory.” The later law resulted in the “Chinese Police Tax,” a poll tax levied against every Chinese residing in the territory.
As the legislation suggest, the Chinese were unwelcomed as settlers in the territory. As in California, the white settlers wanted to develop the territory for whites.
But, until the 1880s, overt hostility towards the Chinese was not rampant. In railroad construction, for example, whites generally reacted without hostility to the employment of Chinese laborers. According to historian Robert E. Wynne, “The work was so obviously needed and all groups and areas vied with each other to entice a company to build a railroad in their area that they would have welcomed the devil himself had he built a road …the lack of white labor was too evident to cause even the most ardent anti-Chinese to resent their employment on such work.” On other occasions, the arrival of shiploads of Chinese was greeted by cheering white Washingtonians. The importation of Chinese was a sign of economic prosperity and growth.
At other times, however, overt violence was directed at the Chinese. In Sultan, a small town northeast of Seattle, neither the whites nor the Indians liked them and eventually the Chinese prospectors were driven off their claims. On another occasion, a Chinese labor contractor had to write a letter protesting the mistreatment of Chinese laborers by whites at the lumber mill at Port Blakely. As a general rule, the violence towards the Chinese increased as the number of Chinese grew.
By the mid-1870s, local newspapers and politicians frequently focused on the “Chinese Problem.” The Daily Pacific Tribune on December 27, 1877 referred to the Chinese as “money leapers” when commenting on the departure of Chinese to Hong Kong. A Seattle newspaper, discussing the illegal entry of some Chinese remarked, “If there is any cute trick in which Ah Sing is not equal to Brother Jonathon or any other man, it hasn’t yet been put before the eyes of a curious public.”
That same year, an article in the Snohomish Northern Star read: “We are glad to be able to chronicle one firm in relation to the Puget Sound fisheries. We are informed that Tull & Co. formerly of Mukilteo, now of Seattle, after a careful trail they discharged all of their Chinamen and employ White men in their place. We are glad there is one firm operating our fisheries for the benefit of our own country instead of the Mongolian empire. There are hundreds of White men on this coast, who are knocking at our doors for work, hey ‘capital’ brands them ‘tramps,’ cast them aside, and negotiates with some ‘Boss’ of a Chinaman for a cargo of coolies to flood our land with this class of laborers, and grind the face of our poor still deeper into the dust. Shame.”
With the completion of the railroads and the onset of a depression in the early 1880s, the anti-Chinese movement in Seattle and the rest of Washington reached a crescendo. The Northern Pacific was completed in 1883, and the Canadian Pacific was completed two years later. Many Chinese employed in the construction work evaded the Exclusion Act of 1882 to come to Seattle. In Seattle, they competed with whites for jobs in a saturated market.
The poor economic social conditions encourage scapegoating of the Chinese. They were of a different racial and ethnic stock, and had constantly been labeled as “unfair labor completion.” American and European foreigners, alike, favored removal of the Chinese from the territory. Led by the Knights of Labor, who, by 1884, had held many anti-Chinese meetings west of the Cascades, and “prominent Seattleites,” the anti-Chinese movement in Seattle effectively resolved the “Chinese Problem” in 1886.
The immediate spark that precipitated the anti-Chinese outbreaks in Seattle was the riot on September 2, 1885, at Rock Springs, Wyoming where 28 Chinese were murdered and over 500 were driven out of town. On the night of September 5, a group of whites and Indians armed with rifles ambushed a camp of 35 Chinese at a hop farm in Squak Valley (now Issaquah), killing three and injuring three. Five whites and two Indians were indicted, but after an eight-day trial they were acquitted. On September 19, the Chinese were driven out of the coal mining town of Black Diamond, which is southeast of Seattle, injuring nine Chinese. Towards the end of that same month, at the Franklin Mines, which were also located near Seattle, a group of armed masked men cleared of Chinese. Similar incidents were reported in Newcastle and Renton. Among all of these incidents, few were brought to trial and none were convicted.
The predicament of the Chinese in Seattle was the same as in the surrounding areas. Four days after the Squak Valley incident, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reminded the public of the nuisance of Chinese in their midst. “The civilization of the Pacific Coast,” the P.I reporter remarked, “cannot be half Caucasian and half Mongolian.” Such a statement, of course, had no basis in fact since the Chinese only constituted a small percentage of the population. Furthermore, four years earlier the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, which essentially curtailed Chinese immigration to America. Nevertheless, the P.I. article did exemplify the sinophobia that prevailed at the time and suggests that racial and cultural differences played as significant a role in the anti-Chinese sentiment as economic factors. Interestingly, before the anti-Chinese outbreaks in the Seattle and Tacoma, nearly all of the Chinese were unemployed.
During the riots of 1885-86, the anti-Chinese movement in Seattle consisted of two major groups. One group, referred to as the “anti-Chinese,” favored direct removal of the Chinese, meaning physically running the Chinese out of town. They were led by the Knights of Labor and were primarily working men, white Americans and foreigners. The “law and order” group consisted primarily of “prominent citizens,” and city officials. These “taxpayer and property owners” favored removal of the Chinese through legal or legislative action. Apparently, this group tempered their hostility with concerns over the reputation of the territory and the chances of Washington gaining statehood; the future of international trade and the possibility of Seattle becoming the “Gateway to the Orient”; and the property damages that might result if violence broke out.
On September 28, 1885, the first of two meetings was called by the anti-Chinese group in Seattle. At that meeting, the “Anti-Chinese Congress” resolved that the Chinese must leave Western Washington by November 1. On October 10, a committee formed as a result of the meeting invaded the Chinese quarters and warned the Chinese to leave.
On October 24, about 2,500 persons participated in anti-Chinese demonstration called by the anti-Chinese faction. Notified of the hotel situation in Seattle, F.A. Bee, the Chinese Vice-Consul in San Francisco, telegrammed Territorial Governor Squire to inquire about this ability to protect the Chinese.
Meanwhile, both anti-Chinese groups agreed to meet with the local Chinese. Mindful that Tacoma had forcibly evicted their 700 Chinese, the Chinese in Seattle were terrified. Not surprisingly, the meeting with five Chinese leaders ended with an agreement for the Chinese to depart. The Chinese only asked that they be permitted a reasonable amount of time to gather their belongings, dispose of property, and collect unpaid debts. Some 150 Chinese, justifiably frightened, decided they couldn’t leave fast enough. They left by ship during the next three days following the Tacoma riot.
But the agreement to leave and the departure of a sizable number of Chinese were not enough to relieve tensions. On November 8, the Secretary of War ordered federal troops to Seattle, ostensibly to protect the Chinese. The following day, 350 soldiers from Fort Vancouver arrived with the Governor. But the troops were just as vicious as those seeking to oust the Chinese. According to one account: “The uniformed visitors committed a number of brutal attacks on the Orientals, of which six were formally reported. Four Chinese were beaten up in apparently unprovoked assaults; one had his queue cut off; and another was thrown into the bay. In addition, according to one reporter, a group of soldiers visited the Chinese quarters on the night of November 9 to collect a ‘special tax’ from each Oriental. This foray was supposed to have netted approximately $150.”
Over the next several months, the citizens of Seattle waited for legislative action to remove the Chinese and awaited the outcome of conspiracy trials of leaders of the anti-Chinese direct action group. Seventeen persons were charged with conspiring to deny Chinese their legal rights under the equal protection laws. Following 14 days of testimony, the jury deliberated for 10 minutes and handed down a “not guilty” verdict, which served to motivate and encourage the call for direct removal of the Chinese.
On December 3, 1885, the Seattle City Council passed the so-called “Cubic Air Ordinance,” similar to those enacted in California towns. The ordinance provided that each resident of Seattle was entitled to a sleeping compartment 8’ x 8’ x 8’. Dr. Smart, a city health officer, was instructed to enforce it vigorously as a weapon against the Chinese, who were known to live in very congested housing.
On February 5, the Seattle City Council passed additional ordinances to expedite the removal of Chinese from the city. One ordinance prohibited the operation of wash houses in wooden buildings. Another prohibited the sale of goods in the streets. Still another instituted a license fee for itinerant and non-residential fruit vendors.
The passage of these ordinances did little to diminish the cry of the anti-Chinese forces to immediately get rid of the Chinese. On Sunday morning, February 7, 1886, following a meeting of the anti-Chinese direct action group the night before, an appointed committee and their followers invaded the Chinese quarters and notified the Chinese that they were going to be sent away that afternoon on the steamer Queen of the Pacific. Most of the 350 Chinese were forced on wagons and hauled to the dock. From that point, according to one account, “most of the Chinese were eager to get abroad and away from Seattle, but had no funds. The majority of them were in Seattle because they could not find employment in the mines or mills, had no money to move on, or were in debt to the local bosses for their passage from China and had no surety save themselves.”
Their departure was delayed a day because a writ of habeas corpus was sworn out by a Chinese merchant who charged that his countrymen were being unlawfully detained aboard the steamer. Undaunted, the direct action group raised sufficient funds to pay the fare of 188 Chinese at seven dollars per head. Eight Chinese managed to pay their own fare. Thus, 196 Chinese—the legal limit of passengers permitted on the ship—waited for their departure the next day. Meanwhile, the remaining Chinese marched back from the dock to the Chinese quarters. During this time, shots were exchanged between the Seattle Guards or the militia and the crowd. One man was killed and four injured.
The incident provoked Governor Squire to proclaim a state of insurrection, declare martial law, suspend the writ of habeas corpus, and request federal troops. At first, his demand for troops was turned down by an Army officer on the grounds that troops can be sent only upon “last emergency.” But, when prominent citizens of the city became alarmed and wired a telegram to their Congressmen, President Cleveland sent eight companies of troops.
When the next steamer arrived on February 14, 1886, another 110 Chinese boarded, leaving about 50 Chinese who could not be taken on the ship. The remaining Chinese were scheduled to leave on the next steamer while others left by train. One week later, civil law was restored, but it was not until July that the federal troops left. By that time, only a handful of Chinese merchants and domestic servants remained in the city.
Anti-Chinese sentiments in Seattle remained high even after the removal of the Chinese. In the city and county elections in 1886, the People’s Party, comprised of those in the direct action group, made a clean election sweep. Although only a small number of Chinese remained in the state, politicians didn’t miss opportunities to criticize their presence.
The 1880 census listed one Japanese in Washington Territory. He lived in Walla Walla. In 1890, there were about 360 in the state, the majority in Seattle. Over the next decade, the number of Japanese jumped to 5,617. This increase reflected the need for labor and the establishment of a direct steamship route between Yokohama and Seattle.
The Japanese in Washington ranged from 15 to 35 years of age, wrote S. K. Kanada, a representative of the Japanese government, in a 1908 magazine article. They represented not just the laboring classes, he said, but sons of samurai and a considerable number of college-educated men.
Nearly all of this predominantly male population in the state made their living as waiters, domestic servants, shop workers, and laborers on the railroads and sawmills. Very few worked as professionals.
Kanada identified four Japanese who had graduated from the University of Washington, two studying at that school and one attending Puget Sound University. He also noted that nearly 200 were attending public schools and that the Seattle Japanese Association had established a private school for Japanese children.
Christian churches were eager to recruit new immigrants. The Baptist Church established a church for Japanese in Seattle with branches in Tacoma and Port Blakely, the site of one of the largest sawmills in the world. The Baptist Church also had a mission for Japanese, which was known as the Seattle Japanese Women’s Home.
The Methodist Episcopal Church established Japanese missions in Seattle and Spokane shortly after the turn of the century. Soon afterwards, the Seattle YMCA offered English classes for young Japanese.
The Christian churches, in addition to providing religious teachings, served as social aid and educational institutions. They helped find jobs, provided English language training and counseling. They were, thus, instrumental in acculturating the immigrants.
The Japanese Buddhist Mission also started in Seattle during this time.
Seattle was headquarters for the Japanese. “If you should walk up Main Street from Second Avenue to Eighth Avenue South, you will find where the Japanese town is,” Kanada wrote. “It is safe to say that nearly all of the houses in this section are occupied by the Japanese.”
Included in his description of Japanese businesses were: 45 restaurants, 20 barber shops, bathhouses, laundries, 30 hotels and lodging houses, four groceries, bakery, meant and fish markets, five Japanese general merchandise stores, five tailors, two dentists, three physicians, four interpreters and some cigar stands and candy stories.
The focal point of Japanese community life was the Nippon Kan. The hall was constructed in 1909 and located on Washington Street, above Sixth Avenue. The hall’s center piece was the theatre, where local performers as well as performers from Japan put on traditional and contemporary plays, dances, puppet shows, martial arts and other forms of entertainment. The hall was also used for religious teachings and provided a forum for discussion of community issues. In short, it served as a Japanese community center.
The upper floors of the build were used as a hotel. In addition, there were offices and meeting rooms. The Nippon Kan’s significance to the community is perhaps best demonstrated by its control. Ownership of the building belonged to a corporation that sold shares to and got support from the local Japanese community.
The Japanese community had two daily newspapers and two monthly magazines. The North American Times was the evening paper and the Asahi Shinburo (The Rising Sun News) was the morning paper.
In its early stage of development, the economy of Seattle’s Japanese section was primarily geared toward working men, as evidenced by the large concentration of Japanese restaurants, barber shops, and single room unit hotels. The growing Japanese population—including those staying in the southern section of the city—consisted of mostly men who sought work on the railroads, in the timber industry, farming and fishing. Others sought work and fortunes in the gold mines of Alaska and Yukon.
The dominance of Japanese in Seattle’s hotel business reflects the large number of male clientele. The first hotel managed by a Japanese occurred in 1896. By 1900, there were three hotels operated by Japanese. By 1907, there were 53. In 1910, several operators came together to start the Japanese Hotel Operators Association and elected Chojiro Fujii as president.
Nearly all the hotels were located around the Union Street railway station. Most of the hotels were lease. Management of a hotel was, by no means, easy. But, it provided a source of income and shelter for the managers and their families.
The hotel business must have remained profitable for some time. World War I was a period of prosperity which led to increase in Japanese-operated hotels. In 1925, Japanese managed 127 hotels and apartments in the city, totaling 8,575 units. This provided employment for 399 persons.
While Seattle was headquarters for the Japanese in the state, demand for their labor was needed to develop industries outside of the city. Indeed, thousands of Japanese were contracted to work in railroad construction, sawmills, and canneries in the Northwest and Alaska. However, their presence in the development of local farming was nothing short of amazing.
The Japanese immigrants were well versed in intensive cultivating farming methods. While they initially produced a variety of farm products, the Japanese eventually limited their efforts to producing vegetables, small fruits, greenhouse products, and some dairy products.
The first Japanese operated farms in Washington State began in the White River Valley in 1893. It did not take long for the industrious Japanese to begin farming in South Park, Georgetown, Green Lake, Vashon Island, Bainbridge Island, Bellevue, and Puyallup. More often than not, the Japanese cleared and cultivated untouched land they leased. Much of the property they worked on was marshland which whites considered useless.
In 1907, five years after the Pike Place Market began, the Japanese started selling their produce there. By the time WWI began, the ambitious Japanese occupied 70 percent of the Market. The Pike Place Market became the place where many of the local Japanese farmers sold the bulk of their goods.
Prostitution and Gambling
At the turn of the century, the International District inhabitants—including the Japanese—were mostly single men. Aberrant enterprise emerged to exploit this situation. Prostitution and gambling were two such noticeable ventures which emerged.
Japanese women were shipped here to work in the area’s brothels and in the outlying areas where there were work gangs. The brothels were initially situated around Second and Occidental Streets, but later shifted to Fifth and Sixth Avenues around Weller Street.
It was reported that there were 200 Japanese prostitutes alone. Half of them catered to Japanese only, while the others made no distinctions.
The presence of Japanese prostitutes did not persist without evoking a strong reaction from the community. Around 1904, a movement spearheaded by Japanese churches succeeded in driving a “Japanese Colony” of prostitutes out to rural areas. The presence of such women on pay day at outlying sawmills was not uncommon.
Gambling regularly occurred wherever there were large gangs of workers in the city and rural areas.Organized groups of gambling operators appeared at work camps, usually on pay day, to press the luck and dreams of the workers.
The Chinese had started their own gambling clubs, followed by the Japanese. The first Japanese club, the Jinai Club, was started in 1917. The largest in the area was the Toyo Club, which began in the early 1920s. The club occupied an entire floor what is now the New Central Hotel on Maynard Avenue and South Weller. Gambling occurred throughout the International District, but concentrated on lower King and Weller Streets.
Competition for customers was keen and based somewhat on ethnicity. It was not uncommon, for instance, to find gambling operators castigating members of their own ethnic group for patronizing a gambling hall owned by members of another ethnic group.
The local Japanese community, like other immigrant groups, developed associations for social purposes, mutual aid, unity, and protection. In 1900, the Japanese Association of Washington was formed in Seattle. Its first president was Tatsuya Arai.
The first issue of the Association addressed was the boycott of Western style Japanese restaurants, which they successfully resolved through mediation. The Association, which split for a time, subsequently became the Japanese Association of North America. Until the 1930s, the Association was the main leader within the community.
The Association, at its peak, consisted of representative of over 30 community organization or clubs. It spent much of its time fighting discrimination against the Japanese.
In the 1930s, the Japanese American Citizens League emerged. A leading figure in the organization was James Sakamoto, also the editor and publisher of the Japanese American Courier newspaper.
Besides these associations, there were prefectural associations base on the locality from which the immigrants came. The largest among these was the Hiroshima Ken, followed by the Okayma and Yamaguchi prefectural associations.
Chinatown Shifts to King Street
The Chinese began occupying lower King Street in 1910, after the Jackson Street Regrade. This began the shift of Chinatown from what is now Pioneer Square to the King Street core, the current site of Seattle’s Chinatown. The Regrade area was a steep hill that was substantially lowered and tide flats, which were filled with dirt.
The first Chinese building constructed on King Street was the building on the northeast corner of Eighth and King. It was built by a tong association and still stands there today.
Its construction was followed by the development of the two Kong Yick Buildings with are located on the south side of King Street, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. A Chinese investment group, led by Goon Dip, built these structures. Chinese businesses, including the Wa Chong and Yick Foon Companies, opened there in 1911. Goon Dip built his own Milwaukee Hotel in 1917.
One of the earliest visitors to this new Chinatown was Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the leader of the Chinese revolution that overthrew the Manchu Dynasty. He came here to raise money from overseas Chinese to aid the war effort.
In 1921, news of a famine in China spread throughout the community. A large campaign and festival was held in Chinatown to raise money and collect supplies and goods to send back to China.
After 1925, only a handful of Chinese stores and very few Chinese remained in the old Chinatown area. The only legitimate business in the Old Chinatown area was a family association. Gambling was prevalent in the Old Chinatown area with some stores selling cigarettes as a business front. Lottery tickets were sold to Caucasians and Chinese would go down there to gamble in the backrooms.
Meanwhile, the first Chinese newspaper published in Seattle, the Chinese Star, was established. Four people worked on the weekly publication, which covered news from China and the local community. The newspaper was supported by the Nationalist Chinese Government and ran for a few years, ceasing publication in 1929.
That same year, the Chong Wa Benevolent Association Building was constructed at the northeast corner of Eighth and Weller Street. It was just across the street from its previous location, which was taken over by the Gee How Oak Tin Association.
Chong Wa was a powerful organization within the Chinese community. It comprised of practically all of the Chinese family associations, tongs, and other Chinese groups. It represented the Chinese in the state.
In 1931, news of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria aroused the Chinese community here. At a community meeting, Chinese decided they would boycott Japanese stores in the area to express their anger. Not all Chinese complied, however, and those who did not were punished before the community.
During the Depression, Chinese suffered like most other Americans. Many lost their job and those who were fortunate to remain employed worked for meager wages.
According to the U.S. Census data, there was no increase in the Chinese population in Seattle between 1920 and 1930, while the Chinese population for the state decreased to its lowest point since the beginning of Chinese immigration to Washington. There were 2,195 Chinese recorded in the state in 1930, a decrease of 168 from the previous decade and nearly 1,500 from 1900. The decreases were, in large measure, the result of exclusionary immigration laws passed against the Chinese and the lack of employment opportunities.
In the following decade, the Chinese population in Seattle grew to 1781—an increase of 434 from 1930. The increase was primarily due to natural births rather than immigration.
The Filipino Immigrants
For decades, Filipinos occupied a “bastard” status within the wide variety of American laws which once governed the Philippines. In 1899, the Treaty of Paris ended the Spanish-American War, and ceded the Philippines to the United States. Specifically reserved to the U.S. Congress was the right to determine the status of the inhabitants.
The consequence of this reservation was that even though U.S. sovereignty over the Philippines had been established, there was no automatic guarantee of American citizenship for Filipinos. This result was consistent with the overall state of American race relations. Through the 19th and much of the 20th Centuries, naturalization was privilege reserved primarily for white aliens. (After the Civil War, the privilege was extended to Black aliens.)
Filipinos were classified as American “nationals.” As “nationals,” they owed their allegiance to the United States and were entitled to American protection. They traveled with U.S. passports and escaped the exclusionary legislation aimed at stopping the entry of other Asian immigrants to this country.
Yet, even their elevated legal status did not protect them fully. The burden of loyalty to American did not carry with it a full range of corresponding benefits. As non-citizens, Filipinos living in the U.S. were not permitted to vote in American elections. In some jurisdictions—including Washington State—they were not permitted to own land, while in others, racial intermarriages involving Filipinos were strictly forbidden.
The thousands of Filipinos immigrants who came to these shores in the 1920s and 1930s discovered their existence circumscribed by the web of political and legal hostility. Tolerated as itinerant labor in West Coast agriculture and Alaskan canneries, they found few opportunities elsewhere.
In the cities where they rested from their seasonal work, the boundaries of Filipino enclaves were specifically marked. Whether it was King Street in Seattle or Temple Street in Los Angeles, the urban world of Filipinos possessed a dismal consistency: hundreds of tiny rooms in rows of cheap hotels. For most of the inhabitants, there were little more than a place to sleep.
Yet, Filipinos of the first generation wanted more than the little they were offered. Products of an American educational system imposed on the Philippines, they responded with unbounded enthusiasm. Carlos Bulosan, in his classic work, America is in the Heart, recalled his youthful fascination with the story of Abraham Lincoln: “A poor boy became a president of the United States. Deep down in me something was touched, was springing out, demanding to be born, to be given a name. I was fascinated by the story of this boy who was born in a log cabin and became a president of the United States.”
Bulosan’s fascination was understandable. The attractive simplicity of the Lincoln fable contrasted nicely with the poverty of Filipino rural life. America meant hope, and in the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of young Filipino men followed that hope to its source.
Unfortunately for Carlos and his follow voyagers, the fascination was not mutual. The America of that day was tightly governed by rules of race. On the West Coast in particular, the hostility against Asian newcomers was intense. West Coast agitation had led to the passage of federal legislation which severely restricted the immigration of the Chinese (1882), then the Japanese (1924), to these shores. It was a pervasive hostility that Filipinos, despite the theoretical protection of “national” status could not evade.
In Congress in the early 1930s, anti-Filipino sentiment was reflected in the mood to grant the Philippines independence, there is little doubt that American racism played a major role.
As federal wards, Filipinos could not be legally prevented from coming to American shores. The answer for some was Philippine independence. This development would create a change in status from national to alien, which would then enable Congress to constitutionally exclude Filipinos.
This is in fact what transpired in 1934, with the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act (the Philippine Independence Act). The Act provided for a 10-year period of transition to independence. During that time, a quota of 50 immigrants a year was imposed. At the end of transition, the Philippines would become independent and Filipinos would become aliens subject to the exclusionary whim of Congress.
Yet, despite the fluctuations in the status and the overall hostility to their presence, most of the early immigrants were determined to stay in America. For many, this determination meant that confinement in the cheap hotels of Chinatown, acceptable for the present, would no longer suffice.
In Washington State, the problem was that Chinatown’s segregation was reinforced by law. The Anti-Alien Land Law was designed to prevent alien “ineligible for citizenship by naturalization” from owning land. Within the context of those times, only whites and blacks could be naturalized. All others (Japanese, Filipinos, Chinese) were specifically excluded.
This law underscored a dominant American them: Asians were tolerated only insofar as they constituted a transient, cheap labor force. And in Seattle, the single room hotels of Chinatown visibly embodied that attitude.
For Filipinos in this city, one of the first steps toward establishing a permanent presence was taken in 1939. That year, Pio DeCano, a Filipino immigrant, purchased a tract of land. The purchase itself reflected a deep Filipino desire for a continuing presence in this city. The purpose of the tract was its future use as a site for a Filipino Community clubhouse.
Immediately, the State Attorney General’s Office contested the purchase, contending that DeCano had violated the Anti-Alien Land Law.
DeCano won at both the trial court and on appeal. In neither case did the courts restrict the right of the State to racially limit land ownership. Direct successful challenges to racial restrictions had to wait the post-war years of dramatic political and social change.
Rather, the basis of the triumph was technical in nature: as a Filipino, Mr. DeCano did not fit the “alien” category. As a national, his allegiance was to the United States. Thus, the provisions of the law, in regard to Mr. DeCano and the Filipinos of Washington State, were inapplicable.
Japanese Face Discrimination
On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Within a few months, over 120,000 Japanese on the West Coast—citizens and aliens, elderly and infants, men and women, students and professionals, famers and clerks—were sent away to concentration camps.
Japanese on the West Coast were imprisoned, not for military reasons, but because of race prejudice. This incarceration was the result of years of racial hostility against them.
With the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, many white Americans thought they had stemmed the flow of Asian into this country. But as the number of Japanese immigrants grew, the hostility and racism earlier directed at the Chinese shifted to the Japanese. Like the Chinese before them, the Japanese were perceived as unfair labor competition, immoral and unassimilable because they were not white.
The antagonism toward the Japanese was sporadic and concentrated in California. Labor leaders and demagogic politicians were at the forefront of the anti-Japanese movement.
As early as 1889, when there were few Japanese in this country, the San Francisco Trades Council, referring to the new immigrants, called attention to a “recently developed phase of the Mongolian issue.”
Four years later, the infamous Denis Kearney, who had been involved in the anti-Chinese movement, told the public about “another horde of Asiatic slaves ‘filling the gap’ made vacant by the Chinese.”
“We are paying out our money,” he said, so that “fully developed men who know no morals by vice [may] sit beside our daughters to debauch [and] demoralize them. The Japs must go.”
The San Francisco School Board, on June 14, 1893, passed a resolution requiring that “all persons of the Japanese race seeking entrance to the public schools must attend what is known as the “Chinese School.” After some protest by the Japanese, including a plea in person by the Japanese Consul, the Board changed its mind.
At the turn of the century, the hostility against the Japanese increased. The San Francisco Building Trades Council, on April 12, 1900, passed a resolution that said, in part, “… that the present open-door policy toward Japanese immigration is injurious to labor and detrimental to the best interest of the country …” The resolution further said, “We respectfully petition our Senators and Representatives in Congress to use their best efforts to enact a similar law [to the Chinese Exclusion Act] or secure such international agreement as will secure this Coast against any further Japanese immigration, [and] thus forever settle the mooted Mongolian labor problem.”
A month later, San Francisco Mayor James D. Phelan, at a meeting called by various labor unions, said: “The Japanese are starting the same tide of immigration which we thought had been checked 20 years ago … the Chinese and Japanese are not bon fide citizens. They are not the stuff of which Americans citizens are made.”
In Washington State, the local Western Central Labor Union passed resolutions denouncing Japanese immigration. The sentiments of labor quickly spread to the political arena, and the King County Republican Club approved similar resolutions petitioning Congress to pass a Japanese Exclusion Act. Their sentiments must have been shared by others throughout the state. At a meeting, state delegates to the National Republican Consortium decided they should “use every effort to secure the insertion of an anti-Japanese clause in the National Republican Platform.”
The McKinley Republican Club, a local group, passed yet another set of resolution which read, in part:
“Whereas, during the first few months a large number of Japanese laborers have migrated or have been imported to the Pacific Coast of the United States …
“Whereas, said laborers consist of a class who live and subsist at so small a cost that they unfairly enter directly into competition with intelligent American workmen …
“Whereas, said Japanese laborers are a menace to the conditions which make it possible for the intelligent American workingman to maintain himself, his family and his home …
“Whereas, the immigration and importation of said Japanese laborers to the Pacific Coast will speedily produce the conditions which now exist in Southern States, with all of its race controversies and race horrors …
“Resolved, that the further importation and immigration of said Japanese should be limited and restricted …
“Resolved, that the act of Congress entitled, ‘An act to prohibit the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States’ … should be amended by inserting the words ‘and Japanese’ after the word ‘Chinese’ …
“Resolved, that a copy of these resolutions be forthwith transmitted … to all senators and members of Congress …
“Resolved, that all Republicans newspapers be requested be requested to publish these resolutions.”
Even though there was the need for additional laborers in the state, it was clear many wanted Washington preserved for whites. The racial tolerance of Washingtonians dwindled as visions of a state with mixed races and cultures instilled fears of another South. Race harmony was not on the agenda; getting rid of Asians was.
Alien Land Laws and Exclusion
In 1894, a Japanese man named Saito applied for citizenship in Massachusetts. Saito was the first Asian alien to challenge America’s naturalization laws. The laws regarding nationalization were originally passed in 1790 and decreed that any alien, “free white person” who has resided in the United States for a certain stated time could become a citizen. In 1873, the naturalization law revised to include “American blacks” and “persons of African nativity or descent.” Saito argued that he fitted within the term “a free white person.”
A Massachusetts court rejected this contention, stating that the races of mankind are white, black, brown, and yellow. Since Saito belonged to the yellow race, he was ineligible for citizenship. The court pointed out that the earliest naturalizations laws were originally intended to extend citizenship only to members of a Caucasian race. The fact that specific revisions were made to include blacks bolstered the court’s belief that the yellow race was to be excluded from the privilege of applying for citizenship.
California passed the first Alien Land Law in 1913. The original California law denied all persons ineligible for citizenship the right to own or lease land. In deference to white landowners, however, it was amended to permit leasing for no more than three years.
Washington State courts, in the beginning, admitted Japanese petitions for naturalization. But this was over-ruled by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Yamashita vs. Hinkley, the Supreme Court overturned a decision of a Washington State court granting Yamashita’s application for citizenship.
Yamashita was issued a certificate of naturalization by a state Superior Court. He then tried to create a corporation. But, state law prohibited non-citizens from doing so. When he filed his corporation papers, Washington’s Secretary of State refused to accept them on the basis that Yamashita was ineligible for citizenship because he was not a free white man. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court of Washington, which held that the Superior Court of Washington had no power to confer citizenship.
On the same day as the Yamashita decision, November 13, 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Ozawa vs. United States, closed the door to Japanese naturalization. The Court ruled that Ozawa was “clearly of a race which is not Caucasian, and therefore belonged entirely outside the zone on the negative side.”
During World War I, when Japan was an ally of the U.S., there was racial tolerance towards the Japanese. But, with the return of veterans and a national recession, anti-Japanese agitation resurfaced. In 1921, Washington State passed an Alien Land Law, after California has strengthened its own law. This time, the anti-Japanese forces were joined by the newly formed American Legion and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West.
Three years later, the anti-Japanese exclusionist achieved victory. The Immigration Act of 1924 effectively stopped entry of Japanese to the United States.
With the curtailment of Japanese immigration and the gradual acceptance of second generation Japanese, blatant acts of racism against them cooled during the 1930s. Yet, by the time Would War II came around, and discrimination against the Japanese increased.
The Japanese would not have come close to winning a popularity contest on the West Coast.
The attack on Pearl Harbor and the war with Japan rekindled and heightened the animosity against Japanese Americans. The public and political outcry against Japanese Americans was quickly turned into an official policy of evacuation. President Roosevelt, on February 19, 1942, signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized any military commander to evacuate any person if Japanese ancestry from an area.
All Japanese residents on the West Coast were ordered to leave their homes and businesses. More than two thirds of them were United States citizens. “The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become Americanized, the strains are undiluted,” said General J.L. Dewitt, Western Defense Commander.
The courts were open for business, except to serve the Japanese who were arrested without warrants and held without indictment or a statement of charges. The Japanese were first transported to hastily constructed assembly centers and then to more permanent concentration camps.
The forced removal were executed with hast. So-called measures to protect the Japanese from the force sale of their property were wholly ineffective and evacuation resulted in financial disaster, torment and hardship for virtually every family.
Most of the Japanese in this area were shipped like cattle to Puyallup, an assembly area, and then to Minidoka, Idaho.
The Years after the War
“When the Japanese began to return in January 1945,” wrote Howard Droker, “Seattle confronted its gravest racial problem. Although the blind racism and fear that were largely responsible for the evacuation of the Japanese had abated to some degree, self-styled ‘patriotic’ anti-Japanese groups had opposed to the move back to the West Coast. But a pubic sense of guilt, the efforts of civic groups, and the favorable publicity given to the Japanese-American soldiers by the federal government helped to lessen racial tensions and ease the return.”
Seattle’s mayor at the time, William F. Devin, originally joined the mayors of several cities on the West Coast in opposing the return of Japanese Americans the coast. However, once the government decided to allow them back, the conservative mayor left the matter to his Civic Unity Committee. Mayor Devin had established the committee earlier to ease racial tensions in the city and to make recommendations to avoid outbreaks of violence in the wake of race riots that had occurred in Detroit, Harlem, and Los Angeles. Citing the sacrifices and heroism of Japanese American soldiers in Europe and the Pacific, the multi-racial committee passed a resolution hop “that Seattle will respond as truly American city and grant the returning American-Japanese citizens all the rights to which they are legally entitled.”
Washington Governor Mon Wallgren also disapproved of the return of Japanese Americans, as did the Japanese Exclusion League and the Remember Pearl Harbor League. Veterans groups sided with the Army’s wishes for the return of the Japanese, but many labor unions feared renewed labor competition. The Washington Teamsters and their leader, Dave Beck, were very vocal in their opposition. Produce dealers and farmers, especially in the Kent Valley, were another element opposed to the return of the Japanese.
“After the war, Japantown was no longer there,” said Shigeko Uno, who was born in the International District. Uno’s parents owned and operated the White River Dairy on Weller Street but lost it when they were sent to camp. “Even the Japanese people who came back and started their businesses,” she says, “their children didn’t want to continue, so there’s the end of it. We started Chick’s Ice creamery on Jackson Street underneath the Bush Hotel from 1947 to 1960. During the early years it was fun because people would be coming back from all over and they would all gather at our place. Everybody would be so happy to see each other.”
The Japanese in Seattle prior to World War II totaled nearly 7,000. After the war, the number dropped to some 4,700. It was estimated that 65 to 70 percent of Seattle’s interned Japanese later returned to the city. Prior to World War II, the Japanese in the city operated 206 hotels, 140 groceries, 94 cleaning establishments, 64 market stands, and 57 wholesale produce houses, according to a survey prepared by the Japanese American Citizens League. Except for hotel operators, there were only a few groceries, restaurants, and produce market stands in the District after the War. Most of the Japanese businesses in the District that existed prior to the War never restarted. More specifically, there were over 200 Japanese establishments in the area, according to the City Polk Directory listed about 83 Japanese establishments in the same geographical area. A little more than a dozen had re-established their businesses in the area after the war, although rarely in the exact location as before the war.
Meanwhile, the population in the International District grew to 4,800 in 1950, compared to 3,733 in 1940. This 30 percent increase reflects the heavy migration to Seattle of workers who found jobs in the wartime industries.
Included in this migration were Blacks, some of whom settle in the District. Some Blacks opened businesses in the area along Jackson Street, including a large nightclub, server restaurants and tavern, tailor shops and cleaners. By the end of the decade blacks had become the largest racial minority in Seattle. Subsequently, the racial antagonism direct at Asians shifted to them.
During the late 1940s, a multi-racial organization, sponsored by the Health and Welfare Council, was formed. The Jackson Street Community Council, grassroots self-help group, sought to improve the declining social and economic conditions and create racial harmony among the residents in an area a little larger than the present International District boundaries. The organization consisted mainly of business persons and leaders of different ethnic groups in the Area. The Council lasted over 20 years and evolved into what is now the Central Seattle Community Council Federation. One of the group’s executive directors was Phil Hayasaka, who became director of the City’s Department of Human Rights. Ben Woo, James Mar, Tak Kubota, and Fred Cordova were among those involved with this organization.
The Jackson Street Community Council was the first organization not exclusively Chinese to become involved with the affairs of Chinatown. Although Chon Wa did not formally participate in the Council, some of its member did. Apparently, Chong Wa did not see the Council as a formidable “outside” force since it included Chinese businessman and leaders.
Because the area was multi-racial, the Council referred to the neighborhood as the “International Area.” The designation of the area as the International District is derived from Mayor Devin’s declaration in 1952.
The Jackson Street Council, governed by a 15-member board, was probably the first neighborhood improvement organization in the city and eventually received national recognition. Without the benefit of government or public funds, the Council served as an effective advocate, promoter, and initiator for the area. Its successes ranged from getting vacant lots cleared and made safe, to planting trees on the hillside below Yesler Terrace, to sponsorship of community events to promotion of the area. One of its most notable achievements was getting the state legislature to allow urban renewal and getting the Yesler/Atlantic neighborhood designated for such renewal efforts.
Much of the housing in the International District was owned by absentee landlords who did little, if anything, to maintain their properties. The Jackson Street Council got the city to pass a minimum housing code ordinance so that property owners in the area would fix up their properties.
The Jackson Street Council, however, was unsuccessful in arguing against construction of the Interstate 5 freeway through the District. Construction of the freeway through the area would divide the District in half, the Council argued. When the freeway began construction in 1962, all the fears of the Council became reality.
By this time, a frustrated group of American-born Chinese professional started the Chinese Community Service Organization (CCSO). They tried unsuccessfully to get Chong Wa to change. As in the past, Chong Wa was controlled by elderly businessmen, mostly foreign-born, who clung to what these younger groups considered the “old Chinese way of think and doing this.” The leaders of Chong Wa, said one CCSO member, “were oriented too much towards old China and the old Chinese ways, too old-fashioned. We wanted Chong Wa to change and to address the issues facing the Chinese people here.”
Wing Luke, who later became the first Chinese elected to the Seattle City Council, was one of those who started CCSO. If Luke had used his influence on the City Council to enhance the goals of CCSO, that organization might have become a real base of power in Chinatown and the greater Chinese community. However, he never actively participated in the organization; and CCSO never had very much influence. Perhaps CCSO’s greatest achievement was getting money to put up lanterns in Chinatown.
Around this time, the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, a small group of Chinese merchants who wanted to promote business in the area, was also organized. The Chamber sponsored promotional event during Chinese New Year and Seattle’s Seafair festival.
In 1968, the International District Improvement Association (Inter-Im), another multi-ethnic group, was established. Inter-Im, formed largely by business persons to improve economic conditions, represented the entire District, and received funding from the city’s Model Cities Program. Initially, Inter-Im sought to develop community improvement plans for the area.
The 1970 census showed that most of the 1,690 residents in Chinatown or the International District were retired, elderly, single persons. Some 60 percent of the “unrelated individuals” in the area lived below the national poverty level and survived Social Security checks.In addition, 40 percent of the families in the area, mostly Chinese, were listed in the poverty category.
The housing supply in the District had declined, along with the number of residents. By the early 1970s, over half of the 45 hotels and apartments were closed and those still open were threatened with closure because they failed to meet the city’s fire and building codes.
Commercial conditions in the area had stagnated. The bulk of the 139 commercial-retail businesses provided Chinese or Japanese goods or services depended heavily on outside clientele. Some storefronts were vacant, businesses had closed, and many merchants were lucky to make ends meet.
By the mid-1970s, however, the District had begun to revitalize. Ironically, the catalyst in this turnaround was the 1971 decision to construct the King County domed stadium next to the District.
Residents, community groups, and their supporters were concerned about the impact of the stadium on the District. They feared that the District might become a parking lot, overrun by motels other stadium-related businesses, and suffer traffic congestion during stadium events. More important, they feared the loss of residents and the ethnic character of the area.
The “preservation of the International District” became a rallying point for supporter of the area. In the process of seeking to mitigate the impact of the stadium a new power structure evolved in this small neighborhood.
Revitalization and Future Prospects
The face of the International District is changing. The old buildings are being renovated and new businesses have spring up. In the last five years, trees and new bricks have replaced blighted streets. Vacant lots have been turned into small parks. With assistance from the city, the area has undergone a facelift that will encourage greater investment and development in the area.
“The city has been doing more than just trying to establish better police relations in the International District,” said Mayor Charles Royer in reference to the perceived crime problem in the area. “We made a commitment to this community six years ago that the City would provide whatever assistance was needed to make this area a good place to live and to run a business.”
What was a rapidly declining area not too long ago is becoming a healthy and pleasant downtown neighborhood forresidents and commerce. The City, working jointly with area community groups and businesses, has helped the District “turn the corner,” said the Mayor.
A number of small businesses have emerged in the International District and middle-income people are moving back. Investors are much more confident about investing in the area.
In 1979, the Neighborhood Strategy Area (NSA) Program, a city-administered revitalization program, began in the District. It called for renovation of housing, business development, public improvements and social service programs for the needy.
The results of the NSA program, which ended in 1983, have been dramatic. The infusion of $4 million of city funds and nearly $2 million of federal funds leveraged $5 million in private investment to rehabilitate seven large mixed-use buildings. These projects resulted in 283 new housing units. Five of the buildings are privately owned.
Some 47,000 square feet of new commercial space will provide facilities for 50 businesses.
The City also provided $1.7 million for streetscaping. New decorative lighting, sidewalks, trees and other improvement were added to promote an aesthetic residential environment in the District.
Other projects include a small park on the hillside overlooking the District and a small park for children.
Several new small businesses—including the House of Hong restaurant, which recently expanded—have become part of the International District community, along with Uwajimaya, the large Japanese supermarket in the area. The city estimates that over 20 new International District businesses have started on their own over the last five years. There have also been new construction projects in the area, including the Imperial Palace Restaurant (which was recently sold and renamed the Ocean City Restaurant and Nightclub) and two large low-income high-rise buildings.
In 1980, the population of the District was about 1,700. The Asian population in Seattle, meanwhile, grew from 28,000 to about 44,000 due mostly to the influx of new Asian immigrants. This, of course, greatly increased the demand for goods and service in the District and a major catalyst in the revitalization of the area.
While other Chinatown, Japantown, and Manilatowns in other cities have faded away, the International District survives with a new energy, purpose, and authenticity.
Chinatown, or the International District, developed as an Asian enclave because of discrimination as well as the need provide a place for those with similar Asian ethnic and race characteristics. The area developed an economy that catered to its own demands for goods and services as well as the larger single-male society of early Seattle. Social and cultural institutions based on the countries from which Asian immigrants came from were transplanted and modified, and established here.
The resurgence of the District has not only resulted in physical improvement; it has brought with it a new social order. Middle-income people can now find decent housing in the area along with new housing for the elderly and poor. A new political structure with progressive leadership from the business community and community organizations has replace the influence of traditional groups. The area, formerly derived into Chinese and Japanese sections, has steadily become more mixed and integrated. And tolerance among the ethnic groups is being replaced with acceptance.
For sure, the International District will always have its ups and downs and will always face challenges. Hopefully, it will continue to grow, strengthen its Asian American identity and its spot as a regional shopping, services and cultural entity.