About 300 people attended a funeral service in Seattle last Saturday to pay last respects to Dan “Danny” G. Woo, International District property owner, restaurateur and community leader, who passed away on January 6 after a long illness.
Woo, 73, owned and operated two major restaurants in the International District: the New Chinatown restaurant, the largest nightclub in the area, from 1940 to 1975; and the Quong Tuck Co. Restaurant, a meeting place for Asian American community activists and the only District restaurant serving American cuisine, from 1977 to 1985.
In 1985, he and a partner purchased the old Kokusai Theater, developing plans to renovate the structure into a new six-story arcade, office and residential building. His proposal included creation of a new Chinese language movie theater to replace the vacant Kokusai, which had, for many years, provided a unique mix of films from China, Japan and the Philippines. At the time of Woo’s death, the development had not yet moved forward.
In recent years, Woo, as president of the board of the Kong Yick Investment Corporation, which owns two adjacent buildings on South King Street, the Freeman and the Kong Yick, had explored several possible scenarios for renovating the structures into middle- and low-income housing. Although businesses operate on the street level, the housing units on the upper floors have been vacant for years.
“He was one of the few community elders who had a vision of the future—that rather than just holding onto what they had, they could do something with it,” Sue Taoka, director of the International District Improvement Association (Inter*Im), said.
Woo’s involvement in the commercial development of the area extended beyond his own private ventures: he was a founding member of Seattle Chinatown Chamber of Commerce and helped initiate the idea of the Chinatown Seafair parade.
In 1975, Woo donated a plot of land on the hillside between Washington and Main Streets for development of the International District Community Garden, where approximately 100 elderly, low-income residents grow their own vegetables. Bob Santos, former Inter*Im director, said Woo agreed to lease the property to Inter*Im for one dollar a year.
“It was a very simple negotiation when he found out it was for the elderly people of the District,” Santos said. “I don’t even think he ever collected the one dollar.”
Woo, born in 1914 in Kong Tung, China, came to Seattle in 1927 and worked in his grandfather’s import-export business in Chinatown, the Quong Tuck Company. The business also served as an information and service center for Chinese immigrants, who faced discrimination and financial hardships in America. Woo graduated from Franklin High School and studied dentistry at the University of Washington, where he also served as the first present of the Chinese Students Association.
Woo was the great nephew of Chin Gee Hee, one of the most prominent early Chinese pioneers in Seattle. Chin came to Seattle in 1875 to establish the Quong Tuck Company. Chin served as a labor contractor for the Northern Pacific Railroad and later returned to China to supervise construction of the first railroad there: the Sunning Railroad, centered in his native area of Toishan.
“Danny was very proud of Chin Gee Hee’s accomplishments,” Kit Freudenberg, director of the Wing Luke Museum, said. “He would show me articles about him, and he was very proud when they put up a statue to honor him in China.”
Woo donated many priceless artifacts to the Wing Luke Museum, including a huge apothecary chest, tea cups, rice bowls, winnowing baskets, family trunks, family photos and clothing items.
“He gave the Museum many, many bales of Chinese workers’ clothing left over from the old days,” Freudenberg said. “A lot of people will say, ‘Big deal.” But it’s important because everybody saves the good stuff—George Washington’s uniform—but we don’t have the items of the common people.”
Joey Ing, one of the architects for the Quong Tuck Co. Restaurant, said Woo incorporated many artifacts from the old Quong Tuck Company story in the design of the new restaurant, including empty cans with Chinese calligraphy, Chinese scrolls and a large herb chest.
“The restaurant would have been a true museum if Danny hadn’t been so magnanimous as far as giving away and selling so many of the items from the store,” Ing said.
Among his other activities, Woo served multiple terms as president of the Seattle Chapter of the Gee How Oak Tin Family Association and the Hop Sing Tong. He was also national vice president of the West Coast Gee How Oak Tin Family Association.
Woo is survived by his wife, Wilma, and children, Trina, Curtis, Teresa and Clinton.