Walking around Chinatown, most pedestrians hardly ever look higher than the ground floor despite the fact that many buildings in the area are four to five stories tall. What is there to look at anyway? All the stores and restaurants with their bright awnings and colorful neon signs are enough to keep one’s gaze from wandering to the drab brick upper floors.
In this regard, the Milwaukee Hotel suffers from the same dreary image as the surrounding buildings and although its upper stories are lined with windows that vaguely resemble those of apartments, one finds it hard to believe that there could be people who call this place home. For decades, businesses bustled on the ground floor, while the upper levels of this building located on King Street in the Chinatown/International District, that once housed hundreds of immigrant workers sat empty and dark, a sad reminder of the Milwaukee’s century-old past that is quickly fading.
“I really wish this building has some kind of display about its history,” said Pei Ju Chou, a resident who moved into the Milwaukee to be closer to the International Examiner, where she works. “Maybe in the lobby area so people would know because I had no idea there is such a rich history that was preserved.”
That history began in 1911 when the hotel was built by an enterprising and charismatic figure named Goon Dip.
Born in Guandong Province, China, Goon Dip came to Portland, Oregon at the age of 14 and worked as a laborer. Facing increasing hostility against Chinese immigrants, he returned to China. But determined to make a good life for himself in the Pacific Northwest, Dip came back a few years later to start his own business in dry goods and hemstitching. He also ventured into labor contracting, taking over for his old boss.
Dip served as a representative for the Chinese government during the 1909 World’s Fair held in Seattle and seeing the business opportunities, proceeded to build the Milwaukee Hotel on King Street. The top floor was reserved for Dip and his family whenever they stay in Seattle.
To this day, the words “Goon Dip Young,” which means “seal of Goon Dip” can be seen etched over the entrance of the Milwaukee.
The Milwaukee prospered until a downtown hotel went up in flames in 1970, killing 20 people. City leaders enacted stringent fire codes for all hotels. Owners either had to spend money to satisfy the new codes or shut down. Unable to afford the renovations, many Chinatown hotel owners simply closed the doors.
When city inspectors found some sixty code violations at the Milwaukee, the owners were ready to close, forcing the eviction of low-income, minority, and elderly residents. Recognizing the dire situation, local young Asian American activists took over the care of the hotel in 1977.
To stop the closure, activists occupied the hotel, kept it open a year and a half, maintained a fire watch, relocated residents, cleaned out the building, and did repairs to bring it up to code. To raise money for these much-needed upgrades, the activists coordinated fundraisers like bake sales, got free labor from technicians and laborers, and succeeded in saving the hotel and its residents.
But the building’s saga took a turn several years ago when the hotel was bought over and redeveloped into apartment homes. Leasing began in 2009 and since then the units have been occupied by a new generation, many of whom are just finding out what it really means to live in Chinatown.
“I used to skip [school]and come to the International District, so who knew I would be living here a few years later,” said tenant Tia Pangwi, who also likes the Milwaukee’s close proximity to Seattle University where she is attending school.
Pangwi was initially apprehensive about living in Chinatown, believing she needed to speak more than English, but quickly found that the area is much more diverse with multiple ethnicities and languages present.
For Chou, living at the Milwaukee has established a different connection between her and Chinatown.
“I definitely feel more connected to the community,” said Chou. “I really feel more immersed because you end up getting to know the people. It feels good to be part of this community.”
Maybe it is something in the air, maybe it is something in the food, but both of these young and new residents of Chinatown have already picked up a sense of pride about their neighborhood and want to learn as well as preserve its historical identity. The city of Seattle and other groups have put pressure on owners of buildings like the Milwaukee to develop further but both Chou and Pangwi have their reservations.
“I don’t think Chinatown would stand out if it were to be more hip and young,” explained Pangwi. She said that Starbucks may be appealing for students and nearby workers but there has to be appreciation for the beef and rice downstairs and one-of-a-kind culture the neighborhood provides.
“I think Chinatown should just stick to its own identity,” said Pangwi.