It’s 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 24—Christmas Eve in the International District. Steve Wu, owner of Palace Décor and Gifts, is making the last preparations in his store before the holidays. He heads down into the basement to restock the shelves. The basement is where he stores a large cache of imported toys from Asia. Palace Décor and Gifts is one of the biggest imported toy stores in the area, supported in part by an active Transformers collectible community throughout Seattle.
In the basement, Wu notices a charred smell. The neighborhood’s network of old underground tunnels has brought strange smells down there before. He thinks Mon Hei Bakery next door might have simply burned something in one of its basement ovens. Wu heads home to get ready for holiday festivities with his family.
At 3:57 p.m., multiple 911 calls report flames coming from the roof of the building located at 665 S. King St. Before arriving, responding engines report a large column of black smoke coming from the old building. It’s suspected that the fire began in the vacant apartments that made up the second and third floors of the three-story building.
The building is owned by the Woo family. Street level tenants included Palace Décor and Gifts, Mon Hei Bakery, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Yuan Sheng Hang herbal shop, Sea Garden Seafood Restaurant, Pacific International Co., Seattle Gospel Center Bookroom, and Liem’s Pet Shop.
Just after 4:00 p.m., Wu arrives home and hears that there is a fire in the 665 S. King St. building. He rushes back to the building but isn’t able to get within a block of it. Emergency vehicles have sealed the area. Due to signs that the building walls could potentially collapse, Firefighters shut down South King Street between Maynard Avenue South and 7th Avenue South. Residents living in two apartment complexes located directly across the alley and west of the building are evacuated.
Firefighters battle the flames using several 1,000 gallon-a-minute ladder pipes along with multiple hose lines. The fire is declared under control at 10:23 p.m. Firefighters continue to pump water into the building until about 4:00 a.m. on Christmas morning. There are no reported injuries due to the fire.
Weeks later, the building remains sealed off from the rest of the International District neighborhood. Fire investigators are not able to complete their investigation due to the structural damage and risk of the building’s collapse.
SALVAGING THE PAST
For business owners affected by the fire at 665 S. King Street, the damage to their livelihoods has been devastating. Business owners are going through financial procedures with their insurance companies before they determine if and how they will open up shop again. But the real devastation comes to business owners and their families through the loss of their generations-old memories in the building, and their connections to the neighborhood.
On Friday, December 27, business owners were allowed to re-enter their stores for a short period of time to gather what they could. Because Wu’s store was located on a western corner of the building, an area that posed the greatest risk of collapse due to water damage, he was given only five minutes to be inside his store.
“Five minutes is not a lot of time,” Wu said. “I really went in and tried to just assess the damage. There was so much debris everywhere. The ceiling tiles had fallen. There was so much debris, I couldn’t get to the basement.”
Wu said he is still in the process of dealing with his insurance company and hasn’t made any concrete plans yet for the future of Palace Décor and Gifts.
“Our ultimate goal is we want to restart and rebuild our business here,” Wu said. “My family and I will discuss what we can do. It’s only been a week and it’s still settling in.”
Wu’s memories of the building go beyond the 20 years his business has operated out of there. He said the site of his store used to be a newspaper stand and grocery store where he would buy snacks and comic books as a child.
Wu said the store provided him a way to connect to the community and stay active with his own language and heritage.
“When we moved in there, this was a way that allowed us to share the Chinese and Asian culture with everyone,” Wu said. “For me it’s been an honor and a pleasure. It’s allowed me to connect with my culture. Working at that gift shop allowed me to continue to use Cantonese so I don’t lose it.”
The weekend after the fire was the first weekend in 15 years that he wasn’t in the store working, Wu said.
RISING FROM THE DEBRIS
Also located on the western corner of the building deemed most at risk was Mon Hei Bakery—where it’s been for over 30 years. Mon Hei Bakery established itself as the first Chinese bakery in Seattle in 1979.
Aaron Chan, whose family runs the bakery, said they were initially given only five minutes to retrieve what they could from the bakery. It wouldn’t have been enough time get three wooden plaques in the shape of a phoenix, a dragon, and a business crest that were bolted to the wall. The plaques held great sentimental value to his family, Chan said. His grandfather put the plaques up when he opened the bakery in 1979. Chan said he corresponded with city officials, who agreed that the plaques were historic artifacts.
When the time came to reenter the bakery on the Friday after the fire, the fire marshall gave them a full hour to go back into the bakery.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” Chan said of the unexpected extra time.
Upon entering the bakery at street level, Chan said there was major water damage and the ceiling tiles had fallen. He was not able to enter the basement, which was flooded and posed an electrical hazard. All the baking was done in the basement, where they housed their mixers, ovens, and stoves. Chan was, however, able to salvage the plaques in time.
Chan said the rebuilding process has been particularly tough for his parents, who currently run the store.
“They’re tired and exhausted,” Chan said. “That’s all my parents know what to do is be bakers. Now, going out, what can you do?”
Chan said his family is currently looking at the possibility of opening up another storefront in Chinatown, but that it’s going to cost them about $200,000 or more to start over.
“Hopefully, they’re able to start over again, and in the process we might need some community support in one way or another,” Chan said.
For the community, the Chinese bakery represents something that can’t be quantified in numbers, Chan explained. He pointed to the year 2000, when about a hundred people demonstrated outside the downtown Seattle McDonald’s to protest efforts to bring the fast food chain into the International District. He said protesters fighting to protect the neighborhood’s cultural identity carried signs that said “Hum Bows, not hamburgers.”
“Ethnically, people come to Chinatown because this is where people can call home,” Chan said. “It’s a place where Asian people can be a part of the community. It shows how important a simple institution like a bakery can be to the community.”
It’s a notion that rings true particularly for those who have grown up in the neighborhood. Seattle photographer and journalist Dean Wong shared his memories of the 665 S King St. building.
“The old buildings in Chinatown are more than just brick and mortar,” Wong said. “They represent the history of the community through the people that have lived there, early immigrants who helped establish the community. When I was growing up in Chinatown in the 1960s, I frequented the Palace Pool Room right at the corner of King Street and Maynard Avenue. They had a great selection of comic books and generations of Chinatown kids would sit there reading for hours. There was a gambling joint mid-block. My mother sent me to the store on the corner to buy groceries and I had friends who lived in the upper floors of the building.”
The Seattle Fire Department has since turned the building over to the Woo family, who has had to erect fencing and build scaffolding on the King Street and Maynard Alley side to protect pedestrians from falling debris. There is still a risk for collapse. A structural engineer must determine the long-term status of the structure.
“It would be sad to see this building come down,” Wong said.