The following is the republication of a cover story written by the late Donnie Chin that ran in the December 15, 1982 issue of the International Examiner:
By Donnie Chin
IN A WAY, it began when I retrieved a box of ancient bottle caps from the debris.
We were a couple of kids just out of grade school, cleaning a dark, forsaken room that opened onto Canton Alley. We wanted this room—the walls of which were covered by a thick layer of coal dust, dirt, plaster dust and spider webs—as a meeting place for the International District Emergency Center.
When we first entered the room, debris was piled all over the floor, in some places three feet or higher. It was hard to see; a 60-watt bulb made a futile attempt to light the room. Thick, long spider webs, blackened by coal dust, drape the room. A string from the ceiling was attached to a pulley that released a trap door, the trap door emptying coal and wood into the room. A silverfish moved across the dark floor.
Little by little, we worked to clean out this room and a larger, equally dirty, adjoining room. Every weekend, we moved a few hundred pounds of debris from the rooms that would become the headquarters of the International District Emergency Center.
One day, I came across a cigar box filled with bottle caps. The cork-lined bottle caps were made of carved wood or metal with raised letters. I could not figure out these bottle caps since they were made well before my time.
So I brought them to a person who grew up in the District many years ago. I opened the box and showed him my new find. “Oh yeah,” he said, smiling. “We used to play with these … You see, we would each have a bunch of bottle caps. We would then flip them, and if mine landed in a right way and theirs didn’t, I’d get their cap.”
I shut the box.
That was 15 years ago. The bottle caps were played with over 60 years ago. The children who played with them are not in their 70s. When I found those caps my interest in the history of the International District increased, along with my community involvement.
I started to talk to the elderly about many things—the location of buildings, faces in pictures I had seen. But it usually came out to, “What did you do as kids down here?” The people I spoke to usually put me off and said little. But I never gave up.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about how life was for the kids growing up on these streets have found the means to survive. That is part of our common history, a history each succeeding generation must learn from the previous one, even if it is only told in pieces, through recollections, photographs and scraps.
Many years ago, kids didn’t have to walk far to get to grade school; the school was at Sixth Avenue and Main, the Main Street School. There were only a few rooms and a couple teachers, something like the little Red School House you always hear about on television. The school, one of the oldest existing public buildings, has not been used for decades.
The area where the Four Seas Restaurant is located was once an empty field, where kids played baseball and other sports.
Across the street to the east stood the Chinatown YMCA. But the place had one big hang-up: no pool. It didn’t last long down here, and the building is now used as a clubhouse for Chinese men.
We and the previous generations collected wooden boxes from the street. The boxes were made into chairs, cabinets, desks, shelves, used for firewood and covering up holes. At the Emergency Center, we’ve even used wooden boxes to make two couches and a wall.
Life has always been hard for kids growing up on the District streets. Perhaps, my generation was luckier than the previous ones in some ways. My parents made me toys from scrap metal and wood. And we would save up some coins, walk downtown, buy a ball and walk back.
One of the popular games of the day was “pole.” It was a combination of tag and frozen tag. Kids would race all over trying to touch the pole of the opposite side with out getting caught.
And we would play catch football—with borrowed footballs—up on 9th Avenue, in between the buildings.
A freeway stands there now. When they build the freeway, all our playing seemed to stop; suddenly things weren’t so fun. Daily, we stood in our former play areas and watched bulldozers tear down houses, hotels, stores, sidewalks, and streets. That happened 18 to 19 years ago. We didn’t know then that the “little” freeway project almost killed the District.
While the freeway was under construction, several of us would run around the area playing army. We dug fox holes right in the path of soon-to-be lanes, and used sticks we found to attack each other. Once, we even sandbagged part of a King Street sidewalk and made our “final stand.”
A few of us saved enough to purchase a couple of cannons that use “Bangsite” powder. The powder, mixed with water, would explode when set off by a spark. We shot at everything in sight—cars, doors, pigeons, people, police, each other—basically, anything that moved.
There used to be green concrete planters on the main streets of Chinatown, put there by the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. Tourists liked the cherry trees so much that they took them all. After a while, we had these large round planters all over Chinatown without plants.
So we kids got these two-and-a-half inch red, white, and blue double fuse firecrackers, buried them in the dirt among the wine bottles, spit and debris, with just the fuse exposed, lit them and watched them explode holes in the dirt.
One day, this Wong kid and I watched this Mar kid bury one. We had nothing to do with it. He lit the fuse and took off running down the block. We just stood there. It was a slow fuse, taking several minutes to get to the base. Just then, an old Chinese man came up the sidewalk, and the firecracker blew up in his face. We got the first, second, and third degree. Then we went hunting for this Mar kid to rearrange his outlook on life.
As District kids, we always had firecrackers so we couldn’t understand why kids in other areas were willing to pay up to 10 cents—a silver dime, I remind you—for the firecrackers. When we didn’t have any firecrackers, we’d make our own. It became a source of income.
Back then, a few coins went a long way. We bought matches from Jackson Beverage for two cents, five rolls of caps from the comic store for five cents, a roll of tape for 10 cents, took a pin from our mom’s sewing kit, and magic: home-made firecrackers. Unfortunately, half the firecrackers blew up in our hands.
We always found something to blow up around the Chinese school. We blew up ants and, of course, each other.
The elders around the District never really got mad at us for running all night long. Some kids were lucky enough to be “go-fers” at gambling joints. They’d run around getting food and beer at local stores to bring back into the joints. They were paid a couple of bucks for their services.
Once, we visited a playground in a white neighborhood outside Seattle. I could not believe it. It made our Chinese school equipment look ancient. About all we had at the Chinese school was a makeshift swing, a chain with a bar over it, and rope some kids tied up. We also had a slide, but it had a big hole near the bottom so that when you slid down your butt would get caught. It was a steel slide that rusted every year, so we’d always let new kids slide down it first so they “clean” it off for us.
There was one person in the District many of us will never forget: Saito. I met him one day as I walked up King Street; he was across the street, wearing a gray work shirt, gray pants, gray baseball cap and old torn tennis shoes.
He motioned for me to come across the street, which I did. He told me by making gestures with his hands, to follow him to the Eclipse Hotel. I waited outside, and he returned shortly with a baseball bat and an old paper shopping bag filled with baseball equipment. We walked to the Chinese school playground just up the block at Canton Alley. I ran to the comic store to get the other kids. “Saito’s here,” I told them. Everyone dropped their comic books and came running.
We spread out over the field to play “flyers up” or hardball. Saito brought gloves for those who didn’t have one. I used by dad’s 50-year-old mitt.
This became a regular game. After a couple of hours, he’d stop and wave to the kids in the field to come in. I usually stood by him to collect balls thrown back by kids who caught them. Everybody would put the equipment he brought back into the shopping bag.
Saito would then count heads. He’d reach into this pocket and pass out coins to all the children. I couldn’t take his money at first. After a while, he got real mad at me, so I finally took it, but gave it to other kids or spent it on candy a the candy truck which came down King Street.
Saito never spoke English, so we never talked.
After we established the Emergency Center, we often went looking for Saito but never found him. There was so much we wanted to say to him, to thank him for caring about street kids whom he barely knew, giving us money when he knew what we didn’t have any, playing with us when he had nothing to do, being a friend, showing us that the generation gap really meant nothing.
When the International District Emergency Center earlier this year received an award for service to the community, we accepted the award in memory of Saito.
I hope future generations of kids growing up in the District will have friends like Saito to make the growing up a little bit easier.
The International District Emergency Center is sponsoring an event to honor Donnie Chin’s life and legacy on August 15 at 2:00 p.m. at the Chong Wa Benevolent Association Playfield, 8th Avenue S and Weller Street, Seattle, WA 98104.