Memories of Donnie Chin, Part 1

The International Examiner July 22, 2016 0
Donnie Chin, left, and volunteers provide a watchful eye at a Jackson Street parking lot during “Las Vegas Night” on November 24, 1999. Chin, director of the International District Emergency Center, had given assistance to neighborhood residents since 1968. • Photo by John Lok

Donnie Chin, left, and volunteers provide a watchful eye at a Jackson Street parking lot during “Las Vegas Night” on November 24, 1999. Chin, director of the International District Emergency Center, had given assistance to neighborhood residents since 1968. • Photo by John Lok

One year later

The International Examiner asked the community to share their memories of Donnie Chin. What follows are some of the responses. Please visit iexaminer.org and see future issues of the IE for more memories. And please continue to share your memories of Donnie by emailing editor@iexaminer.org.


Dean Wong:

Donnie had this small cannon. It was made of heavy metal and would fit in a shoebox with room to spare.

I would watch as Donnie put gun powder in tube form into a chamber. He set up the cannon on King Street in front of Sun May Company, his parent’s store.

When he fired the cannon, there was a huge “boom,” made louder as the sound bounced off the buildings around us. It was a sound that made our firecrackers sound tiny in comparison. All of Chinatown would know who was making that noise.

Donnie and his sister Connie had a corner of Sun May to themselves to sell whatever. It was usually candy. In the back of the store was a black and white television. Donnie and I would sit in green vinyl chairs and twist the rabbit ears around to get the best reception.

There was a tiny office at Sun May. You went up a small set of stairs and had to duck to enter the room. There was a small window overlooking the store. There was a desk as I recall. Most likely a roll up desk in old Chinatown fashion.

It was in this office where the “Eagles” club was born. It was Donnie’s idea. I suppose the eagle idea came from Donnie’s patriotism.

I was the only member, along with Connie. I can’t remember us actually doing anything civic-related as “Eagles” club members.

Then Donnie got me involved in the Moon Festival on 7th Avenue. That was back when the large red plastic lanterns hung from the light poles. I helped Donnie run a booth. I don’t remember what we sold. Probably gift items from Sun May. I recall selling something. Then I had problems giving change. I was not good at math.

At Bailey Gatzert, they divided the sixth grade class into two levels. Smart and dumb. Guess which class Donnie and I were in.

It was the same way in Chinese school. Donnie would get in trouble and had to stand in the corner. Sometimes I would be sent to stand in an opposite corner.

Donnie was always a rebel. His vision was creating a grassroots organization that would help the community at the street level. Not in an office. But wherever anyone needed help in the Chinatown International District.

When his grandfather’s #5 Canton Alley storefront became available back around 1968, we found it was filled with boxes from floor to ceiling. We slowly moved everything to the Sun May Company’s basement. Carrying everything by hand a block away.

We started using the basement of #5 Canton Alley for meetings. By this time Donnie had changed the name from “Eagles” club to “Asians for Unity.” He had some patches made. The design featured an orange and yellow sun with “Peace” above it.

The membership was a rag tag collection of Chinatown boys, too young and impatient for actual meetings.

Donnie renamed the group the “International District Emergency Center.” The rag tag collection of Chinatown boys were mostly gone.

In forming IDEC, Donnie developed the love of community that he was known for. I mean the kind of love and dedication that he gave his life for. Devoted himself to this one area and the people in it.

We took first aid and CPR classes. Eventually teaching classes to other Asian youth.

In a cabinet, we filled the shelves with canned food. Stuff like canned spaghetti, chili, and corn. If we saw someone looking through a dumpster for food, IDEC gave them food to eat.

We had signs printed in bright neon colors. “Call for emergencies. IDEC.” These were posted all over the neighborhood.

Donnie and I had real long hair. Way past our shoulders. For uniforms, Donnie chose bright red or yellow jumpsuits. Like the idiot that I was, I wore those uniforms. At first we looked like escaped prisoners who needed haircuts. Then with clipboards in hand, the community got used to us.

These two young Chinamen, idealistic activists, slightly radical, not even old enough to drink. Donnie came onto the scene, with me tagging along and people quickly learned IDEC was there to serve and help them.  

***

Arnold Mukai:

I met Donnie Chin when we were kids at Bailey Gatzert elementary school. Back then, Donnie was small and a target for bullies. He had an easy smile, and made friends easily.

We were probably 10 or 11 years old when Donnie said to me, “I just opened my own candy store, wanna help me run it?” He explained to me that his mother ran a store in Chinatown, and she gave him a corner of the store to display and sell candy bars. I said, “Sure!” What 11-year-old would turn down an offer like that!

We agreed to meet up after school, and begin our entrepreneurial careers. When we got to the store, Donnie showed me his corner display and introduced me to his mother. She was kind and had the same smile as Donnie. She offered me some candy from China. Donnie told his mother, “Arnold’s here to help me with the store.” Donnie’s mother explained the store was having a “door prize drawing.” I didn’t know what a “door prize” was, but Donnie insisted I should fill out an entry. “You might win candy,” said Donnie. “Gimme a pen, I’m in,” I said. After all, if the door prize were money, I would’ve bought candy.

Donnie prepared for customers as I watched him work. He was getting organized, taking inventory and just looked like he knew what he was doing. At 11 years old, I never thought of being organized or prepared unless I was reminded countless times by an adult. Donnie’s mother was teaching him to be organized and responsible, though we were both oblivious to the lessons at that time. The wholesaler who provided the candy arrived and Donnie had prepared a list of candy bars he wanted. When the delivery man came back from his truck, Mrs. Chin smiled at the delivery man, and he winked back, as Donnie signed his name for the delivery. He knew she was preparing her son, teaching life lessons as he sold candy bars.

After the candy man was finished with his delivery, we were ready for business. We waited for customers to storm in. Then we waited … and waited … then boredom became a factor. But we waited and waited. It was hard work to wait for customers, especially for me, since I had the attention span and patience of a bumblebee. I realize now that I was being taught patience. Eventually, I noticed 20 minutes had passed. That was the longest 20 minutes in my life! Coincidentally, that was the first 20 minutes that I ever worked. When you’re 11 years old, 20 minutes of waiting was equivalent to 6 months in jail. I tried to endure the best I could, but made an excuse to leave after almost an hour. That was the end of my career as co-owner of a candy store.

The following week, after returning home from school, my mother told me someone called and said I won a door prize. I couldn’t wait to see Donnie and ask what I won. If I remember correctly, there were 10 door prize winners—I won door prize #10. Donnie informed me I had won some “coasters” and some candy from China. I did not know what a “coaster” was—nor did I ever use one. Mrs. Chin was happy to see me when I arrived later that day to collect my prize. The next time I saw her, 35 years had passed. I was living in Reno, walking through the Peppermill Casino. Donnie was pushing the wheelchair she sat in. Donnie tried to refresh her memory and asked her if she remembered me. She shook her head, “no,” but I told her I remember her, and how kind she was to me when I was a kid. That was the last time I saw Mrs. Chin. Although those are precious memories, the moments in your life once shared with people fade away and become your thoughts, for you alone. … Unless you make a conscious effort to write them down and share them. I’m doing that right now.

As adults, I ran into Donnie several times, mostly in the International District. One time, as I prepared for a show at Hing Hay Park, I was standing on stage, reading introductions to myself. Donnie was patrolling the area. “Who the hell do you think you are?” Donnie snapped. When I looked to see who it was, his posture commanded attention and respect. We talked for a few minutes. His language was colorful, and his patience was thin. His aura told me that this neighborhood belonged to him. His presence gave me a sense of calmness. I felt he was there to serve and protect. The elderly leaned on him for his assistance and strength. Accident victims received first aid from him, as it was not uncommon for him to arrive before the medics. The crime rate decreased when Donnie was present. No longer a target for bullies, Donnie had transformed into a real life superhero for the residents of the ID!

After chatting with Donnie, and saying our “goodbyes,” I watched him as he walked away. As he walked, his head turned from right to left and back again. He was scanning the streets, anticipating where he would be needed next. His mission that day, like any other day, was to make sure all was good in his neighborhood. He looked prepared and responsible for any emergency that might occur. … Mrs. Chin had taught him well.  

***

Elaine Ikoma Ko:

Many of us grew up with and aged alongside Donnie, although he’s the only one that never aged. Such that he seemed immortal. Someone who you knew would be part of your life forever. The week of his death, I had emailed him apologizing for not coming by the store lately. I think about him daily and when the fire trucks race through the district, or an elderly person needs help on the street, I still look for him.

The district and a huge army of family and friends will forever grieve the loss of Donnie. I have a growing collection of “Donnie” items in my home that he made or sold in his store so I will never forget the many memories of him. Donnie always had someone he would be ragging on or cussing about, and that kept us in stitches, in between his life-saving runs. A true hero with a bottomless heart. A best friend to many, and perhaps more significantly, the only friend to some.

Thank you Donnie for all you have given to me.  

***

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Doan Nguyen:

I met Donnie when I first started working at The Wing. I always loved hearing him tell me stories because he used 4-letter words in the best ways that made stories really come to life. Donnie always stopped by the museum to hang out in the Welcome Hall and check up on us. He would always leave chocolates or other expired goodies for us to eat or enjoy.

One day, he stopped by the front desk looking for me when I wasn’t there. He couldn’t remember my name at the time, but he specified to the folks working that day that the gift he was dropping off was a present for “the new cute girl at the front desk,” and eventually the gift made its way to me. A little embarrassing, but it made me feel pretty special. It was a Japanese style pillow that I now keep at my desk at work to this day.

After a while, Donnie came to know what I personally liked. Hello Kitty things he would save for me to let me have first dibs, and he also would save the Ugly Dolls for me too.  

***

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Chris Yee:

I wanted to share this picture of Donnie with you. This was taken at JamFest on July 16, 2015 in Canton Alley, just in front of Donnie’s shop. He was making food and giving it away to everyone enjoying the music. Just one of the amazing things Donnie did for his community. I will miss him. The ID will miss him.

Donnie was a great historian and educator. He took our new nurse practitioner residents on a tour of the ID to learn about our community’s past and present. For the next 4 hours he took us through the streets of the ID painting a picture that dated back to Seattle’s early beginnings to the ID’s current struggles and successes. He introduced us to several of the leaders in the community. There wasn’t a person in the ID who did not welcome Donnie into their place of business. We were privileged to have gotten the opportunity to learn about our community through Donnie’s eyes. I don’t know if I had ever felt so much a part of this community until Donnie so lovingly brought us into it. He brought so many of us together and protected us at the same time. Thanks Donnie.  

***

Elaine Shoji Ishihara:

Donnie was an amazing craftsman. I remember telling Donnie that I hadn’t finished sewing up the corner of the beautiful hand-sewn pillow that he had given me and he just shook his head saying, “Didn’t I give you that pillow over 15 years ago?” … “Yes, and it traveled with me to L.A., New York, and back to Seattle.” … I told him I finally removed the stuffing and kept the material. Shortly after that Donnie showed up at my office and in his Donnie Chin manner said, “Here,” and handed me a new hand sewn pillow (with an open corner for the stuffing) along with an IDEC badge with “Alumni” printed on the front. Both are cherished gifts from a very special friend.  

***

Susie Chin:

We are now approaching the 1-year mark of Donnie Chin’s murder on July 23, 2015. Many thanks to the International Examiner for giving our community the opportunity to share our personal stories of Donnie.

My story goes back to 1977-78 at the Milwaukee Hotel. I was signed up for the 10:00 p.m.–12:00 a.m. fire watch shift relieving Donnie Chin, who was finishing his 8:00 p.m.–10:00 p.m. shift. I remember climbing the old stairs—my dad walked these same stairs when he returned from France after serving in the U.S. Army in World War II. At the top of the stairs there was a room on the left with bare wood floors and windows that overlooked King Street.

After exchanging some greetings with Donnie, I sat in the old wood rocking chair. Donnie went to walk his last fire watch round of the floors before my shift. Meanwhile I began to feel quite nauseous because an hour before I had a drink on a near empty dinnerless stomach. When Donnie returned he found me hung over the arm of the rocking chair looking pretty bad, I could barely speak. He looked around to find some container, but too late … my stomach could not wait to upchuck its content. I could hear Donnie laughing and swearing at the same time. He continued to swear as he was cleaning up my mess. Lucky for Donnie after my initial heave, it was all dry heaves because my stomach was mostly empty. When I felt a little better, Donnie said, “You owe me, girl,” and left me to finish my shift.

The next morning he showed up at the ID health clinic reception area where I worked and repeated, “You owe me, girl,” and enjoyed telling the awful story in the packed patient waiting area. Donnie died way too soon and I still owe him.  

***

Theressa Irigon-Rachetto:

Almost 30 years ago I would sometimes accompany my mother, Felicita Irigon, to her office in the ID. To pass the time, her co-worker’s daughter and I would explore the ID on our own. We always stopped by Donnie’s store. I remember him always smiling and being patient with us as we wandered around the store.  

***

Lexi Potter:

Donnie used to keep a box of toys in the alley for kids that came by his shop. Somebody stole it last year in May, so he went to Goodwill to buy more toys and start a new box. He found this singing hamster with nunchucks. Donnie had the best eye for random things.  

***

Sunshine Monastrial:

Donnie Chin was like a Batman for the Chinatown-ID—always there to help someone in need. Although Donnie didn’t know who I was, I definitely knew who he was. I first met him as a newer staff member here at ICHS when I attended his ID Safety Training. After that first training, I made sure to attend each subsequent annual training he provided. Donnie had a very unorthodox style of teaching, but it was very effective—and very entertaining! His engaging trainings aside, what I admired most about Donnie was his commitment to serving others. He was a community leader with a servant’s heart. I never saw him without his khaki uniform, utility vest/tool belt, and walkie-talkie. I always felt safer knowing he was around watching over the C/ID  and its residents. We miss you. Rest in peace, Donnie.  

***

John Hom:

Donnie Chin was always known to help anyone in the community if he had the time, regardless of if the request was small or large, simple, or complex. One morning when I was on the third floor of the Wing Luke Museum in the historic hotel space, I noticed a pigeon had made its way into the mah jong room through an open window. As you all know, pigeons can easily be one of the stupidest birds on this planet. I opened the windows wide open and tried to shoo the bird out to no avail. It would either fly into the upper closed portion of the window over and over or just fly around the room. This bird definitely did not have the instincts of a carrier pigeon. I called Donnie to help out. We assessed the situation and worked in tandem to try to get it out the open window with our arms. This was useless so we devised a scheme where we would use brooms. As the pigeon flew high, I would use a downward motion with the broom to shoo it in front of the open window and Donnie gave his best Ken Griffey swing and the pigeon flew straight out the window. I did my best Dave Niehaus imitation and yelled, “This one will fly, fly, fly away.” Donnie turned around and had one of the biggest grins as if he had won the lottery.  

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