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University District Museum Without Walls Oral History: Ray Chinn (University District Rotarian)
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This is a transcript of an oral history by Ray Chinn, whose family owned Lun Ting Restaurant on University Way in Seattle's University District from 1938 until 1979. Chinn was the first and youngest Asian American voted into the University District Rotary Club. He was interviewed by Dawnee Dodson for the University District Museum Without Walls in March 2009. The Museum Without Walls, a project of the University District Arts & Heritage Committee, draws together the history and life of the University District through a variety of formats, including temporary exhibitions, community events, and oral histories.
My father opened a Chinese restaurant on the Avenue, up on 4318 University Way, at the present time part of the University Bookstore. The name of the restaurant was Lun Ting -- in Chinese it means "Orchid Provision" -- and we served both Chinese and American food at the time. My grandfather came here in 1894, and then my dad came over in 1909, and they brought his family over in 1923, and of course I was born in 1925. And we've lived all our lives in Seattle. Our folks were from Guangdong [Canton or Kwangtung], which is the southern part of China. Most of the immigrants who came over here were laborers or merchants. It so happened my dad was a merchant when he came over, so he was able to bring my mother and my sister over at the time.
Actually, he opened a little grocery store down in the International District first, in 1928. And of course, during that time there, we had vegetables and stuff left over, and he thought that a restaurant would be a good way to use up some of the leftovers, and I think that's what started him. Of course this was back when he opened his first restaurant in 1933 downtown in Seattle. And then we had two in Bremerton, and he opened the one in the University District in 1938, and that was our fourth restaurant at the time.
I went to school down in the International District at Bailey Gatzert School on 12th and Weller. That school's enrollment was about, oh, maybe 525 students? Well, 75 percent of the enrollment was Japanese, and maybe 15 percent was Chinese and the rest were non-Asians or a few Filipinos. So it was quite a shock when they were evacuated to internment camps. It was quite strange, but anyway. That was -- it made it interesting for me.
Coming to the U District
Now prior to coming up to the University District, my whole world was more or less around the International District. I never left too far. If I did it was a big trip, you know, to go out of the area. But coming up to work in the University District, we used to do that. We lived in Chinatown, so we had to take the street car up. It was quite a ride, you know, actually, from Downtown to up this way, but every time I crossed the University Bridge, I feel that I'm in a different city. That's how different it was to me anyway, as a kid.
People sort of -- there was a little discrimination. For example, one of my managers one day went to take a haircut. So he just sat down in the chair, and the barber just came up and said, "I'm sorry, but we don't cut Asian hair." So these were the few things that we faced, but outside of that, people were very good to us, we made some wonderful friends, and the District was really the most open to the minorities than any other district beside the International District itself.
At the time, in 1970, there were the students who were demonstrating, and there was quite a bit of upheaval on the Avenue. And I remember one day when we had a full house in the restaurant, people were dining, but it was an old-fashioned restaurant and we didn't have air conditioning. We had what we call a "swamp cooler" that sort of brings in fresh air into the room. Well, that evening, there was a big riot or demonstration by the students coming up the Avenue. And the police were there to stop them, or it caused them to fire tear gas into the streets. And, of course, all that tear gas was drawn into our restaurant, and we had to evacuate all the customers, we lost all our food, and that was one of the things that got me to say, "Well, maybe it's time for me to move on, off the Avenue." That was one the saddest parts of the District, I think, and about that time the District started to change.
Prior to that, the University District was one of the most popular areas in the city. It was an old saying, and I can always remember, they said, "If you want to see the prettiest girls in Seattle, you stand by 45th and University Way." There were all these girls that come out of the sorority houses, coming down the Avenue, to have their dessert or shop or whatever. And it was quite a popular thing in those days, and I remember even during those evenings where young kids would be driving around and around and around in their cars, and most of the time it was just to watch -- girl watching, or whatever you call it in those days. But it was fun, and of course our restaurant was there for so long that we were able to develop a lot of friends who would bring their families in. And I remember they had what they call "Homecoming," which was a big day for the University District, and we would have some of the members that graduated bring their children into our restaurant to have dinner, and explain to them that they used to eat here all the time, and "we sat at this booth, and I was courting your mother," and it was kind of cute to hear stories of that time.
We sold all our restaurants and our store in 1979. So I had a very wonderful experience up here, and spending most of my time up here for about 30 years. So I made some good friends. I was very blessed to be asked to join the Rotary Club, which really opened up a new world to me. The Rotary Club was established in 1939, and I came in in 1945, which was about six years old at the time -- the club was, and even then I noticed that there were some people that were surprised that I was able to get in. But it was a challenge and I really enjoyed the people, and I got to get to know these people that were a little sensitive about my being in there, and before I knew it they were good friends of mine too. So it proves that getting to know a person and being friends -- their background sort of melts away and they're worth about the same.
I hope that we'll be able to bring the Avenue back on where we have little shops or stores that will cater to the overall people, not just students with limited income or -- you know how that is with their different little perks that they like. I'd like to see it back to the old days where families would be walking up and down the Avenue, enjoying the decorations in the windows of every store. They used to have contests, you know, of different little small businesses. If they put up the decorations in the windows, and then have judges that come along that's gonna vote on them, and of course in the evenings, from the parents that might be at the Homecoming or something, they walk up the Avenue with their kids or grandkids, and I'd like to see that again. And I'd like to see the District be more like it was, more homey for all people, not just young students. And of course we see some of the elements here, that were so different than it was before.
And of course that's because of the type of business we have on the Avenue too. So to see these new apartments come up, hoping that they'll be renting to people of all ages, people with a market-rate income that can afford to come out and do a little shopping on the Avenue, is what can create or bring the District back to what it was before. In a different way, but it'll bring it back. So that's my dream of the Avenue.
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Ray Chinn, March 2009
Photo by Dawnee Dodson, Courtesy University District Museum Without Walls