Seattle Neighborhoods: Chinatown-International District -- Thumbnail History

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 5/03/1999
  • Essay 1058
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Although Seattle's Chinatown-International District has been disrupted several times by the suppression of the Asian American community, it has persisted as an important neighborhood for new immigrants and their American-born descendants. It is located southeast of Pioneer Square and due south of the central business district. The International District's character derives from entrepreneurs of various Asian backgrounds and the community's strong family ties. Its diverse ethnic restaurants and shops attract tourists as well as locals.

Racism, and Opportunity

The initial Chinese settlers were evicted from Seattle in 1886, but by 1889 the Chinese population had rebounded to about 350. Chin Gee Hee built one of the first brick structures to rise from the ashes of the Great Fire of that year, at 208-210 S Washington Street. His Quong Tuck Co. supplied workers for railroads and mines while selling goods to local Chinese residents. In 1909, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition celebrated the growing importance of Asian trade to Seattle. Still, this did not assure that the racist violence of the 1880s would not be repeated against the Chinese and the growing number of Japanese and Filipino immigrants.

Completion of the Jackson Street regrade in 1909 and the opening of Union Station for the Union Pacific and Milwaukee railroad lines in 1911 created new opportunities for Asian entrepreneurs. Goon Dip, a leading merchant and consul for the Chinese government, built the Milwaukee Hotel in 1911. The Northern Pacific Hotel followed in 1914 and, under the ownership of Niroku Frank Shitamae, became the anchor of an emerging Nihon Machi, or "Japan Town," along Yesler Way.

By the late 1920s, when construction of the 2nd Avenue Extension just east of Pioneer Square uprooted much of the original Chinatown, a thriving neighborhood of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino families and their American-born descendants was already blooming in the modern-day International District. When the Seattle Buddhist Church (designed by Kichio Allen Arai [1901-1986] and still open at 1427 S Main Street) welcomed its first worshipers in 1941, Japanese Americans constituted Seattle's largest ethnic minority and the second largest such community on the West Coast.

Old Prejudices, New Expulsion

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 rekindled old prejudices and led to a new expulsion. In the spring of 1942, Presidential Order 9066 forcibly relocated all West Coast Japanese Americans to inland internment camps regardless of their citizenship or loyalty. Seven thousand Seattle residents disappeared virtually overnight -- with barely a word of protest from their neighbors.

A portion of the original Japan Town was demolished for construction of the city's first major public housing project, Yesler Terrace, planned prior to internment. During the war, thousands of African Americans, chiefly attracted to Seattle by defense jobs, moved into the area and established Jackson Street as the city's hub of jazz, swing, and rhythm and blues. This scene gradually faded away and most of the area along Jackson Street has since reverted to Asian American businesses.

The International District Rises

The neighborhood survived thanks chiefly to the Chinese and the growing number of Filipinos, employed mostly in the fisheries. The Japanese American community, however, never recovered its pre-war size. The district's growing diversity created new tensions, however. On July 23, 1951, Seattle Mayor William F. Devin (1898-1982) proclaimed a new name for the neighborhood: "International Center" (or "Centre" in one press report). He praised the community's mix of "citizens of Negro, Japanese, Chinese, and Philippine ancestry" and declared, "In the past, this unique and colorful area has been referred to by various inaccurate and non-descriptive designations" (Seattle P-I, p.4, July 24, 1951). Some in the Chinese community worried that the new name was intended to disguise or diminish their historical leadership in the area. Ruby Chow (1920-2008), a popular restaurateur and later first Asian American member of the King County Council, argued that Chinatown (a direct translation of the Chinese terms "Tang Yun Fow" or "Wa Fow," and not a perjorative) should be retained in official use.

Despite the efforts of the new Jackson Street Community Council, Seattle's first neighborhood advocacy group, the state constructed I-5 through the heart of the International District in the early 1960s. Asian Americans remained effectively segregated south of Yesler Way, but an important breakthrough occurred in March 1962 when business leader and civic activist Wing Luke (1925-1965) was elected to the Seattle City Council and became the first Chinese American to win a major elected office in the continental United States. He would likely have risen to higher office but for his death in an airplane accident in 1965. Restrictive integration quotas were liberalized for Chinese and other Asians that same year.

New Waves of Immigrants

During the 1960s, growing numbers of Koreans and Pacific Islanders also began moving into Seattle, but their arrival did not slow the decline of the International District. Construction of the nearby Kingdome posed a direct threat by clogging streets with game traffic, driving up land values, and diluting the District's cultural character. This prompted creation of a Special Review Board in 1973 to protect the area's historical and cultural assets from traffic and other adverse impacts created by the new Kingdome stadium, which was completed in 1976. The Kingdome was demolished in March 2000 but construction of new baseball and football stadiums on and near its site still cause problems for the neighborhood.

A King Street Historical District embracing Chinatown was proposed in 1986. After the Chinese community protested the name, a revised Chinatown Historic District was listed on the National Register. (The entire area between Rainier Avenue S and 4th Avenue S and Yesler Way and S Charles St. was officially designated the "Chinatown/International District" in 1998 for the purpose of strategic planning.)

The Seattle Chinatown-International District Public Development Authority formed in 1975 to fund housing, services, and neighborhood improvements. Hing Hay Park on S King Street was dedicated that year as a sort of International District village green. Its elaborate pagoda was built in Taipei, Taiwan. A memorial in the park honors Chinese Americans who fell in World War II.

Other recent public improvements include refurbishment of the Bush Hotel and other buildings for subsidized housing; construction of the International District station on the downtown transit tunnel; and extension of the Waterfront Streetcar to Union Station. A Seattle Public Library branch is planned as part of a new mixed-use project.

In the 1980s, the Seattle area welcomed thousands of new immigrants from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. After acclimation in Tacoma, many followed tradition and settled in Rainier Valley, south of the International District. Southeast Asian merchants established their own thriving commercial center, dubbed "Little Saigon," around the intersection of Jackson Street and 12th Avenue on the International District's eastern margin.

The Kingdome was demolished in March 2000, and its place has been taken by new football and baseball stadiums, which still pose challenges for the area. Other recent developments affecting the community include expansion of the Uwajimaya department store and neighboring housing development, Sound Transit's restoration of Union Station, and construction of adjacent office buildings for Paul Allen's Vulcan group and other businesses.

Some Justice and More Achievements

Meanwhile, current and former Seattle citizens, such as Gordon Hirabayashi (b. 1918), pressed successful campaigns to win Japanese Americans a federal apology and restitution for World War II internment. And in 1996, Washington voters elected Gary Locke (b. 1950), grandson of Chinese immigrants, as the first Asian American governor of any state other than Hawaii. Thus, the influence of Seattle's Asian American community extends far beyond the confines of its "hometown" in the International District. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Chinatown-International District remains a vital community. Tourists and locals alike come to sample a variety of ethnic Asian restaurants, the Nippon Kan Theater, the Wing Luke Asian Museum, and Uwajimaya's, one of the largest Asian American retailers on the West Coast.


Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide Seattle (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998); Wing Luke Asian Museum walking tour, 1998; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 7, 24, 1951, p. 4; The Seattle Times, July 24, 1951, p. 24; City of Seattle "Chinatown/International District Strategic Plan," July 15, 1998; Walt Crowley interview with Ruby Chow, July 21, 2000.

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