Seattle’s Chinatown-International District: Lion Dances, Bruce Lee and a Long History

In the old brick blocks just south of Seattle’s downtown core, bulbous jars of preserves line the shelves of the Yick Fung Company. It is a crystalised galaxy of candied ginger, dried seedless cherries and mangoes flavoured with loi5 hang4 mui4 (旅行梅, dried plum), all of it glinting enticingly as sun-riding dust motes rise languidly against a marian blue sky. 

These sweets were once a taste of home for many. Carefully examining curlicued labels, visitors to the shop peruse meticulously stacked shelves and consider the arrivals and sailings of Blue Funnel Line steamships, advertised in gold leaf on this Chinatown general store’s windows. These were the boats that brought the first Chinese immigrants to Seattle in the 1860s. They were among scores of newcomers looking to find work fishing, logging, mining, or simply lured by the discovery of gold further south in California. These vessels have long vanished from Puget Sound, replaced with ro-ro ferries shuttling passengers between Seattle and Bainbridge Island.

 

Yick Fung has disappeared, too. It shut its doors in 2006 and today, it exists preserved as though inside a candy jar of its own, an exhibit inside the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, named for the first Asian American to hold elected office in Washington state. The museum itself was once the East Kong Yick Building, a typical four-storey brick edifice that has stood on the corner of King Street and 8th Avenue South for over a century. On its north side, the structure features a distinctly large balcony. In this area, some balconies indicate that a business fraternity once existed inside while others mark family associations where immigrants grouped together according to their ancestral villages.

Thanks to restrictive laws designed to exclude Chinese and other Asian immigrants from the country—or from public life if they were already there—it took many hands and pockets to build this modest cuboid structure. “Many people were undocumented and weren’t really given any rights in terms of property,” explains a museum docent. “This building was built by 170 Chinese immigrants pooling their resources because they had to form a corporation just to own property. Individual Chinese weren’t allowed to own property or land.” 

Up one flight and around a column, we are confronted by the former Freeman Hotel, a two-floor single room occupancy hotel with two toilets serving over 100 sparse rooms. This hotel housed itinerant Asian workers from Japan, the Philippines and China. It was a testament to the syncretic nature of this part of Seattle, which is what eventually resulted in an inclusive, albeit clunky, name: Chinatown-International District (CID). 

Today, the Freeman Hotel lays silent save for the creaking of floorboards. Climbing upstairs reveals a balconied room adorned with a rolled tin ceiling and bedecked with the flags of the United States and the Republic of China. An altar and long table, draped with an ornately embroidered runner, dominate the space under the benign gaze of a portrait of Sun Yat-sen. An adjoining room features mahjong tables set up as though their players have only momentarily stepped away. This was once the Family Association. Places like this were once cultural anchors from which to affirm and draw strength in heritage, identity and kinship amongst other Chinese immigrants, compelled to travel without their families by the United States’ Chinese exclusion laws, which were finally repealed in 1943. 

Walking by sloping pavilion roofs and Chinatown gates, just west of the museum, evokes chinoiserie dreams, but a mass of protesters on the street outside brings present day issues into sharp focus. Whereas the Chinatown-International District once offered immigrants a chance to put down roots, Seattle’s rising cost of living and the area’s proximity to the downtown core has primed it for gentrification, threatening to displace residents and small businesses. Nearby, inside Mak Fai Kung Fu Club where Chinese tradition is celebrated, feelings on the matter are mixed.

“It’s pretty sensitive.” Tony Au, a member of the club, insists. “My friend tried to build a 17-storey [building]. People protested, they want to keep things the same. Hey, Chinatown would be rundown without these things. [There would be] crime and homelessness.” 

 

CID has never stayed the same; in terms of diversity, the neighbourhood has undergone constant change from the sudden forceful relocation and internment of the Japanese community in 1942, to the influx of Korean and Pacific Islander immigrants in the 1960s, when the United States loosened restrictions on immigration from Asia. In the 1980s, the area welcomed refugees fleeing the impact of war in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Growing diversity has caused tensions, and not always from within. In 1951 Seattle mayor William F. Devin declared that the “unique and colourful area [had] been referred to by various inaccurate and non-descriptive designations” and that Chinatown should be brought into an aglomeration of diverse neighbourhoods and renamed “International Center” to reflect the mix of “citizens of Negro, Japanese, Chinese, and Philippine ancestry.” 

Though couched in ostensibly progressive language, the Chinese community saw this proclamation as a thinly veiled attempt to erase their historical leadership and place in the area; community figures such as restaurateur and politician Ruby Chow resisted the name change, keeping Chinatown firmly at the forefront of the area’s identity. The name for the area was finally established by a 1999 city ordinance as Chinatown-International District and it encompasses what were and are commonly referred to as Chinatown, Japantown and Little Saigon. 

“The name Chinatown-International District came about as the result of a compromise in 1973, and as such, no one in Chinatown, Japantown or Little Saigon likes it,” says Betty Lau, a community historian and board member of Chong Wa Benevolent Association. Lau has been a longtime advocate for preserving the Chinatown identity and name. Many in this diverse community still bristle at the CID name and consider it to be a misnomer which underlines years of marginalisation along racial lines.

“Mayor Devin’s 1951 proclamation of an International Center was actually an attempt to create a ‘reservation’ for people of colour to keep us from spreading past Yesler Way into white Seattle, especially white downtown businesses,” says Lau. “The problem with labelling only people of colour as International is tagging us as forever foreign. When do we get to be Americans? According to the mayor’s proclamation, he wanted to ‘honour Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Negro neighbours’ but why aren’t whites considered international? Why only Asians and African Americans?”

Dilution of the area’s cultural identity has been only one of many challenges faced by local communities. Asian-American figures through the decades, such as Wing Luke and Ruby Chow, have made their mark fighting restrictive integration quotas and working against the decline of the neighbourhood as a result of rising land values. The chanting of protesters just outside Mak Fai Kung Fu Club is a reminder that familiar problems persist in new forms.

Arriving in Seattle from Hong Kong in 1977, Tony Au has witnessed the neighbourhood’s transformation first hand. “In the 70s there was nobody around in Chinatown. Only three or four chop suey restaurants. In the 80s we had lots of gangs and lion dancing used to be linked to violence. In those days, if you were lion dancing, then the assumption was that you were a triad.” No such association exists today as a genial crew of teenagers, giddy from having just celebrated Mak Fai’s 45th anniversary with a raucous parade, plays cards amidst the coils of a reposing dragon.

Au is accompanied by a young sifu named Royal Tan. “We made history yesterday,” he proclaims. “We had 80 people. 17 teams from all over the States, Hong Kong and Malaysia coming together and setting aside all ego to do one thing – lion dancing. This is the first time something like this has happened in the States.”

The robust martial artist stands amidst a riot of colour. The room is arrayed from floor to ceiling with lions of all makes and descriptions including several from the celebrated Hong Kong workshop, Hung C Lau. “We have a shop, East Coast Lions, that we sell lions and equipment out of in New York,” says Tan. “My friend opened it in 2015 and a few of us help manage the business. The Hong Kong lions are really expensive but the work in Hong Kong is much better when compared to China-made.“ 

Alongside his day job at HSBC, Tan runs the martial arts club, which his sifu Mak Hin-fai founded in 1974. Tan grew up in CID and has been lion dancing since the age of 12. “Every time I heard the drumming and the firecrackers I would run out into the street to watch,” he says. Through years of promoting the art, Tan has seen lion dancing grow beyond the bounds of CID to become a widely accepted part of Seattle culture. “More businesses believe that lion dance brings good luck – lots of American companies,” he says. “People want it for weddings, business openings, and birthday celebrations.” 

Boeing once invited Mak Fai to its downtown Seattle testing facility to celebrate the delivery of a plane to Singapore Airlines. “We do a lot of Boeing shows and if there wasn’t the [China-US] trade war there would be even more,” he says. The cultural exchange certainly goes both ways. Tan shows off a lion painted in a shade of teal that is beloved in the Pacific Northwest. It bears the compass insignia of the Seattle Mariners – a fortuitously apt bit of Americana for a symbol of Chinese community, one which has navigated the vicissitudes of immigrant life for so long.

A night chill falls as we leave Mak Fai, rounding the corner on to King Street. The hiss of boilers greets us as we step into the warm glow of Tai Tung Restaurant, which feels like a mix between a cha chaan teng and the diner in Edward Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks.” Behind the formica counter, Harry Chan chats amiably with his regulars whilst manning his till, which bears an entreaty to “Always Be Nice.”

Opened in 1935, Tai Tung is Seattle’s oldest Chinese restaurant. Chan, who immigrated from Hong Kong in 1968, is the third generation owner. The affable proprietor beckons us to a long table with blue banquette seating in a quiet corner of the restaurant. “This is where he and his students always used to sit. We always kept this table for him,” he beams. The man in question is Bruce Lee. The Little Dragon may be Hong Kong’s favourite son but it was Seattle that set him on his extraordinary path and, ultimately, where he was laid to rest, in Capitol Hill’s Lake View Cemetery. Lee’s family considers Seattle, rather than Hong Kong, to be the martial artist’s home.

Born in San Francisco in 1940, Lee spent his early days in Hong Kong before moving to Seattle in 1959, to complete his schooling. He lived with and worked for friends of his father, the politician Ruby Chow and her husband Ping. While working at Ruby Chow’s restaurant, north of CID in the First Hill neighbourhood, Lee earned his high school equivalency certificate and went on to study drama and philosophy at the University of Washington. But he struggled as a student, putting his energy instead into filling spiral notebooks with thoughts on Asian philosophy and martial arts; several of these notebooks are on display at the Wing Luke Museum.

Lee drew cultural and spiritual nourishment from CID’s tight-knit community. But the rest of Seattle also seemed to agree with him. A noted pluviophile, Lee was photographed meditating on a pontoon on Lake Washington, and was moved to poetry by Seattle’s famously inclement weather, reflecting on “Rain, Black Clouds, Fallen blossoms and pale moon” in his poem “Rain.” Lee’s student and friend, Taky Kimura, wrote that “Bruce loved Lake Washington; it reminded him a bit of home in Hong Kong near the harbour.” Reading Lee’s musings, written in his neat cursive script, one wonders whether the city’s frequent drizzle may have contributed to Lee’s mantra of “be water,” which is emblazoned on yellow stickers all across Seattle.

Lee began teaching kung fu at 651 South Weller Street, in a basement now occupied by Ho Ho Restaurant. The building bears no outward trace of its remarkable past; this is also the case at 609 South Weller and  420 ½ 8th Avenue South, where Lee opened official martial arts schools, known as gwoons. They are now respectively a Mongolian hot pot and a Szechuan noodle shop. Lee eventually moved his operation to the University District, north of downtown, but he often returned to CID where he and his students would eat, watch old samurai movies, and buy Chinese vegetables and tofu. He especially enjoyed Tai Tung’s oyster sauce beef and garlic shrimp, which are still on the menu.

Withdrawing to the restaurant’s front counter, Harry Chan serves up a steaming bowl of beef brisket noodles. The taste of a faraway home warms the soul as well as the belly. When asked for the bill, Chan demurs, holding up one hand and proffering a dish with that most Chinese-American of treats: a fortune cookie. “It’s done,” he insists with a smile. “It’s not everyday I get to chat with a fellow Hongkonger.” Cracking open the cookie, its fortune flutters onto the crumb strewn dish below: “Being kind to others will bring rewards.”

Note: This article was revised and expanded to include more detail about the controversial Chinatown-International District name. 

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