To delve into the history of the Chinatown–International District, as Allecia Vermillion does in this month’s cover story (“New Adventures in the Historic Chinatown–International District”), is to discover a piece of the city as misunderstood as it is underestimated.
So it was since nearly the beginning. In 1886, white laborers, perceiving a threat to their livelihood, tried to physically oust Chinese workers and their families from Seattle, resulting in a bloody riot and the eventual expulsion of hundreds of Chinese people from the city.
Yet the area then known only as Chinatown prevailed. After the Great Seattle Fire, it moved a few blocks east. Buildings went up. Businesses hatched. Other nationalities joined, including the immigrants who formed Japantown.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese Americans in Seattle and elsewhere unjustly paid the price. A presidential order—forcing men, women, and children into incarceration camps throughout the west—drained Japantown of its population.
And still the district that now straddles Jackson Street and I-5 endured. In the late 1970s and early ’80s refugees from Vietnam established Little Saigon, and kept it vital.
In 1983, another tragedy: Three men entered the Wah Mee gambling club in the basement of a hotel and robbed and killed 13 people; the shooting remains the deadliest in Washington state history. All these decades later, some residents are reticent to even utter the club’s name.
But now, as Vermillion documents, the C–ID is undergoing another rebirth. The Louisa Hotel, site of the Wah Mee massacre, is one of the hottest real estate projects in the neighborhood. Spots like Dynasty Room, the bar temporarily parked in the old Four Seas restaurant space, flex as much cool cred as any Capitol Hill dive. And the food scene—the food scene remains so robust it can be overwhelming. (Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.)
This is the part of town, after all, that introduced Seattle to pho. The part of town that taught Seattle to eat sushi. And it’s the place that showed Seattle—a city grappling with its rapidly changing identity—that reinvention (when paired with no small amount of tenacity) is possible.
UPDATE: This article was amended March 11, 2019, to reflect that in 1941 Japantown residents were sent directly to incarceration camps, not to Bainbridge Island beforehand.