Mimi Chan points to exposed brick and the ironwork of fire escapes as we approach the intersection of Seventh Avenue and King Street. “What Bruce saw is what we are seeing now,” she says. That would be Bruce Lee, back when he was an incorrigible college student teaching martial arts in a basement.
It’s no surprise that the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience would celebrate the icon who arguably introduced kung fu cinema to the U.S.; Mr. Fists of Fury lived and trained in Seattle. What’s unique is that this happens out on the streets of Chinatown–International District, on walking tours that turn the entire neighborhood into a learning experience.
This outing—the Bruce Lee’s Chinatown Tour—is just one of the daily guided walks offered at the Wing Luke, an institution founded in 1967 that has blossomed into a neighborhood cultural center. Most tours head out onto King Street, in frigid winter and balmy summer alike, as museum guides point out some of the best dumplings in the neighborhood at places like Szechuan Noodle Bowl—right before you eat them. Or they note Chinatown’s stunning architecture, not in photos but on the weather-worn buildings themselves. Or, in this tour, explore the Luck Ngi Musical Club, where the doorway looks like a musical staff turned sideways.
Lee, the son of a celebrated Chinese opera player, felt right at home in one of the country’s oldest Chinese opera clubs; the art form gave him his dramatic chops.
We’re blocks away from the Wing Luke when Chan leads the tour through the music club, down the street, and into Seattle’s oldest Chinese restaurant Tai Tung, where tour goers dine on what the martial artist used to order here—beef, prawns, chicken, pork. (“High protein meal,” notes Chan.)
The museum certainly holds plenty of history within its own walls. The daily Historic Hotel Tour, included with admission, rambles through the 60,000-square-foot building once known as the Freeman Hotel. But the Wing isn’t meant to cloister visitors inside its walls. It very intentionally does not contain a cafe—the C–ID is the cafe. (There is a gift shop, though.) Rather than a hermetic display of Asian culture, this place provides a practical gateway to it, an institution that began as a memorial to the late politician (see "Chinatown–International District Is a Neighborhood of Activism") in the 1960s and has grown to the role of neighborhood concierge.
“Most museums are so high-end that most folks say, ‘It’s not my cup of tea,’” says Chan. “But we are a community museum. Of people who live and work here.” Oh, and the cups of tea are on the house at Tai Tung.