Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (CID) is as rich culturally as any neighborhood in the City. That richness comes from the melding together of the Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and Vietnamese immigrants who came to this country in search of work, peace, or a better life than they could have in their home countries. Japanese, Chinese, and Filipinos came in the mid and late1800s and early 1900s to work as laborers, building railroads, digging in coal mines, and working in canneries. Each group established their own community in the area we know today as the CID.
Nihon-machi (Japantown) covered an area north of Jackson Street roughly 15 blocks in size. It was a thriving community and many local Japanese-owned businesses flourished. All that was changed by Executive Order 9066 under which all persons of Japanese descent, whether American born U.S. citizens or not, were moved off the west coast and incarcerated in internment camps in Idaho and California. After the war very few of the original residents returned to Seattle, and today very little of Nihonmachi remains.
Chinatown was established South of Jackson Street and East of Pioneer Square by Chinese who came in search of work. That flow of labor was arrested by the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was not repealed until 1943. It is a testament to the resilience of those Chinese who immigrated prior to 1882 that Chinatown survived. The Filipinos came slightly later than the Chinese and established “Manila town” in the area around Maynard Avenue and King Street. The center of the local Filipino community is no longer there, and although approximately 10% of the District is of Filipino descent, there is no visible presence of Manila town left today.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnamese immigrants moved to Seattle and moved into the District. As the Vietnamese population grew, their innate entrepreneurial spirit gave rise to many new businesses in the area of 12th and Jackson, North of Chinatown. The original Asian Plaza was part of that trend. The construction of a new building and the conversion of the old Connors Furniture and Appliance Store created rental space for individual Vietnamese entrepreneurs. Among the businesses started in Asian Plaza were Viet Wah Supermarket, A Little Bit of Saigon, Saigon Deli, Saigon Bistro, Thanh Vi, Chan Hung Market, Lyn Hair Salon, Pacific Travel, and Sichuanese Cuisine. To this day many of these businesses, or their descendants, are still in operation. Asian Counseling and Referral Service, a major social service agency dealing with the issues faced by new immigrants, also moved into the Asian Plaza. In many ways, Asian Plaza was the commercial center of the Vietnamese Community in Seattle.
Today the Chinatown-International District is still a culturally rich neighborhood, but over the years it has lagged behind other parts of the greater Seattle Area in terms of family income level and employment. Major development has bypassed the District as well. As the next generation moves up the economic ladder by becoming doctors, lawyers, and accountants, they are less inclined to live and work in District. What will help is commercial development that modernizes the area and provides employment, income, and vitality that the next generation wants, and yet reflects and honors the cultural identity of each immigrant group. That commitment to the CID guides our plan and design for the new Asian Plaza.