28 April, 2012

A walk through Seattle's International District

Yesterday the weather was sunny and windy and the girls and I took advantage by wandering down 16th Avenue and on towards the International District - heart of the Asian community in Seattle. I say Asian and International because this isn't just Seattle's Chinatown. Many communities from Asia have settled in this area which straddles the freeway around Jackson Street - or should I say the freeway cuts through the middle - more on that later.

At Rainier and Jackson you cross into "Little Saigon" where the relatively recently arrived Vietnamese community has set up many businesses. You also pass a sign recording the jazz scene of the 50s and 60s in this area - a place that saw the careers of Ray Charles and Quincy Jones begin. Under the freeway with its painted pillars in red and yellow you get into the heart of the area. We turned towards the Wing Luke Museum and what a treasure we found.

The Wing Luke Museum has been in existence since the late 60s honouring the local Chinese-born politician who died young in a plane crash in 1965. Over the last 40 or so years, the museum has expanded its original remit to include all the Asian communities that have made their homes in the North West. A few years ago, the museum moved into a large brick building which has been completely reconfigured very stylishly into a museum space. It's one of those modern museums which has more pictures and words than artifacts but the treasures at the heart of it are the preserved parts of the building which you can only access as part of a tour.

Our tour was led by one of the mayor of San Francisco's relatives (!), Don a charming, interesting and informative guide. Don explained about the location of the International District and how it had been transformed when hills were demolished to build out into the Puget Sound. In this part of town, 6th Avenue used to form the waterfront. He also told us how when the freeway was built in 1964, bisecting the area, it destroyed many local businesses and caused an economic downturn in the community that lasted many years.

We visited a shop on the ground floor which was moved into the space lock stock and barrel. And then we were taken upstairs to the old hotel that existed for many decades on the top floor. This was a SRO hotel - cheap rooms at 25c a night in 1910. Rooms for men from Asia, far from home and their families, looking to make new and better lives and escape old ones. It's a fascinating space and the museum have done a great job of not over engineering or tidying it up. We wandered the corridors visiting rooms including a long and ornately decorated family association meeting room and a bedroom. For me this was the highlight of the tour. We were tantalisingly told of the building next door which is similar from outside but apparently was the site of many gambling and opium dens and therefore has trapdoors and secret corridors and staircases for quick escapes from the police.

We visited the museum main exhibits after the tour learning about the treatment of the Japanese during the war, of the 1795 Act which removed citizenship from all non-whites, of the many other communities from the Philippines to Cambodia and including a striking picture of Sikhs working on a railway in Oregon in 1909.

By this time, we were all a bit peckish so we headed off for noodle soup at Mike's. Very good and cheap and busy. And then a bit of a potter in Kinokuniya bookshop, a look at the new gateway to Chinatown on 5th, and homeward.

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