by Marie Rose Wong, PhD
Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (CID) is a unique multicultural neighborhood. Unlike other U.S. cities, the Asian American community in Seattle occupies a shared geography, where immigrant groups settled with and among one another. In addition to Asian Americans, who now comprise about 60 percent of the district’s population, the neighborhood was settled with Northern, Eastern, and Western Europeans, and Black and Native Americans. Chinese immigrants began settling in lower downtown Seattle in the 1860s, followed by successive waves of Japanese (1890s), Filipino (1910s), and Southeast Asians (1970s). The resulting neighborhood is one that is distinctive in cultural placemaking and cohesive in that the residents and businesses share a common vision of celebrating, protecting, and supporting the neighborhood.
Early Chinese and Japanese settlement was originally located in the northeast corner of the Pioneer Square neighborhood, moving to its current location beginning in 1910. The relocation became a necessity because of urban redevelopment and public works projects that included the construction of the Union and King Street stations, and the Jackson Street Regrade project. Seattle’s CID was built in an area the city had designated in 1892 as a location for illegal and unseemly land uses that included dance halls, gambling and bottle clubs, and sex-worker establishments. For its new Asian American residents, it was a place of home and commercial businesses, many of which were storefronts in residential hotel buildings with spare living quarters in back or upstairs.
Federal laws that restricted Asian immigration and naturalization also prevented them from citizenship and the right to own land and property. Circumventing discriminatory laws was done by purchasing land through the formation of corporate partnerships in which the corporation was the legal owner. Many buildings in the CID core reflect this type of ownership, with two building types emerging — low-rise commercial buildings, and single-room occupancy (SRO) residential hotels that met the demand for affordable central city housing for a population that was comprised primarily of male laborers. In American Chinatowns, Japantowns, and Filipino communities, SROs provided the stage for cultural activity and built expression of an immigrant population. SRO rooms provided a home to transient workers who left for seasonal jobs in canneries, railroad construction and maintenance, lumber industries, and farms, and then returned to live in the CID during the off-season.
The CID is one of eight Seattle neighborhoods to be designated an historic district. As such, any proposed change or addition to this area, which includes anything from color to structural change, is reviewed by city staff and also by a citizen advisory board comprised of people who live, work, or own property in the neighborhood. Within the historic district there is an additional layer of designation by the National Register of Historic Places, which acknowledges the core of single-room occupancy residential buildings and commercial structures. Public art and symbolism, and community resilience and strength are reflected in these buildings and the spaces that help define them. Cultural street signs, murals, statues, landscaping, and the sights, smells, and sounds of ethnic foods combine as testaments to the people who built and are vested in this multicultural neighborhood.
This tour visits the core areas and landmarks of the CID’s Chinatown, Japantown (Nihonmachi), Filipino Town, and Little Saigon.
Astor Hotel/Nippon Kan Theater
Intersection of 6th and Main
Main Street Annex School and H. T. Kubota Building
Danny Woo Community Garden
Higo Ten-Cent Store
Hing Hay Park and the residential hotel core
Filipino American kiosk
Donnie Chin International Children’s Park
Chong Wa Benevolent Association
King Street landmarks
Chinn Apartments/Hip Sing Building
Chinese Southern Baptist Church
Viet Wah Grocery
Nisei Vets Hall
“Little Saigon Park”
Japanese Language School or Nihon Go Gakko
Betsuin Buddhist Temple
Pho Bac Restaurant
442 S Main Street
Hirabayashi Place is built on land occupied by Seattle’s Japanese American community in the early days of its settlement. In 2016, after years of low-rise commercial buildings on this site, the property was developed into a 96-unit affordable housing project...
200 5th Avenue S
This hotel was one of many single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels designed in the Chinatown-International District by the local father (Charles L.) and son (C. Bennett) architectural firm of Thompson and Thompson. Built as the Alki Hotel in 1910, the building...
628 S Washington Street
Thompson and Thompson architects designed the Astor (SRO) Hotel building for the Cascade Corporation; a company whose corporate owners included Japanese Issei (first generation Japanese American) Kuranosi Hirade and Matajiro Tsukuno. Construction was completed in 1909, and unlike any other...
6th Avenue S and S Main Street
This intersection was the heart of Japantown (Nihonmachi). The northwest corner of this intersection was redeveloped in 1979 as the Imperial House apartments, a high-rise low-income apartment project that replaced several wooden-frame SRO hotels that were on this block. In...
519 S Main Street
In 1902, the two-room Main Street Annex school building was opened as an extended facility to the Main Street School (formerly called South School from 1873-1889) that was located around the corner and facing South Main Street. The Annex was...
620 S Main Street
The Danny Woo Community Garden is a 1.5-acre area containing almost 100 individual garden plots. Its initial construction was spearheaded by Robert “Uncle Bob” Santos, a long-time community leader and former director of InterIm Community Development Association (InterIm). “Uncle Bob”...
604 S Jackson Street
The Higo Ten-Cent Store (named Higo Variety Store in 1957) was the primary business in the Jackson Building, a low-rise commercial office and retail storefront building that was completed in 1932. Very few buildings were constructed in the Depression years,...
316 Maynard Avenue S
This two-story white terra cotta office and commercial structure was originally called the Rainier Heat and Power Company (RH&PC) building. It was designed by J.L. (John Lawrence) McCauley and constructed in 1917 for hotel entrepreneur William Chappell. Chappell was the...
621 S Jackson Street
With 255 rooms and 6 commercial storefronts, the Bush Hotel was the second largest SRO hotel constructed in the CID. Only the Hotel Puget Sound (razed in 1992) exceeded its size with 444 rooms and nine storefronts. The Bush Hotel...
Intersection of Maynard Avenue S and S King Street
Hing Hay Park was constructed in two separate acquisitions, totaling .64 acres, or half a city block. In 1970, and as part of the Model Cities Program, the City of Seattle was looking for properties within the CID where a...
Southwest corner, 6th Avenue S and S King Street
On the southwest corner of 6th Avenue South and South King Street stands a kiosk entitled “Honoring Filipino Americans in Chinatown International District 1911-2010.” The kiosk was dedicated in November 2012 and celebrates the lives and community building of Filipino...
5th Avenue S and S King Street
Not every Chinatown has a gate, and the planning, funding, design, and permitting of the Seattle gate took the local Chinese community 50 years to complete. Dedicated in February 2008, the effort was spearheaded by Tuck Eng, president of the...
504 5th Avenue S
The Publix Hotel marks the last of the SROs built in the CID and was opened for business in December 1927, although the sheet metal entrance canopy indicates a 1928 date. Like the Bush Hotel, the Publix was designed by...
506 Maynard Avenue S
The Eastern Hotel was built by contractor David Dow in 1911 and commissioned by Chinese immigrant Chun Ching Hock for the Wa Chong Company, one of Seattle’s first Chinese mercantile and labor contracting businesses. This hotel was another location that...
700 S Lane Street
Formerly known as the International Children’s Park, this .2-acre public park was built in 1981. Along with lawn, landscaping, play areas and equipment, and seating, the park has a bronze dragon for children to play on that was designed by...
522 7th Avenue S
The Chong Wa Benevolent Association, on the northeast corner of the intersection, was founded as an umbrella organization with representative membership comprised of Chinese family and district associations throughout the state, much like the Six Companies in San Francisco. The...
S King Street between 6th Avenue S and 8th Avenue S
Designed by Thompson and Thompson, the Milwaukee Hotel was built in 1911 for Chinese entrepreneur Goon Dip. As an immigrant from Guangdong Province, Goon had spent the early years of his time in America working and learning about labor contracting...
420 8th Avenue S
Built in 1910 and while the Kong Yick buildings were under construction, the Chinn Apartments was the smallest SRO hotel to be built in the CID with 25 single rooms and three storefronts. The meeting room and kitchen for the...
925 S King Street
In the early 1880s, the Seattle First Baptist Church (founded in 1869) engaged in its outreach ministry by establishing mission churches to some of Seattle’s ethic communities that included the Scandinavian Baptist Church (1883), Japanese Baptist Church (1891), and the...
1032 S Jackson Street
This landmark is the first Vietnamese-owned grocery store in the CID and near the business heart of Little Saigon. As an area that was once known for African American small businesses and jazz clubs, this neighborhood started to shift into...
1212 S King Street
The building that is now Nisei Vets Hall was constructed in 1938 and used as a meeting place (dojo) for learning and practicing Japanese martial arts (kendo kai). During the World War II years, the building was vacant when the...
1224 S King Street
In 2011, the Seattle Parks Department, Friends of Little Saigon, and interested community members identified an area of the community that would provide open space for the Little Saigon neighborhood. This .27-acre area will redevelop a portion of the city...
1400 to 1414 S Weller Street
As part of a thriving and large Japanese American community, the Japanese Language School was established in 1902 and is the oldest such school in North America. In the early years, instruction in Japanese culture and language was given in...
1427 S Main Street
The Seattle Buddhist Church or Seattle Betsuin services began in 1901 but its first church building was constructed in 1908 at 1020 Main Street. That church, along with other Chinese and Japanese businesses, was torn down in 1939 as part...
1314 S Jackson Street
The boat shape of the Pho Bac Restaurant dates to the 1950s when the building was an ice cream shop. As Vietnamese businesses were beginning to settle in the neighborhood, the building became the site of the first pho (Vietnamese...