A full dim sum cart makes its rounds at Sun Ya Restaurant, 605 Seventh Ave. S. 
photo/Gwen Davis
 

A full dim sum cart makes its rounds at Sun Ya Restaurant, 605 Seventh Ave. S. 

photo/Gwen Davis

 

It’s gigantic, colorful and wards away bad luck. In February 2008, the Chinatown-International District received its long-awaited Dragon Gate. For more than 50 years, Chinese residents wanted this symbolic structure, with its upturned eaves and lucky red to establish a true Chinatown presence. The gate stands at 45 feet, straddling South King Street near Fifth Avenue South. Each of the four poles is implanted nearly 100 feet into the ground. It’s a feast for the eyes.

The Chinatown-International District is a favorite destination for tourists — both Seattleites and out-of-towners. 

“During the Seafair Summer Festival in July, our neighborhood has about 20,000 people visit us in one weekend,” said Vivian Chan, community-programs manager at The Wing Luke Museum at South King Street and Eighth Avenue South.

The Wing Luke Museum is a signature institution of the district, dedicated to immersing visitors in the Asian-Pacific American experience. In 2008, the museum underwent a $23 million renovation. It now provides a multitude of educational opportunities, including daily tours of the Chinatown-International District.

“For The Wing, we gave tours to over 9,000 people last year of the neighborhood and of our galleries,” Chan said. “Eighty percent of our visitors in the museum are from our local region. The number of visitors from last year was approximately 45,000 people.”

 

Asian immersion

The Tsue Chong Co., also in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, sells fortune cookies that are unfortunate — people say they like them better that way. Fortune cookies, as we know, usually come in the classic, three-dimensional, triangular shape that can be neatly broken in half, enabling the little fortune to be easily retrieved. 

But inevitably, whenever large quantities of these delicate cookies are made, some break in the process or are misshapened. Tsue Chong does not throw the rejects away. Instead, the unfortunate cookies are bagged and sold right along with the fortunate ones.

The Chinatown-International District, bordering Pioneer Square to the east and the SODO area to the north, continues to enrich the Greater Seattle area, offering dozens of Asian-owned restaurants, shops and cultural venues. Its 15,000 residents are comprised of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, African American, Vietnamese, Korean, Cambodian and American people who speak more than a total of 50 languages.

The area is a world onto itself for Seattleites who want an outside-the-box cultural experience. Eating and shopping are the most common activities among Seattle residents. Grocery shopping at Uwajimaya, one of the largest Asian grocery outlets in the Pacific Northwest, is especially popular.

The typical American lunch does not include five courses. But stop by the Sun Ya Restaurant to order the Chinese signature meal, dim sum, and you may look at five courses or more. Waiters roll four-leveled trays to tables, filled with little plates of egg rolls, dumplings, tarts and other foods — most of which are foreign to non-locals. 

Costumers choose a plate or two that look interesting. Minutes later, the tray rolls by again, and people pick more dishes until they have eaten to their heart’s content.

The dozens of restaurants in the district offer dishes that are different from typical American cuisine. Dim sum, translated as “bits of the heart,” is a popular, finger-food for the Chinese and an adventure for everyone else. 

The district’s Chinese also enjoy barbecued duck, honey-walnut prawns, Chinese broccoli and the mooncake pastry. 

While chopsticks are the utensil of choice in restaurants, forks are available upon request.

Restaurants can accommodate allergies, especially intolerances to peanuts. But customers should be upfront with waiters, since chefs are used to making dishes the usual way. 

 

A thriving district

Don Blakeney, executive director of the Chinatown-International District Business Improvement Area, said the district’s economy is strong.

Cobalt and Getty Images recently brought several hundred employees into the area, he reported. Vulcan and Sound Transit — which are in the process of signing leases — will soon bring new jobs, too.

Several restaurants recently opened including Fortune Garden, World Pizza, Shabu Shabu, Fuji Bakery and Henry’s Taiwan Plus.

Many of the district’s restaurants have earned the attention of Seattle’s most scrutinizing foodies. In early April, Shabu Shabu was featured in Seattle Weekly, joining the ranks of other district restaurants acclaimed by Seattle’s food writers.

But new city parking restrictions have done harm to several restaurants’ business.

“There has been an across-the-board impact on dinner business as a result of the new dinnertime parking fees from 6 to 8 p.m.,” Blakeney said. “In a recent economic survey of 25 of our district’s dinner restaurants, dinner business was found to be down as much as 30 to 50 percent at many of the restaurants. They have resorted to staying open for longer hours to keep up with last year’s sales numbers. Since the summer, the Chinatown-International District has seen half-a-dozen restaurants turn over, close or go up for sale.”

The dinnertime restaurants Ga Ga Loc and Noodle King have especially taken a hit.

“On the bright side, we are working with the mayor’s office to take a look at these impacts, to see if there is another way we can help the mayor and the Seattle Department of Transportation meet their parking and environmental objectives, without doing so at the cost of a thriving, urban business district.”

The Chinatown-International District’s arts scene is also growing. 

The Inscape building — in the former immigration building at Sixth Avenue South — and  South Dearborn Street was recently converted to an artist workspace, including 200 new art lofts. 

The Tashiro Kaplan Building, Standard Building and NoodleWorks also accommodate the artists and art lofts.

 

Cultural assimilation

The district has a stable population. Many residents are older citizens and first-generation Chinese immigrants who mainly speak the Chinese dialect of Mandarin. 

Wing Luke Museum tour guide Don Wong said that even among first-generation Chinese, communication is not always possible given the different dialects. 

“Down here, you may speak other dialects of Chinese, such as Cantonese — a village dialect part of the farming communities,” Wong said. “Only until more modern times, they’ve adopted Mandarin as the national dialect.”

But many first-generation Chinese prefer not to live in the district.

“Families still move here, but they are coming from the northern provinces,” he said. “The United States has a trade and diplomatic relationship with China, which they didn’t have during the ‘70s. Now, you have a lot of immigration [of] educated, Mandarin-speaking Chinese.”

This population is often more wealthy. “They choose a typical community in Seattle or Redmond in the suburban areas,” Wong said.

Non-Asian people live in the Chinatown-International District, too, particularly young professionals and students, because of the area’s housing affordability and proximity to shopping and public transportation.

All ethnicities live in harmony, according to Wong, although many Chinese are nationalistic and feel the district is pure “Chinatown,” not an international district.

The Chinese-American community is also concerned about assimilation.

“I went to an American school, of course, but when I was young, I spoke fluent Chinese,” said Wong, a second-generation Chinese resident. “I still understand some and speak some Chinese but have lost most of it. Once you start school and learn English, you assimilate into Western culture and try to become more American.”

Like others in the community, this makes Wong nervous.

“Unfortunately, that’s what happened to me and my siblings,” he said. “Our son, who is now a third-generation, has less familiarity and connection with his Chinese culture. And he misses it, too.”

Wong and his son plan to learn Mandarin in the future.

 

‘Come with an open mind’ 

While the district is a golden ticket for Asian culture immersion, Wong said some visitors experience unease.

“They might be somewhat intimidated because they are not sure what’s here,” he said. “Unfortunately, there are probably stereotypes people have of the area: strange setting, people don’t speak your language, look different.

“But once they get in here, that is demystified. Most people enjoy the experience and want to come back,” he said. “Come down with an open mind: Try the different foods, appreciate the age of the area. Come on down.”