Chinatown: History, Then and Now

The Chinatown-International District was settled and developed by Asian Americans in the late 1800's. Many were employed in the lumber mills, fishing boats, railroads and offered domestic services. Others found work in factories, operating laundries, running restaurants and peddling vegetables. Over many decades, this area has developed into the Chinatown-International District because of its rich blend of not only Chinese, but Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Laotians. With the emergence of the Southeast Asian community, the Chinatown-International District continues to renew its Asian American identity. The unique mixture of ethnic restaurants, gift shops, social service agencies and community organizations appeals to both newly arrived immigrants and to U.S. born Asian Americans.

Chinese Immigrants

The first Asian immigrants to establish roots in Seattle were the Chinese. They first arrived in the 1860's to fill the labor demands created by the lumber mills, fishing boats, railroad construction projects, and road paving programs. In fact, much of the early infrastructure in this region can be attributed to the thousands of Chinese laborers who arrived during this period. In order to serve the needs of thousands of men who came to this region for work; laundries, restaurants, gambling halls and hotels were quickly opened to accommodate them. The dimensions of a distinctly Chinese neighborhood were amorphous during this period, but many cite Chin Hock's Wa Chong Company as the progenitor for what would essentially become the "old Chinatown" settlement.1 With the WA Chong Company leading the way, other businesses and social organizations flourished along Second Avenue, Occidental, and Third Avenue between Yesler and South Washington Streets. By 1876, the Chinese made up a fluctuating 550 of the 3400 people living in Seattle.2

Unfortunately, the Chinese were also the first Asians to truly experience the full force of social and political discrimination in the United States. Indicative of the hostile tide washing over the United States in the late 1870's and early 1880's was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers. More locally, many of the Chinese were forcibly removed from their homes and shipped out of the area by the hundreds.3 Those who were able to remain in the "old Chinatown", a haphazard and tenuous group of quarters sitting on stilts above the water, would later succumb to the Great Seattle Fire of 1889.

Although the Great Fire proved a lethal blow to the old waterfront Chinatown, the rebuilding of Seattle employed massive numbers of Chinese workers, and they chose a new site for their community. The Chinese Americans who refused to be driven from their new home simply rebuilt their neighborhood and began again. The new "Chinatown" settled in along King St., the center of what many now call the International District. However, most people don't realize that this site was under a considerable amount of water prior to 1907. It was that year that the City of Seattle assumed the task of re-grading and filling in extensive portions of the tide flats. Goon Dip, a prominent Chinese businessman and leader, built some of the first buildings along the re-graded King Street; amongst which was the Milwaukee Hotel, a landmark that still stands. Both the Wah Young Co. and Yick Fung Co. belong to this era, and remain to remind us of the foundation laid by the Chinese in the International District. To this day, most businesses along King St., between 4th and 8th Ave. remain distinctly Chinese in character. While the nomenclature has changed over the years, this section will always represent the heart of "Chinatown" in Seattle.

The Japanese community established a very thorough social network to help those who lived and worked in their neighborhood. However, this once vibrant social and commercial community was devastated when its members were placed in internment camps as a result of anti-Japanese sentiment during WWII. Although some returned to reclaim businesses and homes, the damage done by the war was too much to rebuild the neighborhood to prewar standards. The efforts gone into reestablishing the Japanese presence in downtown Seattle did bear fruit in the remaining Japanese businesses scattered throughout our current district's boundaries.

Japanese Immigrants

After immigration laws in the United States restricted the number of Chinese that could enter the country, Japanese immigrants began to arrive and settle in close proximity to the already established Chinese community. Japantown, or Nihonmachi as it was commonly called, developed along Main Street amongst the hills of South Downtown. Traces of Nihonmachi go back as far as 1891 when a Seattle map showed that Dearborn St. was known as Mikado Street.4 To support the burgeoning Japanese population, hotels, laundries, bathhouses, and restaurants sprouted all over the Nihonmachi. In fact, by the 1910 census, it became evident that the Japanese represented Seattle's largest minority population. Their population prospered for many reasons, but one of the main reasons historians cite is that the Japanese were not, like their Chinese counterparts, prohibited from bringing wives and family to settle with them.

The Panama Hotel drew fame in the early 1990's when the new buyer discovered hundreds of pieces of luggage and everyday goods stored by the Japanese residents as they were hastily taken to the internment camps. Many of these objects remain unclaimed, and sit in silent testament to the injustice that Japanese Americans suffered in the early 1940's. While the Panama Hotel's bounty of historical information was discovered surreptitiously, the N.P. Hotel houses a meticulously fashioned historical display.

The Northern Pacific Hotel (also known as the NP Hotel), was purchased by Niroku Shitamae and a group of Japanese businessmen shortly after its construction in 1914. The hotel played a large role in the area for many of our residents, particularly the Japanese residents. However, the building itself was closed for commercial and residential use in 1973 due to severe deterioration in the structure. A newly renovated NP Hotel opened its doors in 1991, now including a display on the history of both the building and the larger Japanese population that was influenced by it over the years. The display was made possible by InterIm, a local community organization and the Wing Luke Asian Museum. 5

Filipino Immigrants

While many know about the history of both the Japanese and Chinese in this neighborhood, the Filipinos are often left unacknowledged for the significant contribution that they have made, and continue to make in the district. Filipino Americans have made up a large portion of both the farming industry and the salmon/cannery industries for generations. While they were often accepted as laborers, they were often fiercely discriminated against as settlers. However, when these Filipino Americans looked for a place to live, relax, and enjoy themselves they settled into the International District's many hotels and boarding houses. In fact, one of the oldest hotels in the District, the Eastern Hotel, was recently renovated and now includes an extensive historical documentation of Filipino migrant workers and Carlos Bulosan in particular.

Carlos Bulosan arrived in Seattle on July 22, 1930 from Pangasinan, Luzon. Without a formal education, he was forced to support himself through a number of low-paying and often hazardous jobs.6 After suffering a number of hardships that seemed to represent the norm for Filipino migrant workers, Mr. Bulosan became determined to fight back. He educated himself and became an active and effective union organizer, helping to improve working conditions in canneries, on farms, and in factories. The legacy of his union struggles, and the struggles of thousands of other Filipinos are the ones documented in the Eastern Hotel exhibit.

Filipino residents have established themselves as a majority population in the district today according to the 1990 census. Filipinos make up the largest minority group in the district. They are often overlooked because their commercial presence has been marginal given their population. However, it is obvious that the Filipinos in the International District contributed both to the neighborhood's success and the greater well being of workers all over the West Coast.




The neighborhood today is a result of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino youth making a stand to preserve their cultural heritage. The establishment of various social service agencies, crime prevention programs, and business organizations went a long way in revitalizing the area. Many hotels and historic sites throughout the International District are maintained and preserved through the Seattle Chinatown-International District Preservation and Development Authority.8 Also, the core of historic Chinatown, primarily along King St., is protected by the Department of Neighborhoods Special Review District, which regulates development and maintains the historical integrity of the buildings there. Low-income housing and a number of professional offices have sprouted up all around the neighborhood. This district, whatever one chooses to call it, through working together has rebounded and made its presence felt as an integral part of both Seattle and the Asian American Diaspora throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Note: This "History" could not have been written without the information provided by those individuals and websites cited in the footnote area below.

1.       Chin, Doug and Bacho, Peter, "A History of the Urban Ethnic Community: Asian Americans and the Development of Seattle's International District", International Examiner (October 17, 1984). Cited from a reproduction of the original publication.


3.       Takami, David, Executive Order 9066: 50 Years Before and After, A History of Japanese Americans in the Seattle Area. 1991.

4.       Northern Pacific Hotel Exhibit

5.       Carlos Bulosan Memorial Exhibit

6.       Chin, Doug and Bacho, Peter. " A History of the Urban Ethnic Community : Asian Americans and the Development of Seattle's International District." International Examiner (December 19, 1984), Cited from a reproduction of the original serial publication.

7.       Chew, Ron and Louie, Debbie. "A Walking Tour of the International District in Seattle." Wing Luke Asian Museum.


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