InterIm CDA recently interviewed Mr. Alison Sing for our Voices of the CID social media project, for which we interview people who have a close connection and/or personal history in the CID and share their thoughts with us on its value in their lives. We appreciate the time and effort Mr. Sing put into his interview and have posted it in its entirety.
What is your connection/affiliation with the CID?
My family has strong ties with Seattle’s Chinatown District. I was born on October 19, 1946. My twin and two younger brothers along with my parents live in a tenement apartment on 7th Avenue where the former Silver Dragon Restaurant was located and my father parked his car in the garage that became the first home for the Wing Luke Museum.
As a young man, my father, James Sui Sing lived and worked in the Chinatown restaurant district for most of his entire adult life. In his younger years, he drove a taxi and worked as a printer in a small print shop on Canton Alley. He also worked as a clerk for the Frye Meat Packing company. At one point, when the Frye Meat Packing Company was laying off their employees, my father asked why he wasn’t being laid off. The response he received from his manager was why would they laid off one of their most productive employee.
My father’s restaurant career began in the early 40’s with the Louie’s Chinese Garden Restaurant. This restaurant was located on 516 – 7th Avenue S. next to the Chong Wah Benevolent Association. In the early 1950’s my father and his partners purchased and remodeled this restaurant into the famous Gim Ling Restaurant. He obtained one of the first-Class H Liquor license in Chinatown. The restaurant was very popular among returning Korean War service members. The old band stage and private booths along the length of the dining room was eliminated and open seating was added. The restaurant had a second-floor balcony and a separate dining room for private parties. The cocktail lounge provided a cozy place for small talk and libations.
As children growing up on Beacon Hill, we frequently accompanied our father to the restaurant while he performed various business errands prior to the formal opening of the restaurant for the evening hours.
At one point in the history of the Gim Ling Restaurant, former President Harry S. Truman dined at the restaurant after visiting with Seattle dignitaries. He even signed one of our restaurant menus. When I was older, I assisted my father serving as a cashier and hat-check duties. I remember the famous Actor John Carradine, father of David Carradine (young grasshopper) from the famous Kung Fu TV Series visiting our restaurant. While enjoying libations in our cocktail lounge he and another customer got into a heavy argument and the Seattle Police was summoned to break up the dispute. That was heady stuff of a young person to witness.
As a child, I remember sitting up on the second floor of Chong Wah (Chinese Benevolent Association building watching the black and white newsreels of Communist China shelling the islands of Matsu and Quemoy in the mid-50’s. My father was a member of the Chinese Nationalist KMT Party (Kuomintang) ruled by Chiang Kai Shek on the island of Taiwan. Like many Chinese immigrants, they supported the new Republic founded by Dr. Sun-Yat-Sen.
My father also served as the Overseas Secretary for the KMT. Although he yearned for the reunification of China under the KMT; in his later years, he accepted the progress made on the Chinese mainland and was proud of the Chinese athletes who participated in the World Olympics.
My other strong connection to Chinatown was attending Chong Wah’s Chinese school. We joined other Chinese children to study, read and write Chinese. We recited Chinese proverbs to strengthen our Chinese-Cantonese fluency; we practice writing Chinese calligraphy and we read from simple Chinese readers.
Because my father owned the Gim Ling Restaurant next door, the chefs made us a simple turkey/chicken sandwich for our dinner. My father would take us home after school before returning to his duties at the restaurant.
Our parents were informed by local school officials that our continued participation in the Chinese school was interfering with our public education; my parents decided to forgo our Chinese education and focus on our American studies.
My final connection to the ID came as a college UW graduate seeking job opportunities late 1971. After visiting the King County employment program housed in the Smith Tower, I was walking back to the ID and passed by the Interim offices housed in the NP Hotel on 6th Avenue. I recognized Don Chinn and stopped by to pay my respects. He said a group of Japanese Churches were very concern about the pending layoffs at Boeing and many of their Nisei parishioners were on the potential lay-off list. I decided to attend an upcoming meeting with the organizers that led to my volunteering to help open the Employment Opportunities Center (EOC) that fall. This was the first Pan-Asian non-profit organization to use bilingual/bicultural staff in the Pacific NW for their employment services. We operated in the ID until our Southeast Seattle Model Cities grant was funded and then we moved to our new service area in the Rainier Valley (Columbia City location). This program operated successfully for 25 years; it later devoted a variety of services to our Asian immigrant population. The demonstrated success of the EOC program led to the creation of other Asian social service programs, such as, ACRS, Denise Louie Education Center, Bilingual ESL program, Center for Career Alternatives, Keiro Nursing Home, Chinese Information Service Center, etc.
My involvement with this program led to a public services career with the Washington State Employment Security Department and Snohomish County government. I retired from public service in 2005.
Do you have any favorite stories, memories, or experiences in the CID?
As a child, our parents took us to Chinatown frequently to shop and visit with friends. We enjoyed eating dim sum at Tai Tung. My father would have his afternoon coffee at the main counter and we all would share a piece of the sweet rice pastry among the four boys.
I also remember visiting the Tsue Chong Co. were my mother worked making fortune cookies. J. P. Patches, a Seattle Children’s morning TV program filmed a short segment about the making of fortune cookies. We were able to watch this famous segment at 7:30 am on Channel 7 before starting school.
As an adult, I would periodically stop by Tsue Chong to buy a 5lb bag of “Unfortunate Fortune Cookies” for my family. These were broken fortune cookies or fortune cookies that did not meet the standard for sale in commercial grocery stores.
As a kid, I remember coming to Chinatown to buy Chinese preserved fruit candy at Wah Young and the corner store on King and 7th. When our parents paid a visit to one of these stores, the owners would always give us a small treat. My father did extensively business with Wah Young who provided many of the restaurant staples for my father’s Gim Ling restaurant.
There was a live poultry shop on the south side of King Street at the entrance to Canton Alley, my parents frequently purchased fresh chicken here. During the 50’s poultry shops were prevalent and you would ply one of these live poultry shop if you wanted serve chicken dinner. The store clerk would select a live chicken from one of the Chicken coops and then butcher the chicken while you waited. Our parents would chat with the owners while they de-feathered the bird, remove the intestines and clean the bird for packaging.
I remember the slaughtering process of the chicken was a 15-20-minute wait. The store clerk would remove the chicken and cut the throat and place the chicken in large garbage container to drain the blood from the chicken. Then the chicken was retrieved and de-feathered and had its intestines removed and these parts were wrapped along with the chicken for my parents to take home for cooking.
In those days, grocery stores did not offer many choices in fresh meats; one had to go to a butcher or poultry shop for their fresh meats. Sometime in the mid-50’s, the Health Department banned the operation of live poultry shops for sanitation and health reasons. The only shops permitted to offer meat or poultry were the BBQ shops that are heavily regulated by the Health Department.
On one of our weekly family trips to Chinatown, we encountered a life & death situation where a man had barricaded himself in the live poultry shop where we bought our fresh chickens on King Street (next to Canton Alley). This was one of those human dramas that brought all the Chinese residents out on to the street. People were standing where the Four Seas Restaurant parking lot is now watching the drama unfold. I don’t know if the man had threatened anyone but he had access to all the meat cleavers and butcher knives in the shop. The Seattle police was called in to resolve the situation. There were no “Swat Team” or “Hostage Rescue Squad” in existence to manage the situation. We only had the normal street patrol units and precinct command staff to manage and control the situation. Efforts to induce the man to give up failed, the police resorted to using “gas” canisters to drive the individual into submission. I never found out what happened to the man.
Every summer, Seattle celebrated Seafair and one of our favorite events was the annual Chinatown Seafair Parade that started on East Jackson and meander down Jackson turning left at either Sixth or Maynard Avenue and turning left up King Street before turning right on Seventh Avenue toward Weller Street. Parade officials set up a reviewing stand on Weller Street next to the Chinese Benevolent Association building to host Seattle and Chinatown dignitaries. The parade formally ended on Seventh just before they reached Dearborn Avenue.
The venue for the parade route changed in the latter years, when the parade continued straight up King Street and finished near the Chinese Baptist Church. The streets of Seventh Avenue, Weller Street and Maynard south of King Street were set up in a carnival atmosphere with many booths. This was a wonderful event for visitors to wander up and down enjoying the summer festivities. I am not sure what the full impact was for local merchants. But this drew thousands of people into Chinatown.
When we were very young, my parents reserved places right in front of the Gim Ling Restaurant for us to watch the parade. As we got older and had our own families, we would find our own viewing places on Jackson Street. One of the major highlights was the Seattle Chinese Community Girls Drill Team along with Seattle Seafair Clowns and Pirates.
I also remember Chinatown hosting various Street Festivals which help to promote the area.
What makes the ID special to you?
For me, the Chinatown/International District will always provide a sense of “place” for those of us of Asian descent. This was a place where our first and second generation parents conducted their business. Where they could speak their native tongues, and feel at home. This was a place that allowed our ancestors to respect and observe their own culture.
However, this inward focus began to erode our abilities to tackle societal problems. In the 70’s the younger Asian community leaders recognized that we could no longer solve all our societal issues internally without embracing modern forward-looking solutions. We also recognized the need to engage in local politics not just as observers but to actively participate in the local governance process.
From this nascent period, several Asian focused non-profit entities were created to provide the growing needs of social services to our Asian brothers and sisters.
Modernization of the Chinatown and International District must continue while preserving our cultural and historic places. As Seattle’s economy continues to grow, the greatest threat to the CID is the land that it sits on. This is prime real estate given its location and proximity to local transportation access; such as light rail, Amtrak, Sounder Train and urban bus routes.
New strategies must be formulated to protect the land and the historic buildings. Major investments must be pursued to modernize our existing buildings while infusing them with new uses. We need to promote the formation of more local businesses in the ID while preserving its unique characteristics. New innovative strategies must be found to provide more parking or increase access to the CID. Perhaps, creating a walkable CID with no vehicles is another way to generate more inviting space. Our younger generations, such as the millennium are more comfortable walking. Creating a more family focused ID could help to attract and create new memories for younger generations of Asian children who are the future protectors of this place called the CID.
Focus on creating a more welcoming and gathering place for younger Asians to connect with their cultures and history.
What do you wish people knew about the CID?
When I was growing up, encyclopedia references, such as the Encyclopedia Britannia, World Book, and the Book of Knowledge were some of the resources that we used to find subject information. With the advent of Wikipedia, the online source for information by savvy online users; that has become the newest go to source. In the State of Washington, HistoryLink.org founded by Walter Crowley of Seattle’s Underground fame is now a great local resource on things Washington.
Recently in doing some local research, I found several interesting articles on the history of Asian in Pacific Northwest. However, articles about our own Asian history in the Pacific NW and about the CID are far and few. I believe Washington State history is no longer required in our public-school systems. Very little about our local ethnic history is taught or even available to our children. If our children do not have access to these stories how can they see any connection to the CID.
We need to find a way to encourage more writers to submit information to HistoryLink.org. Perhaps, Interim CDA and others could develop a list or subjects for more individual research. These articles could then be posted onto the HistoryLink.org website. Wing Luke has gather a lot of historical information on many of our pioneers. What is news today will be history tomorrow. Perhaps, our own community could create a new website formatted such as HistoryLink.org where we could post our own stories. If such a site where created, we could use it to inform more people about the CID and contributions made by our Ancestors.
I know what I am suggesting may be counterintuitive to the mission of the Wing Luke Museum’s effort to capture such stories where a paid membership provides you access to this information. Such historic information should be freely provided to the public and especially to member of the Asian community. The free flow of information is the real key for the future of the CID.
Additional resource references:
What do you wish for the future of the CID?
It is my true wish that the Chinatown/International District become the “destination” site for visitors and a grand “gathering” place for our residents but more particularly for our children of Asian descent. A place where they could take their children to visit and to imprint pride in their own culture as well as all other Asian cultures. I hope the future CID becomes a place that draws all kinds of talented Asians together to market their intelligence and creativity.
It would be wonderful, if an Asian Creative and Performing Arts Center could be created within the CID that would allow Asian artist to showcase their talent and skills as performers. This would include theatre screening of new Asian artistic materials and films.
I included this comment in one of the earlier question; but, I think it might be worth mentioning again.
The CID would be an ideal as a pedestrian center focus area. The elimination of vehicles would open the area for show-casing the arts and crafts of our various Asian cultures. This would attract many more people to the CID and would create a safe environment for families to bring their children to explore the CID. This would be “destination” site like the Pike Street Market. Why can’t the CID develop a “Night Market” environment.
If we expand the entertainment options and create an environment of an open market like those in Asia; this could increase the economic benefits to the entire area.
Public transportation access would have to be a key. However, with Uber and Lyft type options being available; this could attract more of the younger generation to the CID but also give younger Asians options to start their own businesses in CID.
A “futures conservation” fund should be created to purchase and hold the land in the CID in a trust for future generation. This would be like the Land Conservancy Trust Funds that are used to protect public lands for future generations. Ownership under such trust funds could be the springboard for creative development options while ensuring preservation of the CID’s uniqueness and cultural value.