Last updated: June 5, 2018
Seattle’s Chinatown Historic District has been the focal point of the city’s Asian community since the early 20th century. Chinatown was the heart of the most extensive Asian community in Washington State and the size and vitality of the district attracted thousands of immigrants to Seattle. The Seattle Chinatown Historic District is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and sits within the larger International Special Review District, one of eight historic districts established by the city of Seattle. Today, the two districts are commonly referred to as the Seattle Chinatown International District.
Seattle's first Chinese settlers came to the northwestern United States in the 1860s and 1870s, providing a labor force for the booming lumber mills, fishing operations, and railroads of the region. Chinese businessmen in Seattle contracted laborers, built boarding houses for Chinese workers, and opened merchant and manufacturing shops within a small densely populated area south of Pioneer Square. This area became Seattle's first Chinatown. By the mid-1870s approximately 550 people lived in the neighborhood on either a permanent or short-term basis.
During the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, Chinatown—much of it built on stilts over tidal flats—burned down. After the fire, wealthy Chinese merchant and labor contractor Chin Gee Hee erected a brick building, known as the Canton Building, at 208 South Washington Street to the east of the current Chinatown Historic District. This helped stimulating development in the area as other Chinese businessmen began to lease buildings on both sides of South Washington Street, developing a new Chinatown.
In the mid-1900s, Seattle began a major city regrading project, the Jackson Regrade, which was intended to make the city's roads more accessible. Over the course of three years, construction workers raised, lowered, and reshaped more than one hundred blocks in downtown Seattle before finishing the project in 1910. One of the areas that was regraded was the new Chinatown. The Jackson Regrade uprooted the Chinese community, and Chinese immigrants moved to nearby King Street on land reclaimed with the fill from the regrade. Chinese entrepreneurs and investors flocked to this area to open businesses, which fueled the community’s relocation to this third Chinatown.
In 1910, Goon Dip, a Chinese entrepreneur and diplomat, established the influential Kong Yick Investment Company, a group comprised of 170 Chinese immigrant investors from Seattle and the greater Pacific Northwest. These investors pooled their resources to finance the construction of the first Chinese-built structures on King Street, the East and West Kong Yick Buildings,
which served as both anchors for the newly relocated community and catalysts for the development of a new Chinatown.
While the Chinese population in Seattle had grown rapidly in the 1860s and 1870s this growth began to slow with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion act of 1882, which restricted Chinese immigration to the U.S. Other exclusionary laws aimed at Chinese immigrants were passed by the U.S. Congress between 1888 and 1902, effectively reducing the number of Chinese entering the country. Because of this, Japanese immigrants became increasingly sought after by American businesses and the number of Japanese immigrating to the U.S., particularly to the West Coast, increased rapidly. By 1900, Japanese immigration surpassed Chinese immigration and the Japanese eventually becoming Seattle's largest minority population. The growth was particularly dramatic in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1890, 125 Japanese lived in Seattle; by 1910, 6,127 lived within the city.
The Japanese formed a substantial community to the north and east of Chinatown referred to as "Japantown" (Nihonmachi), the second largest Japanese community on the West Coast. Although Japanese businesses existed throughout the Chinatown Historic District, Japanese commercial and family life centered around Japantown with a vibrant community of residences, restaurants, shops, theaters, clubs, hotels, and meeting halls.
Other ethnic groups arrived too, including Filipinos who came to Seattle as laborers and farm workers in the 1920s and the 1930s, establishing residences and businesses south of Chinatown. Filipino-owned restaurants, shops, and clubs were established around Maynard Avenue and King Street, giving the area the nickname "Manilatown." By the 1930s over 1,600 Filipinos resided in the district and Filipino workers were a strong element in the city’s labor movement, as they were throughout the West Coast.Filipino labor leaders like Virgil Duyungan of the Filipino Cannery Workers and Farm Laborers Union were instrumental in organizing farm laborers and salmon cannery workers and helped bring about the defeat of the salmon canning industry’s contract labor system.
In 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor incited widespread anti-Japanese feeling in the U.S., particularly on the West Coast where large communities of Japanese Americans lived and worked. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, authorizing the establishment of military areas covering the West Coast of the U.S, "from which any or all persons may be excluded." This allowed for the removal from these areas of Japanese Americans and those of Japanese ancestry. Residents of Seattle's Japantown were forced to abandon their homes and businesses with many of them bringing their valuables to be stored in the basement of the Panama Hotel, a well known establishment in the district. The evacuees were detained at Puyallup Assembly Center(Camp Harmony) near Puyallup, Washington before being sent to Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho for the duration of the war.
As was the case in many cities on the West Coast during the war, large numbers of African Americans came to Seattle for military duty and to fill wartime jobs and moved into the abandoned buildings and houses of Japantown. Clubs and dance halls were established along South Jackson Street and soon became popular as places to hear jazz, swing, and blues music. After the war, many Japanese residents chose not to return to Seattle or returned to settle elsewhere in the city with their families.
The 1950s through the 1970s brought changes to Chinatown. The construction of Interstate 5 in the 1960s physically divided the various Asian neighborhoods and eliminated businesses, homes and churches. The Kingdome Stadium, built in the 1970s on the southwestern edge of Chinatown, created traffic and parking problems. Also in the 1970s Seattle passed stricter building and fire codes that resulted in the closure and demolition of many of Chinatown's older buildings.
In 1973, Seattle established the International Special Review District to preserve the area’s Asian culture and history and to protect it from unwanted development. The local district, located on both sides of Interstate 5, encompasses the commercial centers of Chinatown and Japantown as well as all of Manilatown and Little Saigon. A variety of projects have been launched since 1973, to revitalize the Special Review District including: Hing Hay Park, a public park and community gathering place with a large ornate Chinese pavilion that was a gift from the people of Taipei, Taiwan (S. Intersection of King Street and Maynard Avenue); a traditional red, yellow, and blue 45-foot tall Chinese gate (paifang) marking the western entrance to Chinatown (5th Avenue and King Street); Kobe Terrace, a public park named for Seattle's sister city of Kobe, Japan (top of 7th Avenue). The park incorporates the Danny Woo International District Community Garden and has cherry trees, walkways, and lovely panoramic views of the city; the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in the historic East Kong Yick Building, the only community-based museum in the U.S. dedicated exclusively to the history of pan-Asian Pacific Americans (719 South King Street); and the Uwajimaya Village, a mixed-use commercial/residential development anchored by Uwajimaya, the largest Asian grocery and specialty store in the Pacific Northwest (corner of 7th Avenue and Lane Street). Uwajimaya was started in Tacoma, Washington in the 1920s, but was relocated to Seattle's Chinatown by its founder Fujimatsu Moriguchi after he and his family were released from incarceration in the Tule Lake Relocation Center at the end of World War II.
Today, the Seattle Chinatown Historic District is a thriving residential and commercial neighborhood that forms the core of the International Special Review District and includes one of the largest groups of intact pre-World War II buildings in the city reflecting the history and historic architecture of this vibrant ethnic community.
The Seattle Chinatown Historic District is roughly bounded by South Main Street, 5th Avenue South, South Weller Street, and Interstate 5.