If you’re Thai and visiting the International District, chances are really good that you know “Mr. Moo” and his ever-welcoming smile.
His small Thai Video shop by Sixth and South Jackson doesn’t just sell the syrupy romance movies and colorful tabloids from back home. It also serves as a kind of crossroads for the Seattle area’s Thai community, from new immigrants to the U.S. who need help finding a job or an apartment, to long-time residents who seek camaraderie and warmth in a neighborhood that some people avoid because of its homeless people, beggars, drug addicts and crime.
The words “happiness” and “help” and Buddhist precepts frequently come up in any conversation with the bubbly and outgoing Moo, 60, a native of Bangkok whose full name is Surapant Teratpituk. Whenever a visitor enters his shop, his eyes brighten and he quickly steps forward in hospitality.
“When I do business, I don’t just expect a profit,” Moo says. “We also have [to think about] happiness, and helping other people. We look for mutual benefit, for how the customer can survive in the United States. It’s very important for you to be happy. You cannot buy happiness. Sometimes I’m tired. I’m eating. But I still help them. I don’t say: ‘I’m busy, I’m eating.’ I don’t do that.”
One regular visitor is a Thai woman in her 50s nicknamed Eed, a cook at a Thai restaurant nearby. In the past, she’s asked Moo to help check a doctor’s office near the shop, borrowed a phone card from him, and had him help her find employees for the restaurant where she works.
“It’s like an association here,” she says. “Every Thai in Seattle knows this shop.”
“At other video shops you must return the tape in seven days,” Eed says. “Here you can return it in seven days, one month, three months, one year. You can just return it anytime you want.”
Another day, a Thai who teaches at Seattle Pacific University, Kumroon Maksirisombat, was in the shop. Moo had called him to come help some Thais with immigration problems. “He’s quite a fellow. He’s really a friend to everyone,” Kumroon says of Moo. “When you come to the International District, this is the place to start.”
Near the entrance of Moo’s shop, perched atop a cabinet, stands a little Buddhist shrine with flowers, joss sticks and pictures of the Buddha and monks. On the opposite wall, visitors have taped community notices, mostly in Thai language – wanted: cooks and waiters for Thai restaurants, a helper for an elderly person; rooms for rent; and an offer to look into your future with the services of a Thai astrologer. Video cassettes of Thai movies and soap operas are stacked on the floor and against the walls. Posters of Thai actresses from yesteryear adorn the glass counters. Spread on the counters are popular Thai novels, newspapers and magazines, including health and cuisine magazines that Moo says are the best-sellers because there are so many Thai restaurants in the Seattle area. He also sells international phone cards, English-Thai dictionaries, and traditional Thai medicines.
Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants and grocery stores dominate the storefronts of the International District. While there are a few Thai restaurants in the district, most Thais live in other areas of Seattle or in the suburbs. The president of the Thai Association of Washington State, Peter Tang, says there are perhaps 10,000 Thais living in the state. Some gather in temples, but there is no formal Thai community center, he says.
Moo says a few dozen Thais visit his shop regularly. Moo first came to Seattle in 1968 to study accounting. He washed dishes and did odd jobs. There were very few Thais and no Thai restaurants then, he says. “When I wanted to eat Thai food, I couldn’t.” After a couple of years, he returned to Bangkok and worked at a gems export company. In the early 1970s, he returned to Seattle with his father to open a lapidary shop. After his father retired and returned to Thailand, Moo opened his own shop in the International District in 1975, and he and his wife raised three children. He did not return to Thailand until after his wife died of illness in 2007 and he attended a “tam boon” (Buddhist merit-making) ceremony in her hometown. During that trip, at a money exchange booth near Bangkok’s airport, he met a woman whom he married last year. His new wife now works at Thai restaurants in Seattle.
Moo says that every day, after he closes his shop at 6 p.m., he visits his mother, who is in her 80s, at the Seattle Keiro nursing home by 16th and Yesler. “I just go talk to her, make her laugh,” he says.
Many of the regulars at Thai Video know Moo’s story well because they’ve been dropping by his shop for many years. Daravadee Saehor, 40, who works at the Westin Hotel downtown, has known Moo for 20 years and comes almost every day to chat before taking the bus home. One day, Moo had his feet up on a chair while chatting with Chalit Lilarit, 63, a cook at the Thai Delight restaurant who visits Moo 3-4 days a week. “After I finish work, I don’t know what to do,” says Chalit. “I come and chat with Moo.”