Asian Express was one of the first Asian-owned businesses on Beacon Hill. Photo credit: Kevin Minh Allen.

The present rests on the past and the future surely surpasses both. This thought circled in my mind at the tail end of my interview with long-time Beacon Hill resident Jack Eng.

Eng’s origins are squarely located in Seattle. However, his parentage originated in China.

“My grandfather had a place in Port Townsend, Wash., a restaurant. My father had an arranged marriage in China, and came back and forth between the U.S. and China, and got stuck over there during World War II. With some difficulty, he was able to get back here. He was actually drafted in the U.S. military, but he was stuck in China at the time and unable to come back during the war. He ended up never having to serve.

“My mother came back in 1949 with my older brother and sister. They had a Chinese hand laundry in downtown Seattle across the street from the bus depot. When I was about 6 years-old, we moved up to Capitol Hill into an apartment on Broadway. So, I was born and raised in that location.”

So many times we hear and read about Asian American history in Seattle, but in abstract and impersonal terms, presented to the public as two-dimensional exhibits. By recounting his boyhood spent on Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill, Eng brought to life, in stark relief, that time period.

“Back then, the area [Capitol Hill] had more businesses and apartments. I was like a street kid who hung out in the commercial district. There was a pool hall there where I used to hang out, Broadway Bowl. It’s no longer there; it was where QFC is now located. I went to local schools, Summit Elementary School and Meaney Junior High School. Summit is no longer a public school; it’s a private school now.”

At about the age of 17, Eng’s family moved to a modest house in Beacon Hill where he finished out the latter stages of high school. Then, he became an undergrad at the University of Washington, graduated from there and went off to California for graduate school.

To make some extra money during his college years, Eng “…worked at Lucky grocery store…. It used to be where that Chinese supermarket is now on S. Columbian Way and Beacon Avenue, across from Foulee’s. It used to be a grocery store chain for a number of years in Seattle.”

Eng returned to Beacon Hill in the mid-1980s when his parents passed away, and he and his siblings inherited the house.

In graduate school, he studied law, became a lawyer and eventually specialized in worker’s compensation. He worked for the state attorney general’s office and a number of agencies for about 15 years and then worked for Weyerhauser for another 15 years. Eng is currently retired, but still does some contract work.

Asked about the racial and ethnic diversity of the neighborhood back then, he said, “There were actually a lot of Asians around there. I hung out with a mix of kids, including Asians, blacks and Caucasians.”

Over the years, Eng noticed a change in the demographics of the area, from a predominately Asian to an even more racially diverse populace.

“There have been more houses built in the area, I think, simply because of the value of the land. There are not that many places available anymore that are close to the city. The Central District has certainly seen a big change with more development going on and more gentrification. The same thing is happening here, but a bit slower.

“A lot of the second, third and fourth generation Asians have left the area because of the changed environment in Seattle. There are anti-discrimination laws now. A lot of Asians have moved to the east side and other parts of the city. They kind of want to get out of the old neighborhood. So, I don’t see the kids of the original families necessarily moving back to Beacon Hill. A lot of my friends have moved to the east side or to North Seattle.”

In looking toward the future, Eng expressed hope that more businesses and community services would become available and established in the area, much like what has happened in the Columbia City neighborhood. He noted this neighborhood’s diverse selection of restaurants and the advantage of having a movie theater there.

From his perspective, the main business area in Beacon Hill is not easily accessible for pedestrians. He said that if you want to do anything substantial, you have to use a car to get where you want to go most of the time. He also lamented the fact that there are still a lot of streets in the area that don’t have sidewalks.

In spite of these deficiencies, Eng thought Beacon Hill is still a reasonably priced area to live in Seattle. He found the neighborhood to be relatively quiet and the people to be generally friendly.

In 20 to 30 years, Eng knows the neighborhood will change and add its own peculiar mark on the city. However, for right now, he is anticipating the current expansion of Jefferson Park around the reservoir, much like Volunteer Park in Capitol Hill.

Beacon Hill may appear to be a sleepy and low-key portion of Seattle. But, it is poised on the cusp of good fortune and many happy returns.

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