SEATTLE – The forging of Seattle’s Asian community, particularly its growth in the city’s Central District, was inseparable from the history of racial discrimination and immigration in the Northwest. Indeed for that community, the emergence of the civil rights movement of the sixties was transformative.

With the growth of the Asian population nationwide — according to the 2010 Census, that figure has increased by double digits in the past decade alone — it is well to consider how that expansion occurred in Seattle for it constitutes an important chapter in the history of the Asian community in the Puget Sound region.


Wing Luke portrait
Wing Luke

The housing demographics of Seattle’s Asian community are a useful gauge for understanding the story of that expansion in the Central District. Before World War II, racial discrimination thwarted opportunities for Chinese and Japanese families to purchase homes outside of Chinatown and Nihonmachi (Japantown).

Prewar public accommodations for Asians in Seattle were severely restricted as discriminatory legislation targeted aliens ineligible for citizenship. Before subsequent immigration statutes lifted racial barriers, scant progress occurred. Despite the fact that Asians, particularly Japanese-Americans, constituted Seattle’s largest racial minority, virulent racial discrimination led to the disenfranchisement of foreign-born Asians, who were prohibited from becoming naturalized citizens and voting or owning property.

As University of Washington historian Quintard Taylor points out, restrictive covenants were especially harsh: “The property ban was particularly onerous, forcing Asian immigrants to resort, with the assistance of sympathetic non-Asians, to various creative subterfuges to maintain farms and businesses.”

The forerunners to those racial barriers emerged in the late nineteenth century when racial discrimination against the Chinese led to the creation of the Puget Sound Anti-Chinese Congress in 1885 and laws such the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which effectively barred all Japanese immigration, and the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act, which restricted Filipino immigration to an annual quota of 50 persons.

Asian immigration was anathema in the Northwest, according to Taylor. In September 1885, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Seattle’s leading paper at the time, reaffirmed that stance in a scathing editorial: “The civilization of the Pacific Coast cannot exist half Caucasian and half Mongolian. The sooner the people of the United States realize this and take measures to make certain that the Caucasian civilization will prevail, the sooner discontent will be allayed and the [anti-Chinese] outbreaks will cease.”

The repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act by the 1943 Magnuson Act allowed Chinese immigration to resume albeit at the annual rate of 105 based on the 1924 Immigration Act. “More importantly, it allowed Chinese in America, who were here legally, to become naturalized citizens,” said local historian Doug Chin. “While the repeal did not increase the number of Chinese allowed to immigrate to America, the opportunity to become naturalized citizens was symbolic and meant that they could be accepted here.”

Yet the Alien Land Act of 1921 and restrictive covenants continued to prevent Asians from purchasing homes and living outside of Seattle’s Chinatown. “The majority of the housing supply comprised single-room units with shared cooking, utilities, and bathrooms down the hall,” Chin said. “Most of the housing in Chinatown were hotels, with little amenities and no heat.”

After World War II, Chinese immigrant families arrived in greater numbers in Seattle. Yet restrictive covenants barred not only Chinese but also African Americans from residential dispersal. It was only after Chinese achieved some measure of economic success that some were able to move out of Chinatown and relocate “uphill” to Beacon Hill and First Hill.

The migration of Chinese outside of Seattle’s Chinatown bourgeoned significantly after the 1949 Communist revolution in China, in large part, because Chinese realized they could not return there and because of the increased immigration of war brides and refugees. However, large-scale Chinese immigration did not occur until Congress enacted the Immigration Act of 1965.

In his book, “Seattle’s International District”, Chin writes: “With the newly created alliance between China and the United States, the American attitude began to shift. For the first time, substantial numbers of Chinese were permitted to live in parts of the city outside of Chinatown. Chinese were recruited or drafted to work in the defense industries in the region. The result was a rise in the per capita income of Chinese Americans and a decline of the Chinese population in Chinatown.”

The late Ben Woo, a community leader who grew up in Chinatown and later became instrumental in the revitalization of the International District, characterized Chinatown as an urban Asian enclave: “There were about a hundred Chinese families back then before World War II, and maybe a hundred Japanese families. That’s just a ballpark figure. It was like a little village.”

The migration continued in the forties and fifties, when many Chinese bought homes in the Central Area and on Beacon Hill. “By 1960, there were a considerable number of Chinese residents in North Beacon Hill, even more than in the Central Area between Jefferson and Dearborn Streets,” said Chin.

Other Asian communities in Seattle added to the ethnic mix of the International District. In 1920, the Puget Sound’s regional Japanese American population totaled nearly 13,000 — 7,700 in Seattle’s Japantown, 2,700 in surrounding King County, and 2,000 in Tacoma. By 1920, Seattle constituted North America’s second largest Japanese community, and the Filipino population became the third largest Asian group to settle in Seattle. Washington State’s Filipino population reached a total 3,774 in 1920.

Demographically, the end of the Second World War brought significant changes in immigration. Congress enacted the War Brides Act in 1945, which permitted the dependents of veterans who served in the war to immigrate to the U.S., thereby increasing the number of Chinese households in Seattle. “These households sought homes outside of Chinatown, whose housing supply was substandard and unsuitable for families,” said Chin.

Following the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans in internment camps, Japanese returned to the International District and reestablished their businesses mainly along Main and Jackson Streets. But the scale of Japanese businesses after World War II was considerably diminished, Chin said.

Before the war, more than 200 Japanese businesses flourished in the district. After the war, the number of Japanese-owned enterprises plummeted to 88. In 1948, most Japanese businesses were located on Yesler, between Fourteenth and Twentieth Avenues, along upper Rainier Avenue, and on Beacon Hill.

“In terms of postwar residential housing, Japanese mainly settled in the Central Area and, to a lesser extent, Beacon Hill,” Chin explained. “Others resided in the hotels in Chinatown, Pioneer Square, and downtown Seattle, since Japanese became very prominent in the management of hotels in Seattle.”

Much of the substandard housing in the International District was owned by absentee landlords. “I think it is safe to say that all persons of color faced housing discrimination,” Chin explained.

Racial, ethnic, and nationality discrimination towards Asians and African Americans meant a continued dearth of affordable, low-income housing in Seattle and foreshadowed the formation of a multi-racial community in what later became the International District. Denied the opportunity to purchase homes outside of Chinatown, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos populated the district alongside a small Black community.

“In addition, among immigrant Chinese and Japanese, there was a desire to settle among themselves because it was comfortable to live with persons who spoke the same language, who came from the same overseas area, and who shared the same culture,” Chin continued. “Because the International District housing was relatively cheap, and since many persons of color had low incomes, they found housing there.”

The beginnings of a profound shift in housing demographics took shape in the early sixties when the Seattle Human Rights Commission pushed for an ordinance against discrimination in housing sales, rentals and financing. Following a series of failed efforts to enact a fair housing bill, passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act enabled community efforts towards fair housing to regain momentum.

Spearheading efforts to win passage of a new bill outlawing discrimination in housing was Wing Luke, who began his civil rights career as a young State Assistant Attorney General. As early as 1959, in a high profile, landmark case, Luke represented a black family whose efforts to purchase a home in Seattle were stymied by racial discrimination.

In 1962, as a newly elected Seattle City Councilmember, Luke single-handedly championed the cause of enacting an open housing ordinance for the city of Seattle. That effort suffered a tragic setback, however, when he perished in an airplane crash on May 15, 1965. Three years later, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the federal Civil Rights Act of 1968, fair housing became a national mandate and revitalized Seattle’s open housing campaign.

Finally on April 11, 1968, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed a fair housing ordinance, Ordinance 96619, less than two weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Sponsored by six councilmembers led by first-term Councilmember Sam Smith, the ordinance that Wing Luke fought for in the early sixties defined and prohibited unfair housing practices in the sale and rental of housing accommodations.

The new ordinance empowered the Seattle Human Rights Commission to receive and investigate complaints of discrimination in housing. The City Council decision eventually led twenty-two cities in Washington State to adopt similar laws by the end of 1968. The enactment of the precedent-setting bill for fair housing finally vindicated Wing Luke’s relentless battle for civil rights, opening a new chapter for Seattle’s Asian-American community.

The final Part II in this series will be published in the Oct. 19, 2011 issue, and examines changes in the Central District today and the challenges of gentrification.
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