The ingenuity of a Chinese immigrant family resisting redlining in the Chinatown International District (CID) is being preserved and revitalized into something new, thanks to an acquisition from the Wing Luke Museum, funded in part by a grant from Historic South Downtown (HSD).
In April, the Wing Luke Museum announced it acquired the home owned by the Suen Eng family for over 80 years, a block south of the museum. It is one of the last single-family homes in the CID.
The Wing Luke Museum plans to use the site as an “immersive educational exhibit,” an educational space, and a stop on the museum’s walking tours. The site is also next to Canton Alley and the project will include redesigning the alley abuting the site and the museum.
“It’s actually a pathway, a trajectory that extends our campus from our current East Kong Yick location down the historic alleys to the homestead,” said Joël Barraquiel Tan, Executive Director of the Wing Luke Museum.
The home was built in 1937, not only during the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, but housing discrimination in the form of redlining. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) were only allowed to live in neighborhoods like the CID and the Central District, yet Eng was one of many Asian immigrants who faced obstacles in acquiring land in the neighborhood. The city building department claimed the area had been rezoned to industrial, and furthermore, a wood structure couldn’t be built, so the family built a cinder block structure.
The family lived upstairs, and grew beansprouts in the basement, which they sold to local restaurants. “I mean, that’s the original farm to table,” said Kathleen Barry Johnson, Executive Director of HSD. “That’s how it was all over the place. And still is to a certain extent here.”
HSD awarded the Wing Luke Museum $200,000 dollars in funding for the homestead project through two grant rounds in 2018 and 2022. A community review panel unaffiliated with HSD reviewed applications.
“From my perspective, obviously, the community review panel was spot on, because this is a critically important piece of history and culture that needs to be preserved and curated and explained to future generations,” said Johnson.
“It is an example of how the Chinese immigrant communities came to Seattle’s Chinatown, and dealt with an incredible amount of hardships and challenges and barriers to their success, but made it happen anyway.”
The expansion will allow the museum to “connect and activate neighborhood cultural sites, build neighborhood cultural integrity, elevate the AAPI experience within humanities themes related to immigrants, business life, and housing exclusion, increase our education space to present AAPI stories more fully, and further advance racial and social equity by ensuring that a heritage property remains community-owned,” according to a press release from the Wing Luke Museum.
The Museum is still raising money to complete the complex project of preserving the property and fixing the interiors. When complete, it will serve as an extension of the Museum’s work and mission, said Tan.
“We will extend both the tour and exhibitions experience so that more of the story of the CID is told through the historic household,” Tan said.
The homestead acquisition will be part of a regeneration of Eighth Avenue in the neighborhood, said Tan, along with the new Asian Counseling and Referral Service food bank, eagerly-anticipated businesses like the return of Bush Garden restaurant and karaoke bar, and the Filipino eatery Kilig from famed chef Melissa Miranda.
“In many ways the project itself will also continue to strengthen and fortify both our local to national kind of profile — the profile of the Asian American and Pacific Islander diaspora,” Tan said.