Seattle’s Chinatown/International district has existed for over 100 years. Tacoma, too, once had a Chinatown.

The need for cheap railroad laborers led to Chinese immigrants settling in Tacoma in the mid-1880s. Because of prejudice, the Chinese were segregated to the area surrounding the Northern Pacific Railroad Company’s main station, near what is now Opera Alley.

By 1880, the Chinese greatly outnumbered the Whites. A recession following the decline of railroad projects increased already hostile anti-Chinese sentiment. Whites demanded that the Chinese leave Tacoma by November 17, 1885. That day, 600 Chinese were expelled by a mob led by the mayor.

Nearly 125 years later, Tacoma’s City Council issued an apology in July, the beginning of an official reconciliation with Chinese Americans and the city’s past. The apology was also part a process to develop a Chinese Reconciliation Park, located on Commencement Bay.

But after the 1885 expulsion, there was still a demand for cheap labor, leading to Japanese settling in the area in the 1890s. Many were farmers, competing against German, Italian and Scandinavian immigrants for leases, but in 1886, Washington had passed the Alien Land Law, barring Asians from owning land.

SaigonA Japantown developed in Downtown Tacoma in the early 20th century. In 1922, a Japanese Language school where Japanese children could study their language and culture was build at the center of Japan Town. During World War II, it was used to gather people of Japanese descent before they were forced into internment camps. After the war, few Japanese returned to Tacoma. These two instances of deep discrimination for Chinese and Japanese dramatically diminshed the potential for an established and sustained Chinatown or Japantown—an absence still felt today in the city. But despite these setbacks, the city is still a magnet for immigrants seeking opportunity.

Currently, Tacoma’s population is nearly 196,000 and has an API population of approximately 9 percent, according to the 2008 US Census. Lakewood, a neighboring city, has a population 57,671, and an API population of approximately 11 percent. In comparison, Washington state has 6.7 percent of APIs in its general population. (Seattle has a population of 573,911, with an Asian population of approximately 13 percent).

“The diversity in Lakewood and Tacoma is due, in part, to the McCord Air Force and Fort Lewis Military bases,” said Gerry Doiron, marketing director of the Samoan Family Support Services in Lakewood.

Tacoma is home to one of the oldest Asian organizations in Pierce County is the Korean Women’s Association (KWA), which formed in 1971 to help the Korean wives of American soldiers to build community and confront issues such as domestic violence.

On the business end, Tacoma’s Lincoln District is designated as an International District. It’s one of six business districts formed though Tacoma’s Neighborhood Business District Revitalization Program in 1991. Businesses include restaurants, nail shops and grocery stores. Across the freeway one mile east, there is a block on McKinley Avenue with several Khmer businesses, though it’s not a designated a “business district”.

Loretta Doiron, the Founder and Director of the Samoan Family Support Services said she observed an increase in the number of API’s in Lakewood/Tacoma over the past decade, coming from “Hawaii, California… [and] other states.”

In Lakewood, South Tacoma Way is designated as an International Business District, though most of the businesses – from bubble tea shops to accounting firms to pharmacies – are Korean. As you drive into the area there is a sign that says “International Business District” in English and “South Korea Way” in Korean.

Art Cruz, Executive Director of the Asia Pacific Cultural Center, located in downtown Tacoma, near old Chinatown, said he also believes there “is a large number of APIs and API organizations in Pierce County… [though] with the economy going bad some API businesses have had to close.”

Businesses throughout the Tacoma/Lakewood area.
Businesses throughout the Tacoma/Lakewood area.

Cruz said that while he hadn’t heard of any efforts to “establish an International District like in Seattle… [Tacoma] has the potential to have an International District like Seattle.”

“What has kept Tacoma from developing an International District like Seattle is a lack of capital for development purposes and a lack of investment,” said Doiron. Recently, the departure of major investment firm, Russell, has left many wondering about the financial strength of Tacoma.

But city leaders believe with revitalization following the development on the UW Tacoma campus, there is hope for and excitement about future development projects in Tacoma. And, the census estimates that the API populations in Tacoma and Lakewood will continue to increase.

For now, the business districts remain just business districts without the community-based planning associations that Seattle’s International District has.

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