Firefighters respond to a fire in the vacant, former Viet-Wah Supermarket building that started around midnight on June 10. Photo by Drag & Drop Creative.

No one was injured in the two-alarm fire that broke out in the vacant former Viet-Wah Supermarket building around midnight on June 10. 

The cause of the fire was “undetermined,” Fire Department investigators concluded. It burned for over 16 hours as firefighters poured water on it, and there was no saving the building. By the time the demolition crew finished, little was left standing but the two stone guardian lions that had protected the beloved business for some 36 years.

Thanks to the quick work of community members in Little Saigon, the lions were saved and stored. In a few years, they will protect the future Little Saigon Landmark Project’s Vietnamese Cultural and Economic Center – a link from the past in a transformed neighborhood – “Little Saigon 2.0,” as resident Tuyen Than, who helped save the lions, puts it.

Viet-Wah was founded in 1981 by Duc Tran, a refugee from Vietnam who arrived in Seattle in 1976, and it was one of the first supermarkets in the Chinatown International District (CID) catering to Southeast Asian communities. 

By 2022, according to Duc and his daughter Leeching Tran, who serves as Vice President of the business, crime, the pandemic, and demographic shifts among the local Vietnamese community contributed to the closure of the flagship store on 10th Avenue. Viet-Wah also has a Renton location.

In an archival photo, Viet-Wah founder Duc Tran stands in front of the flagship store for a grand opening in 1988. Photo by Dean Wong.

“More than just a random fire”

Around midnight on the 10th, Than and Ryan Catabay, who live across the street from the former Viet-Wah, heard firetrucks pulling up. Stepping out onto the deck, they saw black smoke pouring from the building. Despite installing two air purifiers by their window, their air monitor indicated poor quality for two days.

“To see it come down in flames like that, it felt more than just a random fire,” said Quynh Pham, Executive Director of Friends of Little Sài Gòn (FLS). “Even though they moved out and the building is vacant, it just felt like a symbol of something – like we’re officially losing this historic part of the neighborhood.”

Tran said she and her father bid goodbye to the store when it closed in 2022. “So it was a little strange to relive those feelings again,” she said. “But at the same time, my dad and I were at peace with the store being gone, in a sense, so it wasn’t as terrible as it would have been if it was still active.”

The fire broke out in the vacant, former Viet-Wah Supermarket building around midnight on June 10. Photo by Drag & Drop Creative.

Before the closure, the flagship store was slated for redevelopment by Mill Creek Residential Trust. It was set to be demolished, with two seven-story apartments with ground floor retail on the site. 

The project’s future is unknown. Dennis Chinn, who is still listed as the property owner in King County records, declined to comment on the fire or its aftermath.

Fortunately, the Fire Department’s response was prompt enough that Pham wasn’t concerned about it spreading. FLS did outreach to businesses in the following days, some of which had to close temporarily, and were affected by smoke and ash. Most were back open by June 12.

“Mission save the lions”

Seeing the Viet-Wah building being demolished, Catabay, Than, Tran and others realized they would need to act fast to save the stone guardian lions.

The lions were originally purchased from the Vietnamese-owned, Seattle-based company Allied Marble & Granite and installed in 1988. Before the fire, the company was planning to help move the lions in July.

As the fire was burning, Catabay and Than asked the Seattle Department of Transportation to spread the word that the lions needed to be saved, and reached out to anyone they could think of. “It was like red alert mode,” Catabay said.

As the building is demolished, demolition crews prepare to move the lions. Screenshot from a video captured by Drag & Drop Creative.

Tran coordinated with the property owner, who worked with the demolition contractor, Ed Wilson Construction, to avoid damaging or toppling the lions.

Eventually, it became imperative to demolish the building and the lions needed to move out of the way. CID-based Marpac Construction agreed to help move the lions. “We were just like, hey, it’s mission save the lions right now. Is this something that you guys can help with?” Than said.

Marpac held an emergency meeting to brainstorm how to move the lions. They settled on using one of the bulldozing cranes that demolished the building to lift them into a truck. Each weighed over 750 pounds.

The lions are lifted by demolition crane into a truck for transport.Screenshot from a video captured by Drag & Drop Creative.
A Marpac employee secures the lions. Screenshot from a video captured by Drag & Drop Creative.

The next challenge was where to keep them. At first, the plan was to park them in front of Hello Em cafe, but logistical and permitting issues prevented this from happening on short notice. Instead, the lions were transported by truck and moved into the Lam’s Seafood warehouse, where Hello Em stores its coffee beans. 

Their future home will be the Little Saigon Landmark Project on 10th Avenue and South Jackson, the region’s first Vietnamese cultural and economic center. The Landmark Project will include space for pop-up businesses, exhibits, cultural events, music and dance, cooking and language classes, as well as 71 units of affordable housing above. FLS aims to break ground in late 2025.

The lions are transported into the Lam’s Seafood warehouse Screenshot from a video captured by Drag & Drop Creative.

For Than and Catabay, saving the lions feels symbolic. Once protectors of Viet-Wah, they will now anchor a new chapter in Little Saigon’s future.

“They represent the legacy of the neighborhood, the culture, being protectors of the neighborhood,” Than said. “It’s like a story of the underdog. Little Saigon has just been going through so much, taking a beating. To see your neighborhood just kind of get burned down, it’s really sad.”

Than continued: “They’re going to have this new life, in this new iteration of Little Saigon and that everybody in the community had some hand in it.”

The process was coordinated swiftly and was a team effort from Little Saigon, said Pham. “It just felt like it was meant to be.” 

Nghia Bui, co-owner of Hello Em, unpacks the lions in the Lam’s Seafood warehouse. Screenshot from a video captured by Drag & Drop Creative.

The fire started just a few days after the Seattle City Council passed new legislation making it easier for the Fire Department to act on condemned abandoned or unsafe buildings, in an effort to prevent fires.

But according to Pham, the new ordinance may not have helped prevent the Viet-Wah fire, because the property wasn’t exactly abandoned, being slated for redevelopment, and with an engaged and responsive property owner. 

“The challenge for our neighborhood is really around being able to pay to secure vacant sites,” Pham said. Although investigators could not determine the cause of the fire, Pham suggested it’s possible it was started by someone who broke into the site.

Longterm, Pham said the uncertain future of the site “kind of leaves this big black hole in the neighborhood for an unforeseeable future, which is not good for the neighborhood overall.”

Even though FLS is busy developing the Landmark Project, Pham said the organization would gladly work with the community to develop something on the site if given the opportunity.

Once debris is cleared away, Than and Catabay would like to see it turned into a community parking lot, or a place for pop-ups, art, small business opportunities, or other community uses “that’s not just your cookie cutter condominium with your retail stuff below,” Catabay said.

The couple, who own Drag & Drop Creative, planned to throw a one-day party or pop-up in the vacant Viet-Wah building before it was destroyed.

Whatever is built on the site, Tran hopes it’s something the community finds valuable. “I just hope it’s a space that the community can activate and fully utilize, and have it be a strong anchor in the community – like it used to be.”

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