After working in the International District/Chinatown for 20 years and studying other Asian ethnic neighborhoods, I know developing the ID into a more economic vibrant neighborhood demands community collaboration and creativity. The new economic reality places more urgency on the ID to create effective economic development efforts that ensure the preservation of our historic cultural district. However, I have become more frustrated with recent efforts that are intended to attract and promote the Chinatown/ID, but are actually steps backwards.
As I have written before, I teach my children that there are valid reasons to call our neighborhood Chinatown, International District, Little Saigon and Japantown. The continued use of all the names celebrates the diverse cultural heritage of the neighborhood. There is great economic potential in using all our neighborhood names and marketing the authenticity and diversity of our historic cultural district. However, recent collaborative efforts to market the neighborhood to regional residents and visitors were met with old rhetoric about maintaining the prominence of “Chinatown” as the neighborhood name. This was a step backwards. If calling our neighborhood just “Chinatown” would result in a sustainable economic boom, I would be the first to do so. But “Chinatown” is not a magic word for attracting residents, businesses and customers to our neighborhood.
Another step backwards is the relentless use of dragons as a cultural image for the ID. You can find dragons throughout the ID: on our utility poles, parks, murals and street banners. Current efforts to design new ID signage and way-finding markers should be an opportunity for innovation and creativity. Instead, I hear the drone for more dragons. I’m tired of having one cultural image become the mainstay of every new design. I do not need a dragon to become the sole stereotypical cultural image to represent me as a Chinese person, my heritage or my neighborhood. Enough with the dragons.
This brings me to Dragon Fest. At first, I thought that would be spectacular — a festival for dragons! But I was wrong. There would be no dragons. To slay my optimism that we could move beyond dragons, the Chinatown ID Street Festival was renamed to Dragon Fest this year. Somehow, some believe this is the best way to promote our neighborhood to regional visitors. Instead, the standardization and saturation of dragon images is a step backwards. Branding of a street festival should remain simple. Chinatown/ID Street Festival said it all.
Creative use of open space and designs can celebrate our sense of place in the ID and attract visitors and customers. However, Hing Hay Park was recently the recipient of outdoor furniture that includes umbrellas that look like those little umbrellas you get in a fruity cocktail drink but on large doses of steroids. All I can do is offer one word to those that really want to help forward economic development efforts through design…authenticity. If you don’t get it, you are likely to suggest wheeling tourists around in rickshaws. How many more steps backwards do we want to go?
So how can we take a step forward? Right now, the Seattle City Council is reviewing an ordinance that would obligate small business owners to provide sick leave to all employees. I am not advocating a position on the ordinance, but the impact of the ordinance on small business would be significant. It has alarmed me that our local business organizations are slow to respond to this issue, especially to their members who have language barriers. For those who focus on “Chinatown,” dragons and cocktail umbrellas, I challenge you to educate small business owners on the ordinance and to help them advocate their position to the Seattle City Council.
So we take some steps backwards, but there are some “champions” in the neighborhood that help us take steps forward. In my next column, I will highlight some of those champions and their ideas and hard work that are helping to revitalize the Chinatown International District.