Writing a column twice a month is really something new to me, in more ways than one. My experience working with Diem, the editor, on my very first column is testament to what I’d like to see more in the community. I was indignant at edits to my column at first, but realized that I need to trust, learn from others and be flexible to the benefit of those we serve. Everyone plays a role and with the right attitude and breaking down barriers of stubbornness and pride, we can all progress further than we could ever imagine.
Time to stir up my first pot. What is the name of our Asian ethnic neighborhood? Is it International District? Is it Chinatown? Do you have to say Chinatown first? What about Nihonmachi or Japantown? Is Little Saigon part of the neighborhood? I will have to answer these questions from two different perspectives. This column will focus on historical context. The next issue will address the neighborhood names from a marketing and economic development perspective.
For some, the name of our neighborhood is insignificant. For others, hearing the neighborhood called International District (ID) makes their blood boil. Rumblings about making “Chinatown” the predominate name are getting loud again. I am hearing more rude interruptions from those who interject “Chinatown” when others use “International District.” These rumblings tell me some are on the road to dividing the neighborhood. They attempt to get others on the road by disguising their divisive and exclusionary rhetoric with talk of cultural and historic preservation.
Seattle Chinatown is no different from other Chinatowns throughout North America that share very similar histories. It evolved, decayed and survived various socio-economic conditions because the Chinese remained and sustained the neighborhood. From this historical perspective, our neighborhood is Chinatown. However, one should not stop looking at the history from just this perspective. Woven into the historical fabric of Chinatown is the significant presence and contributions of other Asian ethnic groups.
Here is 150 years of history condensed in less than 60 words. Chinese immigrants were the first ethnic group to settle in the neighborhood. The Japanese settled later into Nihonmachi. Filipinos followed and also remained even during decay periods. Noteworthy, during World War II, African Americans made Jackson Street a hub for music in Seattle. New immigration waves brought Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian groups to the area, predominately in Little Saigon.
Nihonmachi, Japantown and Manilatown exemplify the history and diversity of our neighborhood. The inclusion of different Asian ethnic groups in the Chinatown area gave rise to the name International District. Seattle Chinatown is different from other Chinatowns because of its unique history of different Asian ethnicities settling in the same area. Therefore, Chinatown is International District and the ID is Chinatown.
The important legacy of Chinatown does not thrive in just the name but within the people who become part of the neighborhood. There is danger of focusing solely on Chinatown as the predominate name because the next generation of stakeholders connect to the neighborhood in various ways beyond Chinatown. This will be important in my next column when I address the neighborhood name as it pertains to marketing and economic development.
What name do I call the neighborhood? International District, ID, Chinatown, Japantown, Nihonmachi and Little Saigon. I use all the names, sometimes in pairs and sometimes individually. All the names feel like home and where I belong.
More importantly, my two kids are learning to be the next generation of stakeholders. They interchangeably use Chinatown, Japantown, ID or International District, and not because it doesn’t matter to them. They learn and accept the neighborhood being all the different names as well as celebrate and honor the unique diversity within our special neighborhood.