A museum exhibit about beverages? Admit it: the topic sounds a bit, well, dry. A story you might be tempted to flip past, in line at the coffee shop, or scroll by, waiting for your drink at the bar. But slow down, have a seat, and take a sip: The folks at the Wing Luke Museum want to help you understand how place and community are shaped by the sharing of drinks.
What’s In Your Cup? Community-Brewed Culture, on view at the Wing through September 2018, is an unexpected pleasure—understated, thought-provoking, and somehow cozy. By focusing on the beverages we consume and the places we share them, the displays tell stories about Asian American and Pacific Islander community life that we can recognize as our own.
The exhibit begins with educational elements that have the feel of a school field trip, or an old kids’ show on public television. You can watch tea being harvested and processed, learn how sake is made, and meet “The Yeast Master”—Elysian Brewing Company’s Chris Murakami, a Pacific Northwest native of Japanese and German heritage. (A nice blend, if I do say so myself.)
Tea, coffee, beer, and sake form the primary focus, along with the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino American communities that originally defined the International District. Even so, there are references to the broader diversity of AA/PI Seattle, such as a Korean chest used for herbal medicine, a bowl for making Polynesian kava-kava, and presentations on Hawaiian Kona coffee and Burmese teashop culture.
A simple display with cans of Café du Monde coffee and condensed milk brings the underlying significance of the theme home. Without these items, writes Jintana Lityouvong in the accompanying text, “a Laotian American home isn’t complete.” Call it #RefugeeMagic: Flavors appropriated from French colonialism and Louisiana chicory coffee form a recipe for authentic nostalgia, the taste of homelands lost and found. As if there was nothing so bitter we couldn’t make it sweet, or let brew till what once made us choke has been reduced to a source of pleasure.
The museum approached the topic by gathering local experts into a community advisory committee. “These beverage business owners, workers and connoisseurs helped us brainstorm different approaches on the subject,” said Wing Luke exhibit director Michelle Kumata. Thus, an emphasis on commerce celebrates local small businesses: Jillu Zaveri’s Jaipur Avenue Chai, Lydia Lin’s Seattle Best Tea, RJ Dulay’s Pine Drop Coffee, and Shirafuji Sake, a 300-year-old family-run brewery from Japan that relocated to Puget Sound after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster.
Kalsada, a local coffee company, was inspired by cofounder Carmel Laurino’s discovery, as an undergraduate researcher at UW, that Philippine coffee was featured at Pike Place Market half a century before Starbucks. At the Wing, Kalsada is highlighted not just for its artisanal quality or entrepreneurial success, but for the critical awareness of capitalism that it provides. “Inequities in global coffee markets and their impacts on producers” are “difficult topics easily erased by the time a drink makes it to our cup,” committee advisory member Marites Mendoza explained.
The exhibit doesn’t shy away from controversial issues, like colonialism, or “Asian flush.” A video and digital family photo album recovers the lost history of Chinese American agricultural workers in the early Oregon hop industry. Fighting mob violence, forced deportation, and racist laws, they laid the foundation of today’s thriving PNW craft beer scene.
More than just educational, the installations are engaging and sometimes beautiful. Yuri Kinoshita’s gorgeous woven teahouse, Shinpu (Fresh Breeze), marks a transition between the opening room’s smaller, informative displays, and the immersive environments that follow, including a coffee shop, teahouses, and—this being the 21st century—a bubble tea joint.
I’ll confess it was only here that I finally understood what the exhibit was all about. We’re used to associating food with culture and identity—what’s on the family table, what came out of your grandmother’s kitchen. But community is larger than these private spaces, and the ties of blood and marriage that define them. It’s also something we make in public, while chatting and flirting and studying, or in the ritual consumption of caffeine that gets us through the day. In the places we drink, strangers become friends.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the final room: the bar. Decked out with artifacts from legendary local haunts, like the Sampan Room at Sam Yee’s Hong Kong Restaurant and Perry Ko’s South China Restaurant on Beacon Hill, this is Seattle AA/PI history with its hair down. There’s a jukebox from Cathay Post, and a carved wood panel from the beloved Bush Garden. Is there a karaoke machine? Of course there is a karaoke machine.
Whether you’re a lifelong Seattleite or a relative newcomer like me, lingering in this room will evoke powerful memories. Although I never got to sing karaoke with Uncle Bob Santos down the street, I can remember Jimmy Woo’s Jade Pagoda on Broadway, which my wife and a few old friends closed down on the night we got married. The funk wafting from their deep fryer would’ve put X’s in the eyes of those passive-aggressive new King County Food Safety emojis.
Strangely enough, on both of my visits to the Wing, a case from an adjoining exhibition had been wheeled into the bar in preparation for a private event. The case contained artifacts from Roger Shimomura’s collection of anti-Japanese World War II memorabilia. Nothing to do with beverages, yet it somehow felt right—like something your favorite uncle might show you, on the day you finally get to see that mysterious place where he spends time with his friends. The noise and the music, and the smell of liquor and smoke, lend an easy glamour that drains away any power those racist objects once had. And he laughs and goes quiet, as if to say, look what we survived. Look what we did with all that hate. We kept on distilling it till there was nothing left but our own nostalgia.
Leaving the bar, I thought I caught a whiff of the Jade Pagoda’s old fryer oil. I think that place is a pilates studio now.