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October 30, 2005

Seattle's International District: Then and Now by Harley Spiller

Seattle's International District: Then and Now

In May 2001, while walking in Seattle, Washington's Chinatown, more commonly called the "ID" or International District because of its pan-Asian and African-American communities, I passed a store selling imported Chinese provisions.  Once-new merchandise had long ago faded in the sun and turned antique.  I sidled past, but intricate, grapefruit-skin yellow shelving caught my eye.  In I went, through the heavy wood and glass doors, sounding a bell.  The nearer of two Chinese gentlemen watching television in folding lawn chairs in a back room rose, and started toward me, while I scanned the old wooden shelves partially full with canned goods, cleaning implements, clothing and a variety of imports. A homemade galvanized steel tea caddy with matching scoops proffered a dozen different loose teas; a metal rack displayed Asian flower and vegetable seeds; there were herbal medicines of every description, and lots more.

The shopkeeper and I met near an old pushbutton cash register and said hello. I spotted a Salem cigarettes advertising gimmick, a rubber mat that makes picking up coins easy.  He perked up when I said, "my father's advertising company manufactured this item in the 1950s."  Ice broken, we chatted about the change mat as well as newsstand weights, pocket protectors, clipboards and other advertising geegaws my parents had created.  It seemed ok to meander behind the counter, and I scoured the yellow shelves for treasures.  There were antique boxes of elastic striped suspenders with leather and brass trim, "patented and made only by The Ohio Suspender Company from Mansfield and genuine only when stamped Kady" in colors like lilac and baby blue.  There were cases of epicurean La Croix cigarette papers, international gold medal winners that claimed to be "the only genuine wheat straw cigarette paper.”   The fancy French papers were bound like small books -- thus terms such as "a book of papers" and "a book of matches."  There were even items made in New York, disposable wooden spoons that are too beautiful by today's standards to discard.  The  "serviceable, extra strong Ritespoons, the true shape of table silver” were made by the Oval Wood Dish Corporation of Tupper Lake, now part of the protected lumberlands of Adirondack State Park.

The proprietor gave me his card, which read James Malcolm Mar, Butterworth Funeral Homes, noting that he was also the mortician for Chinatown.  The family business, named Yick Fung Company, had begun on 705 South King Street in 1909, making theirs the oldest extant store in the ID.  Yick Fung catered to the Chinese immigrant by providing imported and locally procured Chinese foods and merchandise. Perhaps more importantly, such outposts of Chinese culture served as places where immigrants could gather, socialize, and sustain ties.

When asked about the function of a large basket and pulley on the second floor, Mr. Mar said they used to stock 10,000 pounds of winter melon annually to supply the Chinese community in the Pacific Northwest. I said, in pidgin Cantonese, "doong gwar" and was surprised he didn't respond. He explained, in remarkably hip and current English, that winter melons had long ago been stacked on upstairs shelves and brought down for customers by the basket and pulley system.  A few minutes later, still talking about the melons, he finally inquired, "You know doong gwar? How do you know that?"  I said I was a writer for Flavor and Fortune  and had long loved the brothy soup cooked inside winter melons.

I showed a batch of 1930s and 1940s menus from the Pacific Northwest to Mr. Mar, who recalled transactions with many of the restaurateurs.  He had sold goods to both Cathay Restaurant in Portland, Oregon and China Pheasant "one mile south of Boeing Airplane Plant" which served a surprisingly simple special, "sesame seeds, 20 cents."  Mar recalled the bustling nightlife at Seattle's Chung Wa Café nightclub in the mid 1900s, and there remain today several hand-painted signs on brick walls in the ID proclaiming things like "chop suey, chow mein and dancing until 3 am."  The Chung Wa menu is inscribed from "Gary to Miss Michaelson:  you are supposed to go down some evening with the boy friend and have dinner.  Tell Mr. or Mrs. Locke who you are." One wonders if Mr. Locke was a forerunner relative to the present Governor of Washington State, Gary Locke, the first Asian-American governor in the United States (Daniel Inouye was the first Polynesian senator,  from Hawaii).  Or perhaps the Lockes were related to George Locke, a landowner who originally leased the land for the only town in the USA exclusively planned and built by Chinese immigrants, Locke, California.

Mr. Mar led me upstairs, where most of the shelves were long empty.  Much of the material was donated to the Wing Luke Asian Museum  a fabulous small museum on nearby Seventh Avenue South.  He showed me long bamboo poles for drying bok choy, and tiny bamboo stakes which were used as plant supports. Still shelved, under a coat of fine dust, was a big clump of dried hay, wound tightly with more hay.  He broke open one end of the oblong packet and removed small soy sauce dishes in pale Celadon green.  They hadn't seen light or air in many decades and were lovely to look at, wonderful to turn in one's hand.  Not refined but rather lumpy, the small dishes are old, elegant and much different looking and feeling than today's porcelain output, and the hay packing material was a rudimentary and equally functional predecessor to today's bubble wrap.

Mr. Mar then pointed to the front window's elegant royal blue and genuine gold leaf sign, in English only, announcing that Yick Fung, as a natural extension of its import export business, was a steamship agent for the Blue Funnel Line.  After WW II, most Chinese men in the U.S., who had arrived in the late 19th and early 20th century (when exclusion laws prevented women) were around the age of 60.  Many wanted to die at home, and it was from this shop that they arranged passage back.  They travelled to Seattle from all parts of North America for Yick Fung's inexpensive ticket, which included a cot while they waited for the next ship. A chef toiled in a small upstairs kitchen, and the men had no reason to go outside the confines of their barracks before they headed to the docks for the long sail.  I said, "sad story" and Mar agreed, but was proud of the service his family had provided these lonely gentlemen.

Back downstairs, Mr. Mar sold me two pair of suspenders in their original box, with all packing and paper labels intact.  He recalled the store getting these suspenders around 1920 and charged only $3, which may well have been the price in the Roaring 20s.  I added the wooden spoons, 5 celadon bowls, and two packs of cigarette papers for a grand total of $5.  He said, "You're getting a real deal on original merchandise son," and I replied, "I know your price is more than fair and it's truly appreciated."  This hour-long visit to Yick Fung had been better than any museum tour:  a living, breathing oral history with dozens of objects and stories to savor for years to come.

Two days later, while headed back East, I stopped in to Yick Fung to say goodbye. The two men were in situ.  My new pal jumped up and said hello but it was lunchtime and he quickly went back to chopsticking.  My magic moment had come, and gone.

                 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

While in Seattle, be sure and snack at Mike's Noodlehouse, run by the tall, immaculate and gentlemanly Mike and his wife at 418 Maynard Avenue South, 206-389-7099, 9:30 AM - 8 PM, weekends until 9 PM. Their Sui Kau dumplings are all the rage among Asians in the know, overstuffed with seafood, pork, vegetable, fungus and more in a skin of perfect density, they can be savored boiled, in soup, or over noodles.  Squid balls, pork in hot spice sauce with vegetable, congees, liver and kidney with spicy dipping sauce, and plain boiled lettuce or bok choy with fermented bean curd sauce squeezed straight out of a catsup squirter are all, as one friend said, "really simple and really delicious."  The place was packed during all open hours and many of the menu offerings have been translated into Vietnamese -- Mike's pristine Hong Kong cuisine must make many Asian Seattleites pine for the homespun dishes of their native lands.

Also outstanding is the plebian looking Hing Loon Seafood Restaurant at 628 S. Weller St., one of the least expensive and best places to sample the local deep-sea specialty Dungeness Crab - try it with ginger and scallion.  Ask for an off-the-menu delight, one of the few true house specials in the world of Chinese restaurants, sizzling eggplant with fermented bean curd sauce, and perhaps round out your meal with Hing Loon's superb Satay Seafood Hotpot, and righteous Salt and Pepper Squid.  Szechuan Noodle Bowl is a nearby lunch nook justly popular for its noodles, pancakes, and dumplings.  It's worth the 20-minute wait for their best item, hand-rolled potstickers. 

Seattle, a port as richly diverse as Shanghai or Marseille or New York, has the cleanest waters of any major city in the world. It's also as physically close to Asia as one can get in the continental U.S.; as a result, Seattle markets boast rare and fragile items rarely seen on the Atlantic Coast. You can find fluorescent-red skinned Dragon Fruits from Thailand (their pure white center with tiny black seeds is not unlike kiwi in some respects) and Indonesian satay paste in dry blocks instead of the usual bottled format.  Small eateries like Phnom Penh Noodle House, 660 S. King, dot the city, proffering items like true Kampuchean noodle soup  -- they propose that the best noodle for soup is made purely of rice, never adulterated with wheat or egg or other ingredients. 

Rare and seasonal seafoods and vegetables can be procured at the renown Pike Place Market; the ID sports a truly super Japanese and pan-Asian mega-grocer, Uwajimaya; and Viet Hua and Binh Thang Vietnamese markets across from each other on South Jackson Street are fully-stocked. is a new Vietnamese soup luncheonette in Pioneer Square that packs in the hipster dotcom crowd, but the State of Washington's most reliably amazing Vietnamese food can be found at Saigon Bistro, 1032 South Jackson, which uses, for example, freshly ground turmeric root in their delightfully airy yet filling bean sprout pancakes.

Harley Spiller continues to add to his collection of Chinese menus, which now dates back to 1878.  He thanks Jayel Corporation, and also Robert Fisher, Mike Pin, Helene Sherlock, and Steve Klaus  for graciously sharing their Seattle expertise.


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