A time traveler seeking a glimpse of the International District’s past could do no better than to take its measure through the eyes of its Asian-Pacific Islander storytellers.
A good place to begin a literary walking tour would be the Panama Hotel (605 1/2 S. Main St.). The historic local landmark figures prominently in Jamie Ford’s debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which takes place in 1940s Seattle. At the story’s beginning, the novel’s central protagonist, Henry Lee, sees a crowd outside the once boarded-up hotel.
The new owner has discovered the remnants of what once were the personal effects of Japanese-American families before they were forcibly removed to internment camps during World War II. That is where Ford begins the tale of Henry’s innocent love and friendship with Keiko Okabe, a young Japanese-American student at an all-white prep school.
Forty years after the end of the war, Henry, now a widower, searches the hotel’s basement for the Okabe family’s possessions and a long-lost object of priceless value, Keiko’s parasol. Many of her family’s belongings were stored in the old Panama Hotel.
Ford’s description of the hotel evokes a bygone era: “The old Seattle landmark was a place he’d visited twice in his lifetime. First when he was only twelve years old, way back in 1942 — ‘the war years’ he liked to call them.”
“Even then the old bachelor hotel had stood as a gateway between Seattle’s Chinatown and Nihonmachi, Japantown. Two outposts of an old-world conflict — where Chinese and Japanese immigrants rarely spoke to one another, while their American-born children often played kick the can in the streets.
“The hotel had been a perfect landmark. A perfect meeting place — where he once met the love of his life.”
A native of Seattle who grew up near the International District, Ford is the great-grandson of Min Chung, an immigrant from Kaiping, China, who eventually traveled to San Francisco in 1865, and became a miner in Nevada.
Another tale of postwar Seattle is John Okada’s No-No Boy, the story of Ichiro Yamada, a 25-year-old Japanese-American who has returned from an internment camp. Yamada spent two years in prison for refusing to serve in the U.S. armed services.
Okada describes Yamada’s first day back in the International District after years in the camp: “Being on Jackson Street with its familiar store fronts and taverns and restaurants, which were somehow different because the war had left its mark on them, was like trying to find one’s way out of a dream that seemed real most of the time but wasn’t real because it was still only a dream.”
“The war had wrought violent changes upon the people, and the people, in turn, working hard and living hard and earning a lot of money and spending it on whatever was available, had distorted the profile of Jackson Street.”
Okada’s story was one of the pioneering Asian-American novels that describes the Japanese-American experience during the World War II’s aftermath, particularly the struggles of the Nisei generation. Familiar locales such as the tower at Union Station are mentioned in the opening pages of his story.
Visitors to the International District in search of literary memorabilia can find Okada’s signature etched on the backstage wall at the Nippon Kan Theater hall. (It was the custom for performers to sign their names there.)
Carlos Bulosan's 1946 novel, America is in the Heart, which narrates the struggles of Filipino migrant workers in the United States during the Great Depression, takes place partially in Seattle and the International District. Often compared with The Grapes of Wrath, Bulosan’s book explores the volatile climate of racism of the period.
Allos, the main character, describes his first impressions of arriving in Seattle: “My first sight of the approaching land was an exhilarating experience. Everything seemed native to and promising to me,” he said.
“I had only twenty cents left, not even enough to take me to Chinatown where, I had been informed, a Filipino hotel and two restaurants were located. Fortunately, two oldtimers put me in a car with four others and took us to a hotel on King Street, the heart of Filipino life in Seattle. Across from our hotel a jazz band was playing noisily; it went on until dawn.”
Sightseers wandering into the lobby of the apartment building (506 Maynard Ave. S.) near Osami’s barbershop in the International District (314 Sixth Ave. S.) can see a small commemorative display about Bulosan’s legacy.
The Yesler housing project is the setting for Peter Bacho's first young adult novel, Leaving Yesler. In his story, Antonio Vicente, is a Filipino-American immigrant and former boxing great, whose son Bobby is haunted by his conversations with a dead brother.
In one passage, Bobby reflects on the daily rhythms of life in his neighborhood: “No matter how late they played, Sundays were always the same. Rain or shine, Dad, Mom, and the two boys would rise early and dress in their Sunday best. But their destination was never Saint James, the Catholic cathedral just six blocks away.”
“Instead, they would walk the other way toward Chinatown, less than a mile from their home. Dad would hand Mom a twenty and send her and the kids to eat — and he would eventually join them — but not before spending time with other nattily-dressed old Filipino men clustered near the entrances of the different restaurants, bars and dingy bachelor hotels many of them still called home.”
Bacho is the author of the American Book Award-winning novel, Cebu, and the Washington Governor’s Writers Award-winning short story collection, A Dark Blue Suit. Many of his stories take place in Seattle’s Central District.
Other Seattle API writers have employed familiar Seattle settings for their writings. In her 1952 autobiography, Nisei Daughter, Monica Sone tells of her Japanese-American immigrant family’s experiences before and during World War II, especially the hysteria leading up to the forcible removal of Japanese citizens following Pearl Harbor. Mr. and Mrs. Itoi, operate the Skid Road Hotel near the Seattle waterfront.
“Father sold his little shop and bought the Carrollton Hotel on Main Street and Occidental Avenue, just a stone’s throw from the bustling waterfront and the noisy railroad tracks. It was in fact on the very birth site of Seattle when the town began its boisterous growth with the arrival of pioneer Henry Yesler and his sawmill on the waterfront.”
“In its early days, the area south of Yesler Hill where we lived was called Skid Road because loggers used to grease the roads at intervals to help the ox teams pull the logs down the hills.”
Sone herself grew up in Japantown where her parents ran several hotels. The original cover photograph to Nisei Daughter shows the author and her sister sitting on the steps of the Carrollton Hotel, their father’s establishment in 1932.
In her first published book, Dim Sum: The Seattle ABC [American Born Chinese] Dream, Vera Ing describes growing up in Chinatown and the Central Area and raising a family in Mount Baker during the era of the Civil Rights movement in the sixties.
A community activist, Ing and her family lived in Chinatown and Beacon Hill before moving to the Mount Baker neighborhood in 1967. In Dim Sum, she writes about a turbulent period in when home loans were difficult to get for urban neighborhoods, and Seattle was simmering in racial tensions.
Cleveland High School is the backdrop for Ken Mochizuki’s 2003 coming-of-age novel, Beacon Hill Boys. The main characters, Dan and Brad Inagaki, are Japanese-American teens struggling with issues of race and identity at the fictitious Herbert Hoover High School.
For writers such as Alan Chong Lau, and those before him, the environs of Seattle’s International District and Central District have provided the canvas for their keenly-observed sketches of life in the Asian-Pacific Islander community.
In his 2000 book, Blues and Greens: A Produce Worker’s Journal, Lau, the International Examiner’s arts editor, penned his daily musings on the people who frequent Uwajimaya, Seattle’s premiere Asian grocery store. "Due to its location, Uwajimaya serves as a magnet for humanity, whether that means someone visiting from South Africa, Bellevue, or down the street, and crisscrosses all boundaries and economic classes," said Lau, who also works at the store. “Our store serves as a living room for the neighborhood, whether it’s the day-to-day customers looking for specials touching and prodding every item on the rack or people who come in on the weekend stocking up for their big Asian groceries list.”
Lau, a nationally renowned poet, wryly adds: “Mini-dramas do play out on this produce stage. I have watched the slow motion ballet of a shoplifter slide across the floor on the grease from the roast chicken he was shoplifting.”
“I have watched old women painstakingly pick individual long beans out of each bunch to make their choice bunch, or pull of the corn silk off each individual ear of corn and stuff it in their pockets to use for medicinal purposes,” he said.
“Why write about this place I work and the people that inhabit this space?” Lau asked rhetorically. “Because it needs to be documented, and because the poet needs to bear witness. Because if we don’t remember and take the time to jot it down, who will remember? Who will speak for the voices of these people who inhabit this universe? It’s that simple and that complex.”
This story originally appeared in the International Examiner and is reprinted with permission under a partnership with Crosscut. The International Examiner is a non-profit biweekly newspaper covering Asian Pacific American communities in the Northwest; information about donations and subscriptions is here.