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December 27, 2013 at 5:54 PM

Chinatown-ID building was far more than the site of Wah Mee massacre

I was driving out of Lam Seafood’s parking lot on Christmas Eve when I heard sirens and saw smoke rise above the Chinatown-International District skyline.

The next day, ABC News posted this headline from a wire report: “Seattle building that burned was site of massacre.”

Kind of creepy, I thought. Are the rumors true? That the building above Washington’s most deadly crime scene is haunted or cursed?

Shame on me for momentarily giving in to the lore. Long before 13 people were shot and killed in the property’s basement on Feb. 18, 1983, the three-story building was a gathering place for Seattle’s Chinese community. After the murders, the building’s owners locked the crime scene from public view and left it vacant. But small businesses have always occupied the ground floor retail spaces, giving generations of Asian immigrants a shot at the American Dream.

On Friday morning, I ventured down to the corner of Seventh Avenue South and South King Street to see the damage. Firefighters and police were still at the scene. The family that owns the Yuan Sheng Hang medicinal herb shop at the corner was removing as much as it could from the premises. They looked dazed. Workers at Sea Garden Seafood Restaurant carted out undamaged supplies. My colleagues and I had just dined there two weeks ago. Across the street, I met Rebecca Frestedt, a coordinator with the city’s Historic Preservation Program. She toured the building three years ago, and pointed up at the corner window on the third floor where she had once seen beautiful murals hand-painted by Chinese immigrants.

I’ve been driving through this section of town since I was a kid on my way to Little Saigon but I’d never thought much about this particular building’s history or the fact it remains home to eight businesses and offices, including Mon Hei, Chinatown’s first bakery, Liem’s Pet Shop on Maynard Alley (see this Seattle Times news story on the 34-year-old store), the Greater Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the Seattle Gospel Center Bookstore and Palace Gift Shop.

On the Seventh Street side of the building, I ran into the three Woo siblings and their mother, who were hurriedly removing their late father’s most prized possessions, artwork and many certificates from his old office at Pacific International Corporation.

Timothy Woo said his grandparents, once cooks and workers in Seattle’s laundromats, saved enough for the family to purchase the building about 50 years ago. While the ground floor has always housed businesses, the long-vacant upper floors once served as a hotel. It was a “safe zone” where new immigrants could stay, sometimes on the honor system that they would repay them later.

Woo’s sister, Teri, says the fire destroyed antique furniture and old fixtures that came from a shipwrecked boat. Turns out the murals Frestedt mentioned once lined the walls of a Chinese association that met regularly for meetings, performances and recreation.

“It’s a really big loss for us. The bakery and the pet shop pre-dated the massacre,” said Timothy Woo, who has been helping his family oversee the property. “People think of the past, but it’s the present that matters.”

He has no idea what happens next, but he hopes they can make something work for the current tenants. Fire, police, city, preservation and insurance officials will be involved from here on out.

Ron Chew, former head of the Wing Luke Asian Museum and now director of the International Community Health Services Foundation on Eighth Street, said the building’s history was momentarily overtaken by a single, horrific event.

“The building came into existence in the public mind when the Wah Mee massacre happened, but you know, the building is a lot more than that,” he said. “This is a wake-up call to the city that there’s a neighborhood that shouldn’t be forgotten, that really is very interesting and culturally rich. There’s a piece of our history here that’s very diverse. It’s fragile and it needs further investment.”

Before I left the scene, a fireman came up to two of the Woo sisters, Teri and Tanya, and asked them to call their brother.

They would need to buy a new lock to shut the Wah Mee Club. Again.

“The building shouldn’t be remembered for one night in 1983,” said Teri Woo. “It should be remembered for how it served the Chinese community.”

Did you ever eat a sweet bun from Mon Hei? Taste the fish steamed with scallions and ginger at Sea Garden? Gaze at the tropical fish tanks at Liem’s? Stay in the old Louisa Hotel before it shut down? Play a game of pool upstairs with the Chinese association? Share your personal experiences and memories of this building and its businesses in the Google Form below.

Remember, first and last names are required. Addresses and phone numbers are for verification purposes only and will not be publicly posted.

Comments | Topics: chinatown, fire, Seattle

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