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Sunday, March 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large / Times staff columnist

Preserving buildings, stories of Seattle's Chinese pioneers

Sometimes a neighborhood is more than a place to live. Sometimes it is a monument to past lives, and a repository of emotions. The MP3 player where we store sights, sounds and smells that connect us to our roots.

Look at people's faces when they are talking about where they grew up and you know part of them is still there, in Ballard or Rainier Valley, the Central Area.

Ron Chew walks through the Chinatown International District and sees the restaurant where his father worked and the deteriorating buildings where his grandfather served as a dealer in gambling rooms when he wasn't canning fish.

I can almost see Chew as a young boy, buying candy at Yick Fung & Co. History is personal.

Chew is executive director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum in Seattle's Chinatown International District. One of his and the museum's goals is to preserve the neighborhood's connection to its history.

Last summer the museum bought one of the two historic Kong Yick buildings on South King Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues. In a few years, the museum itself will sit inside that piece of history.

"We hope it will be a catalyst for preserving and revitalizing this area," Chew says, "It's very important to the heart and soul of the community." You lose a part of your soul, he says, when progress means only tearing down the old and replacing it with something new.

Chinatown ID grew up around the two buildings, but they have been underused and in disrepair even as other parts of the area have modernized.

The Kong Yick buildings were constructed in 1910 by Chinese laborers who pooled their money to create a community for themselves. The museum bought the east Kong Yick building from descendants of the original 170 owners for $2 million.

Wing Luke is working to raise $25 million to remodel the building and open a much larger Wing Luke in part of it in 2007. It's an ambitious project that could turn a small regional museum into a national attraction and breathe new life into the core of Chinatown ID.

Chinese first came to this area in significant numbers in the mid-1800s, drawn by reports of gold in Oregon and Washington rivers.

Instead they found jobs digging coal, doing laundry, building railroads — labor of all kinds. As the number of Chinese immigrants grew, so did white animosity toward them. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act shut the door on nearly all Chinese immigration.

It was a different United States; less than 20 years had passed since the Civil War ended slavery. Irate whites sometimes referred to the Chinese as "Mongolian slaves" or other similar terms and claimed they were taking jobs from white men. In 1885 and 1886, white people evicted Chinese residents from Seattle and Tacoma, but they came back in spite of the hostility.

Kong Yick was an essential refuge. The large buildings housed businesses, places to stay, gambling rooms, and perhaps most important, family associations.

Because of Chinese traditions and U.S. legal restrictions, almost all of the early Chinese immigrants were men. These Chinese pioneers created a sense of family for themselves in the associations. People with the same or related surnames would create an association.

But it was a family of men. Like the camps that grew up around gold mining in mid-19th-century California, they were rough around the edges.

Often the associations were known for their gambling rooms, which gave men deprived of family, companionship and something to do.

And like the gold-mining camps that turned into real towns once enough women arrived, Chinatown ID was tamed when Chinese women began coming to the United States in significant numbers after immigration restrictions were lifted in the 1960s.

Wives were the beginning of the end for most of the societies, Chew says. "The wives would say, 'What are you doing gambling? You need to come home' "

And family life was the beginning of a transformation from Chinese to American. From life hemmed into Chinatown ID to tending lawns in the suburbs.

But people remember grandfather and grandmother. A person may be thoroughly American but still yearn to hold onto a bit of what his immigrant ancestors brought with them. To be an American, but also a Chinese American, or a Norwegian American, or an Irish American.

Chew says the Kong Yick buildings may be the most significant piece of Chinese history on the West Coast but that the urgency of the project is not about the buildings. It's "more about the people who are vanishing."

It is about preserving their stories and allowing people now and in the future to see something of their world and the roles they played in constructing our world. It is a benefit to the whole community.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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