See Seattle's International District through the lens of Jamie Ford's novel

Staff WriterSeptember 21, 2012 

Maybe you already know about the Panama Hotel, about the old apartments in Canton Alley or the Mon Hei Bakery. But if you only know Seattle’s International District as a great place for dim sum or late-night mu shu pork, it’s time to delve deeper.

As readers of Jamie Ford’s recent best-selling novel “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” know, there are many secrets in the past and present of Seattle’s Asian district, and you can discover them by exploring the district – and the book’s own setting – through local eyes.


To really get to the heart of what has shaped the International District (you won’t hear it called Chinatown because it reflects such a mix of the different, mainly Asian, immigrants who moved to the area), you need to start at the Wing. That’s the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, a piece of living history in a 100-year-old immigrant hotel building on King Street that captures both the Asian-influenced past and the subtle complexity of the Asian-American-influenced present.

Entering the Wing is like walking into a stylish website. A dozen little spots grab your attention from the lobby – an overhead ceramic chandelier sculpture with little welcoming bells you can activate; photo histories of both the district and Wing Chong Luke, the peaceable Chinese-American politician who inspired the museum; the origami- and book-filled gift shop; a moving mini-exhibit on suicide among Asian-Pacific American girls and women today. Through one gallery door is a runway-style exhibit on Asian influences in fashion, from the dressy Luly Yang to fusion success story Josie Natori, along with fascinating mock-studios and garment factory rooms. In the presentation theater is a beautiful historic scrim used in the Nippon Kan Theater, painted with ornate advertisements for local Asian businesses.

Upstairs, history mingles with art installations. As you walk up the wide-beamed wooden stairs – the Wing was created from a hotel built in 1910 for immigrants from Asia, and has retained the gorgeous old-growth lumber walls – you enter a lightwell filled with hanging folded papers. Come closer, and you’ll hear recordings of letters between those early immigrants and the families they left behind, symbolized by the papers.

The portrait of immigration is filled out in the galleries upstairs: artifacts from World War II Japanese internment camps, multimedia displays of life in early 20th-century Seattle, and five groups – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Filipino – tell how life was and is now through quotes and photographs.

But it’s on the very top floor, accessible only through a museum tour, that you really come face-to-face with the dreams of those early Asian Seattlites who spent their life savings on steamer journeys to the United States in hopes of a better life. Behind a fire door plated with flattened tin cans, lie rooms rented to new arrivals for about 25 cents a week. Bare and not much bigger than the iron frame beds inside, they’re kept in original condition with gas and wood stoves, World War II artifacts, gray wool blankets and a sense of hard work and hope that’s almost tangible. A large room used by the Gee How Oak Tin Chinese family association sports a pressed tin ceiling and embroidered table runner; next door are rooms with vintage ivory Mahjongg pieces and betting tables.

It’s worth getting a tour for this, and for the stories that come with it: how Dr. Sun Yat-Sen – the Chinese revolutionary who became the first president of the Republic of China – once spoke in the pressed-tin room; how the gamblers had a secret warning system for police raids; how the kitchen was shared and families helped each other out.

The museum tour (included in admission) also takes you next door to the musty, spicy-smelling Yick Fung Co. One of the first Chinese groceries in town, the store was given to the Wing by the beloved, recently deceased owner, Jimmy Mar. It is a wonderland of enormous jars, packets, brown wrapping paper, baskets, dried ginger and plums, medicine, tinned lychees and – look way up – industrial-size woks.


The International District isn’t very big – just a few blocks between Fifth and Eighth avenues and Weller and King streets. Walk around it yourself in the middle of a weekday and it’s easy just to focus on the bento lunch cafes, the slightly dilapidated feel. But behind almost every doorway is a story, and taking a walking tour is a great way to hear some of them.

The Wing Luke museum runs four such tours under the name of Chinatown Discovery Tours, gifted to them by founder Vi Mar a few years ago to help promote the district. Some focus on local buildings and history, others on the food and shopping – but it’s the recently created “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” tour that’s attracted huge interest.

“It’s brought a lot of visitors to the museum,” says director Beth Takekawa, “especially book clubs. It’s been tremendous.”

Vetted by author Ford (who’s a Wing board member), the tour covers many of the actual sites mentioned in the novel, a love story between a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl during the World War II internment, which was inspired by Ford’s family and the International District itself. First up is Canton Alley, which runs beside the Wing and housed many early immigrants from China. The alley’s a shadow of its former bustling self, as photographs show: Only one apartment is still inhabited and one business (selling lanterns, karate cards and other Chinese tchotchkes) still in operation. But at number 6, the tour guide will let you into another private part of the Wing: The apartment Ford gave to the fictional family of Henry Lee. The window has a shelf for displaying Henry’s parents’ trades, the kitchen is windowless and opens onto a tiny bathroom; upstairs bedrooms are surprisingly big and airy, with a desk by the window where Henry did his homework for the school where he was bullied as the only nonwhite kid.

Back on the streets, the tour wanders past the Mon Hei Bakery on King Street, where the older Henry took his wife, Ethel; past Henry’s father’s family association building with an elaborate red balcony; past the Chong Wa Benevolent Association with its bamboo portico columns and red pagoda gables where Henry’s father was a member; past the buildings on Seventh Avenue and Jackson Street, site of the black jazz clubs of the 1940s; the peaceful Hing Hay Park where the older Henry would sit with bubble tea in the mornings (look out for the dragon mural, representing different Asian American trades); the steep regrade hill which Henry shot down on a toy wagon; and of course the famous Panama Hotel on Main Street, one of the few original sites left in the former Japantown and the book’s namesake, where interred Japanese Americans stored their belongings.

You’ll hear nonbook stories too, of course: How the Bing Kung Association on King Street disguised its meeting place from the local police by slapping a stucco Masonic symbol on the front; how Bruce Lee used to practice in the Lee family building farther up the hill; how the Goon-Dip Young building was built by a young Chinese immigrant, helped out by a local white family. You’ll also see, if you ask, the unobtrusive purple building in Maynard Alley where 13 people were shot dead in the 1983 Wa Mei massacre, Washington’s deadliest.

If you haven’t time or funds for a tour, you can do it yourself with one of the Bitter and Sweet maps at the Wing front desk. And of course, keep an eye out for the district’s icons: the Chinagate on Fifth Avenue, with a phoenix, dragon and 5,000 tiles on the roof; and all the dragons twined playfully around utility poles.


After all of the history and literature, though, the third thing you’ll want to do in the International District is shop and eat. Chinatowns around the world are known for delicious food and cool shopping, and Seattle is no exception, though it helps to know some tips.

For a good overall retail experience in the Asian district, you shouldn’t miss Uwajimaya, the cornerstone of the modern International District, where browsing through shoji screens and bento lunchboxes is just as enthralling as choosing noodles or watching the lobsters and crabs await their doom. The food court isn’t upmarket, but it’s cheap and quick, and one of the highlights has got to be pancakes with Japanese bean paste filling.

Up the other end on Jackson Street are the supreme style duo of Momo (selling Japanese-inspired fashion) and Kobo at Higo (selling classy Euro-fusion homewares). Gawk at ninja swords at the Seattle Martial Arts Supply and admire the brush paintings at Deng’s Studio and Art Gallery, both on King Street, and make your way past the Wing to the Tsue Chong fortune cookie and noodle factory at Eighth and Weller, inspiration for the Yong Kick factory in “Bitter and Sweet” and home to bags of delicious fortune cookies — in flavors that include lemon and mocha — plus bags of “unfortunate” reject cookies and fresh udon noodles.

There’s a wealth of lunch and dinner choices in the district, from sushi and bento to traditional Chinese dim sum and Vietnamese bakeries with taro, coconut or pork puffs. There are newer places such as House of Hon on Eighth Avenue, where Henry’s son Marty eats in the novel, or older ones such as Maneki on Sixth Avenue, which was Seattle’s first sushi bar and is one of the businesses advertised on the Wing’s theater scrim, still going after 100 years. You can even rent a tatami room for dinner, as Seattle’s prominent Japanese families would have done all those years ago.

Whether you’ve read “Bitter and Sweet” or not, you’ll discover a hidden world in the International District.

“There’s such a rich history,” says Wing tour guide Virgil Paule. “The buildings look so old and decrepit, but there’s a story behind each one.”


If you loved Jamie Ford’s “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” you won’t just want to tour the book’s locations in Seattle’s International District – you’ll want to see Henry, Keiko and the other characters come to life. Now you can.

Book-It Repertory Theatre, which brings literature onto the stage, is mounting a new production of the novel, vetted by the author and running at Seattle’s Center Theatre through late October.

A multi-ethnic cast plays out the story of Chinese American boy Henry, who meets and eventually falls in love with Japanese American girl Keiko, only to lose her as she and her family are sent to the internment camp at Minidoka, Idaho. Told from the memory and contemporary viewpoint of a young and old Henry, the award-winning book was a New York Times best-seller, and the choice for this year’s Pierce County Reads program. Annie Lareau adapts and directs, supported by author Jamie Ford; Carey Wong handles the set.

Book-It has tried to keep its production closely aligned with the novel; cast members took the Wing Luke Museum’s official “Bitter and Sweet” tour, and the first rehearsal was held in the historic Panama Hotel, namesake for the book and key to its plot development.

“There is so much to learn from this period,” said Lareau in a news release, “and we are proud to play a small part in remembering and healing.”


When: Opens at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, then showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 28.

Where: Center Theatre at the Armory (Seattle Center), 305 Harrison St., Seattle

Tickets: $24-$37.

Information: 206-216-0833,


What: Take a tour of the spots in Jamie Ford’s novel “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” and visit the Wing Luke Asian Museum.

Where: 719 S. King St., Seattle

When: Tours run at 1 p.m. Saturdays, but contact the museum for other possible times. The museum is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. first Thursdays and third Saturdays

Museum admission: $12.95 adults; $9.95 seniors and students; $8.95 children; free for those younger than 5 and first Thursdays of the month

Tour prices: $17.95 adults; $15.95 seniors; $12.95 students; $10.95 ages 5-12; free for those younger than 5

Information: 206-623-5124,

rosemary.ponnekanti@ 253-597-8568

The Olympian is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service