Seattle has many different neighborhoods with separate identities and cultures-none more unique than the International District. Home to a large Asian population and with them comes some unique shopping options and distinctive restaurants. No visit to Seattle is complete without a stop there.
Many of the first residents of Seattle were Asians who came to work in the logging industry. The Chinese settled in an area just outside of Pioneer Square and brought their own culture to Seattle. After the fire of 1890, Seattle began a major rebuilding phase and the original Chinatown moved further south to what is now called the International District.
Bordered on the east by 4th Avenue and Safeco and Qwest fields and I-5 on the west, the International District is home to not only Chinese but Thai, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Hawaiian and Japanese immigrants. The area has many buildings dating back to the 1900’s, shops and restaurants serving the Asian population, and a cultural history well worth exploring.
Begin a visit to the International District at one of the oldest buildings in the area-the Panama Hotel and Tea Room. Built in 1910, the Hotel has the only remaining Japanese bathhouse in the United States. Through the floor of the teahouse you can view the baths in the basement below and if you call ahead a tour may be arranged. Enjoy a wide variety of loose teas, coffees and pastries as you explore the many historic pictures that explain the district’s history.
Next walk across Main Street and visit the Danny Woo International District Community Garden. Community gardens, or p patches (Seattle-speak for community gardens), are very popular in Seattle and this one serves the residents of the International District. Climb to the top of the garden and you will reach the Kobe Terrace Park, which has Mt. Fuji cherry trees and a four ton, 200 year old stone lantern that was a gift from Seattle’s Sister City of Kobe, Japan.
The next stop is two blocks south at the Wing Luke Asian Museum. The museum does a wonderful job of explaining the contributions of the Asian populations of Seattle and gives a deeper understanding of the International District. Named for the first Asian to be elected to the Seattle City Council, the Wing Luke Asian Museum has photographs, artwork, artifacts, and interpretive information. One particularly moving exhibit is about the internment camps of World War II. Seattle Japanese Americans were among those imprisoned in these camps after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Walk south-west to 5th and Weller and enjoy the Uwajimaya Village. This is a huge Asian grocery store, gift shop, bookstore, and an Asian food court. Wander through the produce department and you will see unique vegetables that are staples of Asian diets. If you ever stir fry or use Asian sauces stock up as the variety available and the prices are incredible. And should you need a ten pound bag of rice, this is the place.
In the house wares area you can find rice cookers, tea sets, woks and anything else you might need to stock an Asian kitchen. If you know someone that is into Japanese animation, check out the bookstore as it has all the latest comic books and collectibles from Japan as well as books about Asia and in various Asian languages.
Checking out all that food probably made you hungry so walk over to the food court and take your pick from Chinese, Thai, Korean, Hawaiian, and Vietnamese booths. You can order entire meals or try one or two smaller items from the different vendors. Enjoy your meal at the communal tables with the other diners, many of whom are residents of the International District.
After you have refueled and relaxed it is time for a tour of the many shops up and down Jackson and King Street as well as their cross streets. If you are looking for gifts, stop in Kobo at Higo a 1930’s hardware store that has been converted into an art, crafts and, gift gallery. The original art work includes pottery, photography, paper art, and textiles and the exhibits are changed six times a year. There is also a display of the 1930’s glass cases from the hardware store filled with items that were sold at that time as well as photographs of the original store.
The shops are there to serve the residents of the Asian community and have items you would not generally find in western stores. There are shops that have herbal remedies, small Asian grocery stores, fresh produce stands, and stores with unique household items imported directly from Asia. At Yuan Sheng Hang you will find herbs, spices and Chinese medicines. Browse through the bins and jars and enjoy the smells and sights. Mon Hei Bakery has a variety of pastries, but ask what’s inside before you buy as bean curd can be quite a surprise when you were expecting something sweet. Eileen of China on 6th Street is a large warehouse of lacquered furniture, antiques, porcelain and carved jade.
When you are finished shopping and taking in the sights and sounds, walk up to 8th Street and stop in the House of Hong for dinner. The House of Hong is well known through out Seattle for their large dining room, traditional décor and, mostly, their Dim Sum; a variety of steamed, fried, and baked sweet and savory choices that are brought around to the tables on carts. Just point to what you want and enjoy. Dim Sum is great for family dining or a large group as everyone shares the food and the tea pot. You can fill up for ten to fifteen dollars per person and try a non stop selection of freshly prepared cuisine.
Seattle’s International District is an active Asian neighborhood that welcomes visitors. Feel free to wander the streets and enjoy a look into a community that has maintained its identity for over one hundred years.
What and Where:
Panama Hotel and Tea Room (607 Main St.; 206-223-9242)
Danny Woo International District Community Garden (Main St.)
Wing Luke Asian Museum (407 7th Av; 206-623-5124)
Uwajimaya (600 5th Ave S; 206-624-6248)
Kobo at Higo (602 Jackson St; 206-381-3000)
Yuan Sheng Hang (666 S Jackson St; 206-262-9766)
Mon Hei Bakery (669 King St; 206-624-4156)
Eileen of China (519 6th Av; 206-624-0816)
House of Hong (409 8th Av; 206-622-7997)
Marion L. Head is an educator and freelance writer who lives in Seattle, WA. Marion has published fiction in various anthologies and nonfiction on various websites. Marion is author of South Dakota: An Explorer’s Guide for Countryman Press.