David Leong is an old school kung fu teacher. Getting a black belt from your studio in the Chinatown International District takes time – sometimes up to 20 years.
Training hard is a no-brainer. But this week, his students trained with an added sense of purpose. On Saturday, they will don costumes adorned with Chinese lion dancers at Hing Hay Park to kick off one of Seattle’s “welcome weeks” celebrating the city’s reopening.
Leong’s studio shook with the pounding of gongs and drums as his students performed a final rehearsal on Thursday night. It was just a small sign that things in Chinatown ID are slowly returning to normal.
After a year of struggling during the pandemic, Leong is eager to show how far his community has come.
“It’s going to be exciting, hope renewed,” Leong said. “This time a year ago everything looked so dark.”
As he did for much of Seattle, the pandemic caught Chinatown ID business owners off guard.
“All of a sudden, immediately, it went from [having a] queuing around the block to literally shut down, ”said I-Miun Liu, who ran several bars and cafes in the neighborhood. “There’s no one on the streets, it’s like a literal ghost town.”
Language barriers meant that the Chinatown ID community faced unique challenges. The city handed out brochures with information about the coronavirus, but many were only in English. Not everyone knew where to turn for information about new guidelines or restrictions.
The Chong Wa Benevolent Organization, a community organization in Chinatown ID, was responsible for translating the materials for non-English speakers.
Mei-Jui Lin, chairman of the group, said they felt compelled to take immediate action, although it was not a translation organization, as local governments and agencies were ill-prepared.
” We began to [voice concerns] to the city, ”Lin said. “You have to have different languages, not just Chinese. You must have Vietnamese and other languages because people don’t necessarily read English very well.
They were particularly concerned about the older people in the neighborhood, many of whom do not speak English and live in cramped quarters or shared rooms in apartment buildings. Frenzied effort gathered to translate information on COVID-19 and collect food and medicine so that the elderly can shelter in place.
“Everyone got together to determine what needed to be translated and what the needs of the elderly were,” said Sue-May Eng, Chong Wa’s secretary.
Meanwhile, businesses have suffered. Liu saw his sales drop and closed two of his three businesses in the area, a bar and a cafe. Leong had to close his kung fu school and bristled at the idea of teaching such physical discipline on Zoom.
“Initially, during the first month, I said ‘No, impossible,’” Leong said. “I don’t teach cameras, okay? I teach from person to person.
Leong eventually came back and restarted his online school. But other losses during the pandemic were more permanent. As the neighborhood collapsed, several fires hit Chinatown ID. the first damaged several businesses at the historic Eng Suey Family Plaza last June, and another fire destroyed more than a hundred paintings at the studio of calligrapher Zuolie Deng in April, King 5 News reported.
But the reopening of Seattle has brought optimism that business will rebound. Liu hopes to reopen his cafe this year and said he has seen an increase in foot traffic in Chinatown ID since the city reopened. Léong agrees.
“It’s good to see people feeling happy… to hear the noises of shopping and to see the barbecue ducks hanging from the windows,” Leong said.
Security concerns persist. Some business owners have complained about an increase in crime since the pandemic. Liu said he spent $ 5,000 to install a new door after his remaining business, a boba tea store, was robbed five times in recent months.
He said it was difficult for him to tell if the repeated break-ins were motivated by racing. Chinatown ID is no stranger to the violence against Asian Americans that emerged in many parts of the country earlier this year. Many still remember the moment Noriko Nasu, a Japanese teacher, was attacked by a passerby in Chinatown ID in February. After the attack, hundreds of people gathered in Hing Hay Park to speak out against the violence.
For now, the weekend celebrations will be an opportunity to move forward. The return of drums and gold-adorned lion heads to Hing Hay Park will be a milestone for the neighborhood and the Asian American community of Seattle who inhabit it.
“Most of this community kind of raised me,” said Nella Kwan, who lives in West Seattle but grew up in Chinatown ID. “There are so many people from all parts of Washington returning to Chinatown, where we think is our second home.”
Kwan returns to help liven up the weekend celebrations. Although she no longer lives in Chinatown ID, she said she still felt connected to the community and had an obligation to come back and help.
“[If we] don’t insist that it’s part of our culture… martial arts, lion dancing, they might just go away if we don’t keep them going, ”Kwan said.
Leong is excited, and not just because he’s finally back in his element teaching kung fu in person. He wants the weekend to send a triumphant message to the rest of Seattle.
“There is so much to offer,” Leong said. “We’re all anxious to let everyone know, ‘Hey, come back down. Were open. ‘”