May 12, 2021
Chinatowns worldwide are fascinating in their commonalities and uniqueness, but do you know how their development in the U.S. came about? Dr. Marie Rose Wong says there is more to it than most people think.
Wong is professor emerita at the Institute of Public Service at Seattle University, and also a planning practitioner. She is the board president of the Kong Yick Investment Company, one of the longest-standing corporations in Washington State, and serves on the board of InterIm, a community development association that focuses on affordable housing, social justice, and sustainability in Seattle's Chinatown-International District (C-ID).
She has published several articles and books on Asian-American settlements and urban planning and development. She sat down with Planning to talk about the research that informed two of those books, Sweet Cakes, Long Journey: The Chinatowns of Portland, Oregon (2004, 2011 reprint) and Building Tradition: Pan-Asian Seattle and Life in the Residential Hotels (2018), and how the effects of regulations and policies from earlier times linger today. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
PLANNING: Many people outside the Asian-American community assume Chinatowns were founded by Asian-American immigrants wanting to preserve their culture and be reminded of home. But, you point out in your books, that planning, policy, and urban development had a significant hand in shaping them. Can you tell us more?
WONG: Chinatown as "place" reflects a complex and intertwined history of both the economic opportunities that brought thousands of Chinese people to the U.S beginning in 1850 and a series of prejudicial regulations enacted at all levels of government. The passage of federal Chinese exclusion laws beginning in 1882 stopped the immigration of Chinese laborers and prohibited naturalization, while state laws prevented land ownership. Local governments also adopted a variety of policies that attempted to cordon off areas in which Chinese immigrants could live.
The locations of urban Chinatowns typically began as a single shop or node of stores that served a transient population of Chinese laborers who found employment outside city centers. Chinatowns became permanent neighborhoods as immigrants found employment and social support. Escalating discrimination and violence forced rural and small-town Chinese workers to seek safety in densely populated urban centers. Typically, Chinatowns developed in areas that were deemed undesirable because of unseemly neighboring land uses, such as dance halls, saloons, and gambling and sex-worker establishments. They were also frequently relegated to areas prone to environmental problems such as flooding or steep hillsides.
With varying degrees of success, city governments tried to adopt ordinances that would dictate specific areas where the Chinese would be allowed to live. Property ownership was inextricably linked to the right of naturalization, and an 1870 decision denied naturalization to Chinese under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, thereby also denying them property rights. State and local laws intervened to prevent property ownership to noncitizens based on race through the passage of Alien Land Laws in California, Washington, Oregon, and seven other states.
PLANNING: That fascinating history is laid out in your research and publications. Can you tell us how single room occupancy (SRO) hotels fit in? They are the focus of your 2018 book, Building Tradition: Pan-Asian Seattle and Life in the Residential Hotels.
WONG: The arrival and settlement of immigrant and transient laborer communities occurred in tandem with single room occupancy residential hotel construction as a unique American building type. As a mixed-use building, an SRO typically contained at-grade commercial storefronts and one to five floors of small, spare residential units with shared bathroom facilities and no kitchens. Primarily constructed between 1880 and 1930, SROs provided an affordably priced housing alternative in American central cities.
For Asian-American communities, SROs were the setting for cultural activity and the built expression of an immigrant population. They provided a home for transient workers who lived in the city and left for seasonal work in canneries, railroads, lumber industries, and farming, and they acted as social and economic centers for residents. The buildings also offered their Asian-American managers opportunities to raise their families in a safe place, while earning a living through hotel management.
Seattle's Chinese American community believed that the SRO building was a prototype that all American Chinatowns could emulate. By 1920, 10 SRO buildings in the heart of Seattle's Chinatown were owned by Chinese American licensed corporations, comprising 869 units of affordable housing. The Asian-American community controlled about half of the residential hotel housing in the city, accounting for 26 percent of the jobs held by the Japanese-American community. The predominately single and male Filipino-American population of Seattle's Manilatown supported the laboring population with storefront services such as barbershops, groceries, sundry shops, and restaurants. Seven of the C-ID hotels were homes to Filipino workers and laborers.
PLANNING: What happened to all that affordable housing? Is it still there?
WONG: With the passage of the Ozark Hotel Ordinance in 1970, which called for building owners to update the residential building and fire codes for SROs, many were shuttered. It was estimated at the time that new code requirements would cost the central city 1,000 units of low-income housing. At the final count, the ordinance led to 5,072 rooms of downtown hotel housing being lost, with 3,000 of those units in the C-ID neighborhood alone.
PLANNING: Given the ongoing nationwide affordable housing crisis, what lessons does Seattle's handling of SROs back then offer planners, city officials, and elected leaders nationwide today?
WONG: Seattle's current affordable housing crisis is one that can, in great part, be traced to the city's actions to update the codes for SROs in the early 1970s. While done with good intentions for safety and building security, the multiple dwelling housing code was implemented too quickly and without adequate research on the long-term consequences.
Seattle leaders forged ahead with new code requirements despite independent economic and social analyses that warned of a potential central city affordable housing crisis if the SRO building owners were forced to comply or close. No research was included on the loss of such units and the ramifications for the multicultural community of the C-ID, nor did the program include safeguards, mitigation measures, or financial assistance to building owners. That could have helped owners retain the SROs as affordable housing, but without that help, the SRO hotels rapidly closed, resulting in neglect, decay, or razing for higher and best use.
The high social cost to the city's urban poor resulted in permanent displacement that was directly associated with quick building and land use decisions; a problem that is unfortunately still being practiced by city officials and elected leaders.
With so much diversity in American cities, Seattle's case is a reminder that the cultural character of every neighborhood must be integral in community redevelopment analysis and action plans.