The candied fruit in the glass jars is real. So are the cuttlefish in cellophane packages, and the medicinal herbs behind the antique cash...
The candied fruit in the glass jars is real. So are the cuttlefish in cellophane packages, and the medicinal herbs behind the antique cash register.
Nearby, wooden steps creak with age. And upstairs, the stamped-tin ceiling of a meeting room bears the nicks and scars of nearly a century of wear.
The new Wing Luke Asian Museum, opening May 31, doesn’t just have artifacts — it is one.
Although it has moved just one block from its former home in a one-time garage, the 42-year-old museum has undergone a complete transformation, expanding to more than eight times its previous size.
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The centerpiece of the $23.2 million project is the building itself, the 1910-vintage East Kong Yick Building, financed by 170 Chinese immigrants who pooled their resources to establish a foothold and offer a place where new residents could find a room, a meal and social support.
Although museum-goers will be able to wander through a variety of galleries and exhibits, parts of the building will be seen only on guided tours.
On these “Historic Immersion Tours,” visitors will be transported back to the early 1900s, entering one-room apartments, a hotel manager’s office, an imported-foods shop, a communal kitchen and a family-association room where workers relaxed, gambled and paid homage to their ancestors at decorative altars.
With 50 rooms on each of its top two floors, the four-story building was the first American home for countless immigrant workers from China, Japan and the Philippines.
“You’ll be able to learn about the pioneers’ stories right in the actual living spaces, so it becomes much more tangible and alive,” said Cassie Chinn, the museum’s deputy director for program.
Imaginative multimedia presentations will help bring the exhibits to life.
In one room, visitors will hear excerpts from the diary of Toku Shimomura, who came as a Japanese “picture bride” in the 1920s, marrying a Japanese-born man she knew only through an exchange of photos.
In another room, computerized effects will add subtle movements to the facial expressions of “Alaskeros,” immigrants from the Philippines who’ll tell about being dispatched to jobs in the fish canneries of Alaska, where conditions were dismal until workers formed a union to force changes.
And in a third room, set up to depict a communal kitchen, a video projected from the ceiling onto a large metal wok will convey the sights of a meal being prepared. Visitors will see pig feet, shrimp and vegetables chopped into the wok, while an audio track adds the sizzle of food hitting hot oil.
Opening these areas only to guided tours, staffers say, will help protect the artifacts and prevent overcrowding of some of the tight spaces, such as the 11-by-13-foot residential hotel rooms.
The tours will comprise one of three important dimensions of the museum, rounded out by its contemporary exhibits and its role as a portal to the Chinatown International District, said Executive Director Beth Takekawa.
The museum’s namesake, Wing Luke, was elected to the Seattle City Council in 1962, becoming the first Asian American to hold elected office in the Northwest. Three years later, at 40, he died in the crash of a light plane in the Cascades.
The institution created in his honor bills itself as the nation’s only pan-Asian Pacific American museum, exploring the history, culture and contributions of many groups of people who, for a variety of reasons, crossed the Pacific to look for a new life.
The concept of “historic immersion” at a museum isn’t new. The best-known example in the U.S. is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York, open only to guided tours.
At the Wing Luke Asian Museum, it would have been simpler for contractors to gut the building and start anew, but that would have meant destroying irreplaceable links to the community’s past.
Perhaps the most tangible example is the stamped-tin ceiling in the top-floor family association room. Its fragile panels couldn’t have withstood being taken down and put back up, so the contractor, Marpac Construction, found a way to brace and protect it in place while a new roof was added immediately above it.
The tour’s first stop is a small store that may look familiar even to relatively recent Chinatown International District visitors. That’s because it’s a faithful re-creation of the Yick Fung Co., which “Uncle” Jimmy Mar, 93, operated a half-block away until earlier this year.
The store was opened in 1910 in the adjacent West Kong Yick Building by Mar’s father, Mar Fook Hing, one of the original investors in the two buildings.
Mar’s own memories of the store date back more than eight decades.
“When we were in middle school we used to come down here every Sunday about 3 o’clock in the morning and stoke up the oven,” Mar said. “We were the first ones to have a whole roast pig. We did two of them every Sunday.”
Most customers would purchase pork by the pound. “But if there was a wedding, or a birthday, they would order the whole pig from us.”
A video of Mar talking about the store will play during tours.
His family ran not just the store, but a taxi company and a barbershop, and also was the local agent for a steamship line that brought many immigrants from China. The family even helped arrange funerals, a service Mar continues part time.
The Yick Fung Co.’s primary customers were Chinese restaurants, some as far away as Idaho and Montana. The Mars imported soy sauce, vinegars, spices, chopsticks and many other staples from all over Asia.
But the rice? Mar lowers his voice, as if he’s sharing a secret: “That came from Texas. Long-grain Texas rice is the best.”
Mar was considering selling the store until Ron Chew, the Wing Luke’s director from 1991 until the end of last year, approached him about the store becoming part of the museum.
“So the family agreed,” Mar said. “Not only did we give them the store, we gave them the whole inventory, everything we had on the shelves.”
“It’s a contribution to the community,” he said. “And a way it can remain here forever.”
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or email@example.com