On its last day of business, Viet-Wah supermarket was still catering to the Little Saigon community it anchored for decades.
Some shoppers arrived with flowers for June Huynh, who had helped keep the store running for its 40-year-plus history. Some came to stock up on jackfruit, papaya and noodles that might be hard to find elsewhere. And some made the trip just to pay homage to a store that had long offered them a sense of home.
Viet-Wah, at 12th Avenue South and South Jackson Street in Seattle’s Little Saigon neighborhood, within the Chinatown International District, closed its doors Friday. Its owners cited crime in the neighborhood, challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic and plans to redevelop the land for new apartment and retail space.
Founder and CEO Duc Tran started the supermarket in 1981 as a “mom and pop grocery store” that would help new refugees from Vietnam, China and other Asian countries get food from the homes they left behind.
“We were one of the first big Vietnamese businesses to open here, started by a refugee and founded in order to feed the refugee community,” said Leeching Tran, Duc Tran’s daughter and vice president of Viet-Wah. “Over the years, the needs of the community have changed and our customer base has changed a little, but it’s still so rooted in a desire to serve the community.”
Tran’s enterprise would outgrow its first building and move to a larger location, expand to a second store in Renton and broaden its selection. It started with a focus on China and Tran’s native Vietnam, before adding goods from Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, the Philippines and other Asian countries. Viet-Wah’s Renton location will remain open.
The site at 12th and Jackson is being considered for a mixed-use development that would include 450 apartments, two to three levels of parking and ground-floor retail. The proposed development would require the demolition of two commercial buildings on the block, including Viet-Wah’s, according to a February 2022 report discussing the property.
A certificate of approval is required before any demolition or building permits are issued, according to Susie Philipsen, a spokesperson for the city of Seattle. As of Friday, the certificate of approval for that location is incomplete.
In a meeting to discuss the future use of the property, the building’s owner, Dennis Chinn, said crime and homelessness, as well as rising land values and rents, had caused the business community to move away from the plaza and toward Rainier Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
Leeching Tran said Friday that a decline in neighborhood safety and the COVID-19 pandemic played a factor in the decision to close. The family had been discussing it for years, she said, and didn’t feel that the new development was forcing them out.
The loss of the store will mean fewer eyes on the streets in the neighborhood, said Quynh Pham, executive director of Friends of Little Saigon, an organization working to preserve the neighborhood’s cultural, economic and historic vitality.
“It’s mostly sad and frustrating to see businesses close so easily,” Pham said. “It’s external things we can’t control. It takes time [to find solutions] and many businesses can’t wait.”
Little Saigon, part of Seattle’s Chinatown International District, is often considered a social and cultural hub. In recent years, the neighborhood has faced an uptick in crime, from shattered storefront windows to shootings on street corners. Last November, two local restaurants discussed closing their doors because the area had started to feel unsafe.
With Viet-Wah’s closure, “we’re not only losing the business but we’re losing more and more community members,” Pham said.
Chunman Gissing, 65, has been coming to Viet-Wah since she moved to Seattle in the 1980s. After so many years, the supermarket represents a “sense of home.”
Watching it close down feels like a signal that the city is not doing enough to celebrate and support the contributions of immigrants, she said.
“Failing to do so is a loss to the city,” Gissing said, after stopping by on Viet-Wah’s last day to say goodbye. Viet-Wah was an “institution.”
“When you lose an institution, you lose the narrative and the story” of the people it helped bring together over the years, she said.
Duc Tran came to Seattle in 1976 as a refugee fleeing war-ravaged Vietnam. He learned English and began working as a translator, helping other refugees find apartments and jobs. He quickly saw another need that was going unmet: access to Vietnamese food.
He opened Viet-Wah five years later, hoping to bring “the tastes and flavors of Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine to the Asian American community of Seattle,” according to the company’s website.
The Tran family announced the closure a week before it shut its doors. On its Instagram page, customers filled the comments section with memories of growing up in the store and taking the ferry to get to Little Saigon because Viet-Wah was the only supermarket carrying Filipino and East Asian groceries.
Customers had been coming in to say goodbye all week, said Huynh, the store’s assistant manager. They brought her flowers and phoned to ask if they could come in on Saturday. Some had tears in their eyes, and seeing them cry prompted tears of her own.
On the final day, she said she felt a mixture of pride, busyness and exhaustion. “Everyone told me they need Viet-Wah to be here,” she said. “We’re very proud of our service.”
Alex Lew, 32, credits the store with helping him through the pandemic. Like many people, he turned to cooking while spending more time at home and would shop at Viet-Wah to find inspiration for new experiments. He would seek out ingredients he couldn’t track down elsewhere, like shrimp paste, kaya, a “really yummy” coconut jam that he likes to spread on toast, and specific types of soy sauce.
“The right type of soy sauce can make or break your dish,” he said.
He used to walk from Capitol Hill to shop at Viet-Wah. Without a car, he won’t be able to make the trip to the Renton store as often.
Watching Viet-Wah close feels like the community “is slowly being chipped away,” Lew said.
The Tran family isn’t writing off the idea of a new location in the neighborhood. In announcing its decision to close, the family wrote, “this isn’t goodbye.”
Most days, the staff at Viet-Wah performed a Buddhist ritual, offering flowers and food to gods at an altar set up to “watch over the store,” Leeching Tran said. On the store’s last day, they asked for a little extra help.