David Leong is an old-school kung fu teacher. Getting a black belt from his studio in Chinatown International District takes time — sometimes up to 20 years.
Training hard is a given. But this week, his students practiced with an extra sense of purpose. On Saturday, they will don the ornate costumes of Chinese lion dancers in Hing Hay Park to kick off one of Seattle’s “Welcome Back Weeks” celebrating the city’s reopening.
Leong’s studio shook with the pounding of gongs and drums as his students went through a final rehearsal Thursday evening. It was just a small sign that things in Chinatown ID are slowly returning to normal.
After a year of hardship during the pandemic, Leong is eager to show how far his community has come.
“It’s going to be exciting, the renewed hope,” Leong said. “This time a year ago, everything looked so dark.”
As it did for so much of Seattle, the pandemic blindsided business owners in Chinatown ID.
“All of a sudden, immediately, it went from [having a] line out the door around the block to, to literally shutting down,” said I-Miun Liu, who ran several bars and cafes in the district. “There’s like nobody in the streets, it’s like a literal ghost town.”
Language barriers meant the community in Chinatown ID faced unique challenges. The city distributed pamphlets with information about the coronavirus, but many were only in English. Not everyone knew where to turn to learn about new guidance or restrictions.
The Chong Wa Benevolent Organization, a community organization in Chinatown ID, took up the task of translating materials for non-English speakers.
Mei-Jui Lin, president of the group, said they felt compelled to take immediate action, despite not being a translation organization, because local governments and agencies were ill-prepared.
“We started to [voice concerns] to the city,” Lin said. “You need to have different languages, not only Chinese. You need to have Vietnamese and other languages because people don’t necessarily read English that well.”
They especially feared for the district’s elderly, many of whom don’t speak English and live in tight quarters or shared rooms in apartment buildings. A frantic effort came together to translate information on COVID-19 and collect food and medicine so the elderly could shelter in place.
“Everyone came together to figure out what needed to be translated and what needs the seniors had,” said Sue-May Eng, Chong Wa’s secretary.
Meanwhile, businesses suffered. Liu saw his sales plummet and closed two of his three businesses in the neighborhood, a bar and a coffee shop. Leong had to shut down his kung fu school and bristled at the idea of teaching such a physical discipline over Zoom.
“Initially, for the first month, I said ‘No, impossible,’” Leong said. “I don’t teach cameras, OK? I teach person-to-person.”
Leong eventually came around and restarted his school online. But other losses during the pandemic were more permanent. As the neighborhood buckled down, several fires struck 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 calligraphy artist Zuolie Deng in April, King 5 News reported.
But Seattle’s reopening has brought optimism that business will rebound. Liu hopes to reopen his café sometime this year and said he’s seen an increase in foot traffic in Chinatown ID since the city’s reopening. Leong agrees.
“It’s good to see people feeling happy … hearing the sounds of shopping and seeing the barbecue ducks hanging out the windows,” Leong said.
Concerns about safety still linger. Some business owners have complained about an uptick in crime since the pandemic. Liu said he spent $5,000 installing a new gate after his remaining business, a boba tea shop, was broken into five times in recent months.
He said it’s hard for him to say if the repeated break-ins were motivated by race. 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 when Noriko Nasu, a Japanese schoolteacher, was attacked by a passerby in Chinatown ID in February. After the attack, hundreds rallied in Hing Hay Park to decry the violence.
For now, the weekend’s celebrations will be an opportunity to look forward. The return of drums and gold-trimmed lion heads to Hing Hay Park will be a milestone for the neighborhood and the Asian American community across Seattle that call it home.
“Most of this community kind of brought me up,” said Nella Kwan, who lives in West Seattle but grew up in Chinatown ID. “There’s so many people from all parts of Washington that come back to Chinatown, where we think is our second home.”
Kwan is returning to help emcee the weekend’s celebrations. Though she doesn’t live in Chinatown ID anymore, she said she still feels connected to the community, and an obligation to come back and help.
“[If we] don’t stress that this is part of our culture … martial arts, the lion dancing, eventually it may die out if we don’t keep it up,” 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’s so much to offer,” Leong said. “We’re all anxious to let everybody know, ‘Hey, come back down. We’re open.'”