In the Asian community, everyone seems to know about the new library that will open today in the Chinatown International District. But the buzz isn't...

Share story

In the Asian community, everyone seems to know about the new library that will open today in the Chinatown International District.

But the buzz isn’t exactly what Seattle Public Library officials had in mind when they started constructing the 3,800-square-foot branch in November as part of a major library-system restoration that voters approved in 1998 with a $196.4 million bond measure.

Much of the talk has been over the name: the International District/Chinatown Branch library.

To many Chinese shopkeepers and long-time residents, a library that sits in a neighborhood that their forefathers built a century ago should be called the Chinatown Library. Adding International District in front of Chinatown diminishes the historic significance of Chinatown, many community leaders said.

“I think it’s a shame,” said May Wan, executive director of the Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the library name. “I wonder how many people will show up [at today’s opening] in the Chinese community. We lobbied for the bond. We went out and got the votes for the bond. And to have this happen is very disappointing.”

But other community leaders, especially those from other ethnic groups, disagree. The name “International District might not be sexy, but it’s inclusive” and better represents a diversified neighborhood that includes Vietnamese, Japanese, Filipinos and Koreans, said community leader Bob Santos, who is Filipino.

The controversy is the latest in a half-century feud over what one of the state’s oldest ethnic neighborhoods should be called.

Last fall, some Chinese community leaders, including former King County Council member Ruby Chow, lobbied the council to rename the downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel’s International District Station the Chinatown Station. In a compromise, council members approved the name International District/Chinatown Station, a decision that upset many Chinese merchants.

In August, the Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce spent nearly $6,000 in legal fees and lost an appeal with the city’s Office of Hearing Examiner to prevent the city from putting up “International District/Chinatown Community Center” signs at the new facility at 719 Eighth Ave. S.

City and county administrators who were involved in those naming decisions said they chose the International District designation first because there was no consensus in the Asian community and the name better reflects a diverse neighborhood.

Since the community center and the library are located in the same building, library administrators said they followed the International District/Chinatown designation to be consistent. Located at 713 Eighth Ave. S., the library, which has as many as 12,000 books and materials in six languages, opens at noon today.

The naming debate may seem trivial, but the Chinatown name resonates in Chinese communities because it has cultural and historical significance, especially in Seattle, home to 19,500 Chinese, one of the nation’s largest communities.

Many residents can trace their family roots back to Chinatown, Chinese community leaders said.

Seattle’s first Chinatown started during the 1860s when Chinese immigrants settled near the waterfront, later moving to South Washington Street, near Second Avenue. By the end of the 19th century, city expansion projects forced Chinese businesses to relocate to the Jackson Street area.

The area became a vibrant jazz scene when African Americans moved in during World War II. Up until the 1950s, Japanese and Filipinos also worked there, prompting Mayor William Devin to proclaim on July 23, 1951, that the neighborhood be called the “International Centre.”

The designation later evolved into “International District,” despite protests from the Chinese community. In 1998, the City Council passed an ordinance adopting a growth plan that called the area “Chinatown/International District.”

Other city officials, though, say the designation in that growth plan was never intended to be the neighborhood’s official name.

The fight to preserve the Chinatown name is led these days by Betty Lau, the chairwoman of Chong Wa Benevolent Association, a school in Chinatown that teaches Chinese language and culture.

“Chinatown is the heart and core of the Chinese community,” said Lau, who also teaches at Garfield High.

Chinese merchants also say the Chinatown designation is a good marketing tool and consider the International District name a misnomer.

“There are no Italians, no German businesses here,” said Tuck Eng, president of the Historic Chinatown Gate Foundation, a nonprofit that is raising $900,000 to build two welcoming gates in Chinatown.

These days, businesses are mostly segregated into three ethnic groups. The 12th Avenue and Jackson Street area is often referred to as “Little Saigon” because of the predominantly Vietnamese businesses. The area around King Street is considered Chinatown, although the most prominent store, Uwajimaya, is Japanese-American-owned. And Main Street is considered Japantown.

Many Chinese merchants prefer the three designations instead of the International District name. Their second preference would be Chinatown/International District, Lau said.

Sue Taoka, executive director of the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority, said she favors the International District name but is perplexed that the debate has consumed so many business owners and community leaders when there are several dilapidated buildings and crime problems.

She said there is a lot of work to be done in the neighborhood. “If we find ourselves battling over the name,” she said, “we are not going to get to the real issues.”

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or