The Wah Mee and the rich story of Seattle’s International District

A place intertwined in Chinatown’s past, present.

  • Friday, March 28, 2014 10:00am
  • News

The Wah Mee building has been a part of the Seattle landscape since 1909. Photo courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries Special Collections.

Last week’s issue of the Seattle Weekly, included a story by Ellis E. Conklin about the Wah Mee building, in Seattle’s International District, the site of a notorious crime where 13 people killed on Feb. 18, 1983. Built in 1909, the building, housed immigrants bent on striking gold or finding a new life in America. Later,  a notorious gambling parlor and nightclub was established in in its basement. It caught fire on Christmas Eve last year. Sometime soon, part of the building will be demolished. Plans are being made to save as much as possible of the rest of the 105-year old building.

In his story, Conklin talks to the people who live and work in the International District — referred to by locals by what they say is its real name — ‘Chinatown.’ Through personal conversations and extensive research, Conklin describes how district has been affected by the murders and the Christmas Eve fire and, what the neighborhood — both past and present — means to them.

Here are some excerpts from Conklin’s story:

The [Wah Mee] began as a boarding house, built in 1909 by three Scandinavian men, who named it the Nelson, Tagholm & Jensen Tenement. Later it became the Hudson Hotel, and soon after the Louisa Hotel: 120 rooms for Chinese, Japanese, and thousands of Filipino immigrants—“Alaskeros,” they were called—who would stay in Seattle before being dispatched by labor contractors to work in Alaska’s sardine and salmon canneries.

“People don’t think of the history and the beauty that was in this building,” muses Anita Woo. This was a special place. It meant so much to the early immigrants. It is a huge part of the history of Chinatown.”

The thrilling prospect of unearthing gold had already brought a wave of Chinese into the neighborhood in the late 1800s.

Says Rebecca Frestedt, the city’s historic-preservation coordinator for the Chinatown International District: “This building is not yet a landmark, but it is so much a part of the fabric of the larger historic district.”

As Roosevelt’s New Deal put a few dollars in people’s pockets, Jackson Street, which runs through the neighborhood, emerged as the hotbed of Seattle’s jazz scene. The Northwest Enterprise, a Seattle-based African-American newspaper, penned this about Jackson Street in the early 1930s: “[I]t attracts persons from all sections of the city and numerous migrants who are attracted by the bright lights and allurements. And there are allurements, if you know where to find them . . .”

Of all the gambling joints in Chinatown, none rivaled the Wah Mee Club in terms of sheer elegance. It was one sexy place in its time — and what a run it had. From its earliest years in the 1920s, when it was called the Blue Heaven, through the 1950s, the Wah Mee, secreted away in a spacious basement space in the Louisa Hotel, reeked of delightful decadence.

There was dancing, and boozing at its long, sumptuously curved bar; mah-jongg and pai gow, and stacks of silver dollars on gambling tables beneath dimly lit ornamental lanterns and rich deep carpets. Smoking Lucky Strikes, people of all races partied hard into the night, their waiters clad in white suits and black ties.

“The Wah Mee was host to some of the highest-stakes gambling in Seattle,” notes Todd Matthews, a local journalist who spent a decade researching and writing an e-book about the Wah Mee massacre, which he published in 2011. “Winners,” he wrote, “went home with tens of thousands of dollars after a single night of gambling.”

The place operated illegally, like at least 40 other illicit clubs in the Chinatown area, police estimate. Security was strict and required those entering to pass through a series of doors where private members were “buzzed” in through each door. The conspicuous gambling den was often raided, and in the early 1970s, the Wah Mee, whose English translation is “beautiful China,” fell on hard times—as did the rest of the former hotel.”

For the entire story go to www.seattleweekly.com.

 


In consideration of how we voice our opinions in the modern world, we’ve closed comments on our websites. We value the opinions of our readers and we encourage you to keep the conversation going.

Please feel free to share your story tips by emailing editor@mi-reporter.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.mi-reporter.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) We reserve the right to edit letters, but if you keep yours to 300 words or less, we won’t ask you to shorten it.

[flipp]

More in News

Auburn Mountain View Cemetery Manager Craig Hudson, center, confers with maintenance workers David Partridge, left, and Zach Hopper in March 2020. Sound Publishing file photo
State allows weddings, funerals, religious services to restart with restrictions

Gov. Inslee issues new rules during May 27 news conference.

State loosens cougar hunting restrictions

The regulations will impact 19 areas around the state.

American Medical Response (AMR) organized a parade of first responders to show appreciation for St. Elizabeth Hospital staff April 30. Photo by Ray Miller-Still/Sound Publishing
The complications of counting COVID deaths in Washington

State relies on results of tests and death certificates in calculating the daily toll of the disease.

Republicans file lawsuit over Inslee’s emergency: ‘Facts, and the science, are clear’

Lawsuit says state has violated Constitutional rights of citizens.

MISD hosts second ‘Fireside Chat’ webinar

School district staffers discuss mindfulness.

How to report unemployment fraud

The Snoqualmie Police Department and the Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD)… Continue reading

Among the candidates for Washington state governor in 2020: (Top row, L-R): Omari Tahir Garrett, Winston Wilkes, Thor Amundson, Cameron Vessey, Martin ‘Iceman’ Wheeler, Ryan Ryals; (middle row L-R): Liz Hallock, Goodspaceguy, Gov. Jay Inslee, Don Rivers, Gene Hart; (bottom row L-R): Phil Fortunato, Tim Eyman, Alex Tsimerman, Cairo D’Almeida, Cregan Newhouse, Raul Garcia.
GOP gubernatorial hopefuls aim to oust Inslee amid COVID-19

Former Bothell mayor Joshua Freed and initiative-pusher Tim Eyman could be the front-runners.

Nonprofit launches new online COVID-19 local resource hub for King County

Hub collects links for more than 300 local resources for people affected by virus.

Most Read