Evoking the Postwar Seattle Chinatown of John Okada

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A slide from the presentation of Dr. Marie Rose Wong

THERE ARE STORES on King Street, which is one block to the south of Jackson Street. Over the stores are hotels housed in ugly structures of brick more black than red with age and neglect. The stores are cafes and open-faced groceries and taverns and dry goods shops, and then there are the stores with plate glass windows painted green or covered with sun faded drapes. Some bear names of exporting firms, others of laundries with a few bundles on dusty shelves. A few come closer to the truth by calling themselves society or club headquarters.

Emily Lawsin and Frank Abe.
Emily Lawsin and Frank Abe. Photo by Emily Lawsin

The opening paragraph of Chapter Four from No-No Boy as read by moderator Emily Porcincula Lawson set the tone for the third and final panel November 19 of the Seattle Public Library’s celebration of the John Okada Centennial. It was a reminder of how the sense of place in the novel is so strong that it becomes like another character.

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Shokichi Tokita, aka Shox. Photo by Emily Lawsin.

Our panelists brought both a warm personal connection to these places along with a scholarly one. Shox Tokita shared stories of growing up at the New Lucky Hotel owned and operated by his mother on South Weller Street, just a few doors down from the Pacific Hotel at 6th and Weller, which was managed by John Okada’s family upon their return to Seattle from confinement in Minidoka. Shox recalled he was most acquainted with John’s younger sister, Arlene. After helping mop the floors and learning light electrical and plumbing for maintenance, he would join friends heading to the Main Pool Hall on the ground floor of 507 South Main Street, the likely inspiration for the pool hall scene near the end of No-No Boy.

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Dolores Sibonga. Photo by Emily Lawin.

Former Seattle City Councilmember Dolores Sibonga — introduced by Emily as Madame Mayor — delivered a lyrical portrait of her teenage years among the Filipino community on King Street, with barber shops, meat markets, and taxi dance clubs, near where her family owned the Estigoy Cafe on Maynard and King. 

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Dr. Marie Rose Wong. Photo by Emily Lawsin.

Dr. Marie Rose Wong provided a container for the personal stories with her study of the history of single-occupancy residential hotels in Seattle and Chinatown. Pick up her book from Chin Music Press, Building Tradition: Pan-Asian Seattle and Life in the Residential Hotels to get the full story on why so many Chinatown hotels were left to decay in the 1970s (hint: it was due to a city ordinance). 

Connie Okada and Shox Tokita
Connie Okada with Shox Tokita.

We were honored at the panel to have the presence of John Okada’s youngest sister, Connie Okada, who was born in 1943 inside Minidoka when her brother had already relocated out of camp to Scottsbluff Junior College in Nebraska. Connie was a child at the Pacific Hotel near the Tokita family and grew up to become the art librarian at the University of Washington Suzzallo Library.  

A question from the audience. Photo by Emily Lawsin.

This had to be the most warmly received and best-attended of the three panels in this series. I want to thank Stesha Brandon, the Literature & Humanities Program Manager of The Seattle Public Library, for the invitation to serve as guest curator this fall. It was a unique opportunity to bring John Okada and his story to the city that he so lovingly memorialized in fiction. Here is the Seattle Channel’s video of the entire program:

This program would not have been possible without the support of Stesha and The Seattle Public Library, The Seattle Public Library Foundation, and the Gary and Connie Kunis Foundation. Thanks to all who joined in honoring the legacy of one of Seattle’s great native sons.

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