News and Culture in Seattle's Chinatown and International District
On Feb. 19, 1983, Washington state saw its most infamous massacre. Despite almost 30 years of recovery, the International District smarts every year when Feb. 19 reopens one of its deepest wounds: the Wah Mee Massacre.
While Seattle’s Chinatown was celebrating the Chinese New Year, Willie Mak, Benjamin Ng and Wai-Chiu “Tony” Ng entered the Wah Mee, a gambling club and former speakeasy, shortly before midnight. They tied up their 14 victims. After robbing each of them, the men shot and killed all but one. The injured victim escaped from the nylon cords binding him, ran for help and identified the perpetrators within hours of the incident.
Although all three men were eventually convicted, justice was not enough to curb the grief that crippled the community. Many of those killed were prominent figures within the International District and the deaths deeply affected the neighborhood. Because the community was, and still is, remarkably “tight-knit,” the vast majority of community members knew the victims or their families personally.
“My neighbor passed away in the massacre and I just remember him not being there anymore,” said Wing Luke Museum Community Programs Manager Vivian Chan, who was five or six years old at the time of the massacre.
Although almost thirty years stand between the tragedy and the Chinatown of today, the damage incurred by the haunting loss are still quite visible.
The doors of the former Wah Mee club loom grave and isolated in the heart of Maynard Alley South. Framing the deep-set doorway, dirty walls that were once covered in faded green paint and riddled by graffiti are now a regal purple. The chain-locked doors have been doused in the same shade, but the square windows have remained unchanged, making the entrance eerily recognizable.
The new paint serves as one of many attempts by developers and government officials to patch up Maynard Alley and invite people into a neighborhood afflicted by the memory of a horrific crime. The cleanup was commissioned by the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), according to Chan.
“People were not coming down here. Asians and non-Asians and tourists were not coming down here because [the massacre] was such a significant event,” Chan said.
Tours have attracted visitors to the neighborhood to both positive and negative effect. Following the massacre, the neighborhood began hosting Chinatown Discovery Tours that would show tourists and Seattleites alike that the massacre was an isolated incident and the district safe. Citywide historical tours, however, have been accused of “exploiting” the tragedy.
The owner of Liem’s Bird and Fish Shop in Maynard Alley has seen many tourists lingering outside the former club.
“[There are] always people on tours in the alley. People from Europe even,” he said.
Press coverage has also been questioned by many in the district.
According to the Seattle Times, the media “hounded” families at the victims’ funerals, which most found intrusive. In recent years, the convicts’ parole hearings set the press on a feeding frenzy as they called out to the families of those lost once more. Although Tony Ng was the third, and final, man to be denied parole, the overwhelming press coverage may have actually dampened the community’s sense of relief.
According to the Seattle Post Intelligencer, Linda Mar, daughter of two Wah Mee victims, did not return the publication’s call when the P.I. sought an interview for a 25-year anniversary story.
“I want this to be the last chapter…Twenty-three-and-a-half years is enough,” Mar said to the P.I. at Ng’s hearing.
For those new to the neighborhood, as well as the International District’s younger community, the doors in Maynard Alley have little meaning beyond their purple paint job.
“There’s always people being interviewed in front of the alley with news crews and the kids are like, ‘What’s going on there?’ I have to pull them aside and tell them what’s going on,” Chan said.
Such oblivion suggests that, as with all tragedies, the pain associated with Maynard Alley will dull as the aging generation it affected dwindles in numbers. Until that time has come, the primary hope amongst members of the Chinatown community is to keep the past behind them as Seattle approaches yet another Wah Mee anniversary.