Saturday, February 2, 2013

Douglas Chin, Author, Historian and Activist

Doug Chin is an author and historian and was an Activist in the 1970s. He ultimately became an urban planner, so he's a serious, accomplished man with a winning deadpan sense of humor. His family was one the very first Chinese-American families to settle in the Central Area.

Photo by Madeline Crowley

We didn’t have a whole lot (when I was little). We raided every fruit tree in the neighborhood getting those plums, apples, cherries, man, we’d eat so much fruit we wouldn’t even be hungry.


In the 1940s, when I was around 6 or 7 years old, we’d play kick the can down the road until sometimes midnight. We’d play in the street, me and my brothers and the white kids across the street, and the black kids from next door, we’d play together all the time. Especially summertime, we’d play mostly in the streets but sometimes we’d go to Leschi and stuff.  We didn’t have this elaborate playground equipment in the parks.

We used to make carts, soap box carts when we were about 8 years old, and we’d take our carts all the way to Lake Washington. We’d get wagon wheels and go down the hill. It was nice going down but it was a long way back up that hill. It was fun times.

My family lived on 19th & Fir for a couple of years sharing the house with another family. Then, my parents got a house on 17th between Jefferson and Alder and right across the street was a synagogue. In my early years there were a lot of synagogues in that area, four or five within a few blocks.

Doug & His twin brother Art. Collection: Doug Chin

When I was young I remember Jewish people walking to synagogue on Saturdays. Also, the Sisters of Providence would walk around the neighborhood in their habits so when they appeared everybody had to be polite. The Sisters lived over on 18th and Marion; that house still stands. They were the Sisters of Providence of Providence Hospital. They also taught the Chinese ladies English.

In those days, there was a lot of Jews in a predominantly white neighborhood with a sprinkling of African Americans and a sprinkling of Chinese. Then, after the war, the Japanese came back after internment and resettled in the area. I went to Horace Mann School on Cherry; it’s no longer an elementary school. When I went to elementary school it was pretty mixed, some Chinese, some Japanese, Jewish, white and some blacks.

As the years progressed more and more blacks moved in. The Central Area was in transition, when I was born it was predominantly white working class.  By the mid-forties it started to change; almost daily I’d see a white family moving out the neighborhood. And people of color were moving in. When I left to join the army in 1960; it was still pretty mixed but well over 50% Asians, lot of Japanese and African Americans. As it changed it became more and more black and Japanese.

Who were your friends when you were young?

Lot of my friends were African-American because they lived next door to me, and I played with some white kids and then Chinese kids because I went to school with them. When I went to the Washington School, I came to know a lot more Asian kids who came from Bailey-Gatzert, Colman and Leschi Schools. In high school, I used to hang around with all of the kids I knew growing up but my best friend was Japanese. He lived on 17th & Jackson. I still have friends that are Japanese, Chinese, and African-American. 

Doug, Art & their sister Priscilla. Collection: Doug Chin

When I was growing up everybody stayed right in the neighborhood; today kids have cars. Back then we either walked or took the bus. Most of the time we walked wherever we were going. It was a whole lot different, those days, man, we played in the street and walked around after dark and never even worried about it. But nowadays it’s a whole lot different because there are gangs. I mean we had gangs of kids but in those days, (the 1940s or 50s) or they might carry a knife.

How were the gangs organized? By friendship groups or ethnic groups?

There used to be one group of Japanese kids who were a gang. Also, there was an African-American groups that wore the same jackets, the Gaylords, they might have carried knives. Today they shoot each other. There wasn’t the violence then that occurs today.


It was a pretty interesting neighborhood. I was growing up and playing basketball; I was quick. If I’d gone to another school I would have made the team. I couldn’t make Garfield’s team because they were too good.

I might be small but I used to be athletic. I used to play ball all the time. The guys wanted to play sports like basketball, football and baseball. There were pick up games in the parks. Most of the guys playing sports were Japanese and African American, with some Chinese. They established a Boys Club on Spruce & 19th  in 1954, we used to hang out there all the time to play sports. You’d hang out there after school then go home and eat, then go back and play some more.

Sometimes we’d go steal stuff like Coca Cola from the plant on 14th between Spruce and Cherry. They used make Coke there, the trucks would be there, and we’d lift the fence up and crawl under and grab a whole case. Those bottles are heavy. We’d get the whole thing and then realize what the hell are we going to do with all this? We’d run down the street at nighttime. It was a fun time, those days. We had some good times.

We used to hang out at that Buddhist Temple on Main Street and play basketball inside. Every Saturday they’d show Samurai movies – for free. We were all there. Lots of people would go there, on Saturday nights that place was packed.

In the 50s, race relations were really good, especially if you played ball. There was a Sterns Grocery Store on 19th & Spruce and everybody used to go there to buy their meat. In those days there were a lot of small stores and the supermarkets were just starting to appear, so you’d go to the grocery store and then the bakery on 14th and Alder. We’d get bread and donuts and stuff. It was where the juvenile detention is now.  They had the best bread, everybody would go there to get bread. Wonderbread used to be there too on Jackson Street. It was pretty good. The area was definitely not like it is now.

The Jewish people moved (away) in the 1950s, they moved from Central Area to Mt. Baker and Seward Park (neighborhoods). I live in Seward Park now; I live near three synagogues.

After graduating from Garfield in 1960, I went to the Army and then moved to the Bay Area.

Naming the Central Area

We used to never call it the Central Area; if you asked me where I lived I’d say near Providence, or pretty close to Garfield. Everybody knew Providence Hospital. When I came back in in the 1970s from the Bay Area, they called it the ghetto and now they call it the Central Area. Since I had lived here in the 1940s, it was like, what are you talking about, man? The neighborhood kept being called different things.


A lot of things centered around Garfield, that was the big institution, everybody knew Garfield because it was good at sports. There was a music scene too, the big hit was Ron Holden, a national hit, “Love You So".  He wrote it in prison and when he got out he recorded it. His dad, Oscar and his brother, Dave, are famous musicians too. Jimi Hendrix went to school when I was there but I don’t remember that. My next door neighbor said, ‘Don’t you remember he used to come over to our house,’ but I don’t remember. I don’t remember the guy.

And the Japanese had this group, the Skyliners, they used to play here and Las Vegas. The former music instructor at Washington Junior High was the band leader. We had some other groups, Charles Woodbury, and they had a rock and roll scene. I never went but a lot of my black friends went to Birdland on Madison. Ray Charles used to play there. Madison was hopping, people were excited about going out to Birdland.

I have to say that in the mid-sixties my family actually moved, a lot of the Chinese and Japanese families moved because there was too much racial tension between the blacks and, well, everybody. They were really angry. People told me they were walking on 23rd Ave and they’d get rocks thrown at them. So it there a lot of racial tension and people moved out because of it. My impression was the non-blacks (white, Asian and Black Middle Class Flight) moved because of that in the 1960s.

The first Chinese-American family in the Central Area:

I need to give you some background. My great aunt’s husband and her family, the Dong Family, used to be the head of Chong Wa. This was the Chinese umbrella organization, consisting of Tongs and Family Associations

My great uncle, Mr. Dong, was also the head of a trading company and a curio shop on 2nd and Seneca. That land was later sold to Washington Mutual Bank. He was a big time merchant. He was one of the very first Chinese-Americans to move into the Central Area.

My mother was born in Norfolk VA but she went back to Guangdong Province in China. She came back to America in 1937, because my Dad was here. My father came in second decade of the 1900s, and he came to work as a houseboy for my great uncle Dong. He was able to come despite the Chinese Exclusion Act because he came as a student. The Act didn’t allow laborers so you had to be a student, merchant or a diplomat. Then, he went back to China so to come back to the US he had to come as a merchant for my granduncle’s business. My father worked at the Curio shop.

Later my Dad was a waiter. He saved money and probably inherited from my aunt when she died, so he opened a Chinese restaurant on Capitol Hill. We used to work there when I was in Junior High and High school in the mid 1950s. Sometimes my friends would come up there to eat.

What was your strongest impression of that time?

I just knew we weren’t living in Magnolia or Broadmoor but we thought, ‘it is what it is.’ We knew we weren’t well off. We weren’t impoverished or homeless. We didn’t have a whole lot of transients; they were in Pioneer Square. I didn’t ever feel that, ‘I wish we were somewhere else.’

My parents didn’t have a car so we walked everywhere. We heard about places like Laurelhurst, but it was like hearing about Hollywood. No one we knew went there or lived there. It was never thought of as, ‘Oh, it’s so dirty and there are vacant houses.’ You just accepted that there were a few houses that weren’t well maintained. It wasn’t so bad that houses were getting condemned. Some people took care of their yard, some people didn’t.

Did growing up in this neighborhood prepare you for going into the service?

 I think knowing people from different races helps only in the Army but in employment, you know how to relate to people. You’re not surprised if someone does this or that because you’ve seen other cultures; that’s a benefit. I worked in government most of my life, doing community relations, working with people with different backgrounds.

You seem comfortable with different people.

 It’s a big plus, because people if they don’t have that experience with others sometimes they respond defensively or they’re shocked. Anyway, living here was a pretty good experience. I wasn’t the best student; I didn’t get good grades like my brothers and sister. Socially, though, I had a great time. I did well. I had a pretty good childhood.

Is there anything you miss from the old neighborhood?

 Growing up here you learned appreciation for racial relations, civil rights and appreciation for different cultures. You also learned about how people from different income levels face different challenges. When I was a kid you went to the dentist only if your teeth were falling out, you only went to the Dr. when you were pretty damn sick. You realize (that people experience) different things because of the environment they lived in. It was a good experience, to see and live through different situations. Then, you compare that to the American Dream and you see what it is and what it can be. I say this, though; I don’t think the poverty that I lived around was as bad as it was in other areas in the US, like in the Appalachians, deep pockets ofpoverty and crime.

Did growing up in an economically diverse environment make you a better urban planner?

 Oh yeah, people knew that I was one of very few people who worked for the city who was from here; many people were from other cities. I knew the local neighborhoods better than most people in the department.

What do you think of how it’s changed?

 Physically, it’s better now. The houses are renovated and there’s new construction. It looks better nowadays, I hate to admit it, but it looks better than it did in the 1950s and 60s because then there was a lot of blight. With gentrification my perception is that a lot of African-Americans have moved out and some of Asians are moving back into the area as well as white folks moving down from Capitol Hill as the Central Area is more affordable.

[Doug was referred to this project by the OCA] 

©  Madeline Crowley People of the Central Area 2013   All material is covered by copyright. Express written permission must be given for any copyrighted material on this page. Email to request permission to copy or paste materials. 

This project was supported in part by
4Culture's Heritage Projects program

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About Me

Seattle, WA, United States
I am not a professional photographer nor a trained journalist. At community meetings, it became clear that many of us don’t know each other. We haven’t heard each other’s stories and don't know each other’s circumstances. This is my attempt to give a few people the chance to tell their story, to talk about our community, to say their piece in peace. As such, comments have been disabled. The views and opinions expressed here are those of each narrator and do not necessarily reflect the position of views of the CentralAreaComm.blogspot blog site itself. The is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by narrators of this project. All interviews have been edited and in places condensed.

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