Thursday, December 10, 2015

Maxine Loo. Retired English and ESL Teacher. Seattle Public Schools.

Maxine Loo taught ESL (English as a Second Language) largely in Central Area schools serving English Language Learners. She also shares her childhood, her experiences at Washington Junior High and Garfield High. She also conducts tours for the Wing Luke Museum. 

Maxine Loo. Photo: Madeline Crowley©

Where were you born?

I was born in Seattle. Actually, I was born at Virginia Mason Hospital, years ago, while my brothers were born at Swedish (Hospital). I was the only one born at Virginia Mason.

Where was your first home?

We grew up in Chinatown. My Dad had a store, sold live chickens, poultry fresh eggs and chickens right in Chinatown, both he and my uncle.

It was a very different neighborhood back then, can you explain what it was like to be a small child then?

Well, shortly after World War II ended, some of the Japanese were returning. I remember when I was just about two years old the Japanese were being taken to Internment camp. Chinese families were given these (government issue) buttons and if we went downtown we had to wear these buttons. They had to be visible, they said, I am Chinese. The Japanese could not go downtown. If you were Asian and went downtown people could see the buttons and know you were Chinese not Japanese. I remember wearing that button and going into town (meaning 'downtown'). When we came back from town Mom and Dad were very diligent about collecting the buttons and putting them in a safe place. We could not play with the buttons; they were not toys.

After the war ended then no one paid much attention to those buttons and so we were allowed to play with them. Eventually, they were lost or discarded. Today, if anyone has one of those buttons, they’re collector’s items and worth a lot (of money).

I remember that Jackson Street was the dividing line. Everything south of Jackson is Chinatown, is Chinese territory. The Chinese businesses were south of Chinatown, the restaurants and all that.

Everything north of Jackson was Japanese also called Nihonmachi, in Japanese that means ‘Japantown.’ North of Jackson Street you had hotels, barbershops, restaurants and the Panama Hotel; it still exists today. Also, you still have the Osami Barbershop, that’s still there. There used to be Higo’s Dime Store right on Jackson Street, run by a brother and two sisters. I met all three of them. The brother was behind the scenes, the business manager. We didn’t see him much in the shop. I remember there two sisters who were always there running the shop. My mother and I would go there if we needed to buy buttons or something like that. It was a true dime store. The only other option was to go downtown to Woolworths or Kress on Jackson Street. The two sisters were really nice, one was really sociable and would come and just chat with you, ‘oh, hello how are you? What’s happening?’ She thought nothing of spending twenty minutes talking to you. The other sister was (laughs) the opposite, ‘let’s get down to business. We have work to do.’ (laughs) They were just very different.

Back then, near Maynard Avenue there were some Filipino business establishments: barbers, there was the famous Manila Café, people would go there and have a cup of coffee and snacks. All those businesses, of course, have disappeared. There’s one business that’s still there from the old days, that’s the Tai Tung Restaurant right on King Street. It’s an old establishment that still is going to this day.

Now, was your family (business) on Canton Alley?

It was on Maynard Alley near the Tai Tung Restaurant. Next door to Tai Tung was my Dad and Uncle’s poultry business, Quong Wah Company, and next door to us was a grocery store, Wa Sang. The lady that ran it, we all called her Auntie Florence. She’s passed but her son and her granddaughter are is still there. It’s not a grocery store now, it’s an herb store.

Did families generally live above their stores?

There’s a door next to Tai Tung, it was a hotel, it’s called the Rex Hotel as it was back in the day. There were families of people living upstairs. I don’t remember too much about it except that once my dad brought me and my brother upstairs to visit one of my Dad’s friends, but that’s all I remember about that.

You also mentioned that in the basements there were some very lively casinos…

When you go to Maynard Alley that’s where the nightclubs, casinos were. In the old days, you had lots of nightclubs, that was very common.  I do remember from our house half a block away there was a nightclub. It was called the Black & Tan. Nightclubs were very big in those days.

The Wing Luke Museum has a tour based on Jamie Ford’s book The Hotel on Bitter and Sweet where they take you into the alley and then into the apartment where Henry, one of the main characters lived. They then walk over into Japantown to the Panama Hotel where Keiko (another main character) lived. Are you familiar with Jamie Fords’ books?

Yes, The Hotel on Bitter and Sweet  is wonderful.

The second book Songs of Willow and Frost (the main character) was a nightclub singer. Wing Luke does a Willow Frost tour and they point out where the nightclubs all were. Have you gone on those two tours?

Not yet!

Well, take those two tours!  Then you’ll get to see and hear about Chinatown, Japantown and the old days.

Right up King Street on 12th. We moved there when I was three years old. I grew up there. Before that we lived in an apartment just two blocks away.

We weren’t allowed out at night, we could play outside during the summer but when the streetlights came on, you’d had to be at home. We didn’t have watches, so that’s how we would tell time. We never ventured far from the neighborhood; we were always within a two block radius of our home. My friend lived a block and a half away and we’d play at her place or at my place or down the block and who lived at the end of the block with the friend who lived at the end of the block.

 Detail 12th & King Loo House doorway. Photo: Madeline Crowley
What games did you play?

We’d roller skate. There was no TV back then. (laughs) We’d play games like Kick the Can, and things like that when we were in elementary. When we got into high school it was the weekly football games and the weekly basketball games or the movies now and then.

So what elementary school did you go to?

Bailey Gatzert it’s now in a different location, back then it was where the Indian Heritage Center is now. Bailey Gatzert moved to the new location on Yesler (Way).

Did your family have any religious practice?

My Mom did more so than my Dad. My dad was sponsored by a Catholic group when he came to this country.  He didn’t follow any particular religion. He was brought up as a Buddhist, a Taoist and a Confucianist; all three of those Chinese religions. My Mom was also brought up that way. One day some nuns stopped by our place and talked to her. The nuns wanted to take me to church nearby and they would escort me to it. My Mom thought that was fine and so I got that upbringing as well.

Were they the sisters up near Providence?

Doug Chin mentioned them too.

Ok! What did he say?

When they were playing and the nuns walked past, they’d kind of hide, because when the nuns came through you’d try to be good until they got out of earshot.

They ran my Girl Scout Troop, Troop 181, it was run by the Maryknoll sisters. I think I took the bus up there and walked across to 16th and Cherry. I can’t recall. I would have been 10 and 11 and 12. I remember I really liked the Girls Scouts.

Did you continue to go to the Catholic Church?

No, I went there for the Girl Scouts and that was it.

I remember that my classmates sort of ousted me because there was a Chinese Girl Scout troop run by the Chinese Baptist Church. It was all Chinese girls and there was pressure for me to join. They invited me to join. I declined and instead joined the Maryknoll (Girl Scouts). So, I was seen as a traitor but…

Do you remember why?

I remember why I joined, it had nothing to do with Catholicism, take my word…

Did it have to do with snacks?

They did give good snacks, very good. I don’t know if the Chinese Girl Scouts had snacks.  I joined them because it was a mixed group, very mixed. That’s what drew me to them. My Girl Scout troop had two girls who were Japanese; they were sisters. There was a Filipino girl and there’s a black girl and a couple of whites too. It was just very diverse and that’s what’s attracted me.

Now, when you were growing up was there still a pretty big Jewish population in the Central Area?

I’m sure but I didn’t even know what Judaism was until Junior High. I heard the word here and there but I just didn’t focus on it.

How old where you (when you first learned about Judaism?

I was 12, in 7th grade. I remember we had Secret Santa in class. We drew names. He had the most beautiful penmanship, his handwriting, I wish I had kept that slip of paper.  I taught 7th grade… well, they don’t teach penmanship nowadays anyway.  I just admired his handwriting so much; his name was David Radinsky.  He was a very nice boy, very gracious. When you drew the name it also had written what he wanted for Christmas. You could only spend up to a certain amount of money, there was a range that the teacher told us. I remember he wanted typing paper. So I got him that. I remember hearing then something about he didn’t do trees, he didn’t do no Christmas tree. That’s how I learned about Judaism. They have another holiday called Hanukkah.

What did your family do for the holidays?

We never had a tree until I was in 5th grade. The only reason we got a tree was that we had a Christmas tree in our class at school. The day before Christmas break the teacher took the decorations off and said, ‘we’ll have a drawing and someone gets to take this tree home.’ She wrote a number and everyone took turns guessing. I guessed seven maybe because I heard seven was lucky. And 7 was the number, so I won the tree! We lived one block from school so I carried it home and ever since then we had a Christmas tree until now; we don’t anymore but that’s fine.

Did you go to Washington Junior High?

I did. Now they call it Middle School. After that I went on to Garfield High, just the regular track.

Where was Washington Junior High back then?

It was on 18th Ave, (that location) is now a park, I think. Some of the original structure is still there, the old stairway is still there and leads to the park.  The old gym has been converted into some kind of an activity center.

Did you go to movies downtown?

Yes, at the theatre. It used to be the old Coliseum, it’s on the corner of Pike Street and 5th Ave (now Banana Republic) and the 5th Ave Theatre is still there.

They used to show movies there?

Yes. Every year in late August, there would be back to school promotional (movie showings). JC Penney, the Bon Marché and Fredrick & Nelson were all downtown. Nordstrom in those days was just a shoe store and that’s all they sold, shoes… So these the stores would sponsor movies and the movies would be free in order to get the kids. Back then, the tradition was that in late August or early September you would buy your back to school clothes. What better way to have Mom go shopping while parking the kids at the movie theater? They would always have a big star from Hollywood come up and talk a little bit about his movie. I don’t remember who the stars were. I remember one year it was a Western movie and the star who was in it. Every year it was a different star and he would make the rounds going this theater and greet the kids, then he’d go to another theater and so on.

Do you remember the name of the star?

I don’t. He was big because later on he was on TV.  He was in a lot of westerns. I remember one time, one of the stars asked the kids to do a show of hands, how many of you go to movies at least once a week? They were promoting the Hollywood industry too.

Your mother would choose your clothes for school?

She made a lot of my clothes. It was cheaper in those days to make your own clothes. She’d get the fabric and make dresses or a corduroy jumper for fall and winter.

Back then was a jumper a dress with an open neck?

Yeah, it had a U-shaped neck and you’d wear a blouse underneath. I still wear them nowadays; they’re comfortable.

Did you get to choose the fabrics? Or did your Mom?

She chose but I had input. She’d tell me I’m going to make a corduroy jumper. I’d say ok. What did I know about fabrics?

Later, when Home Economics courses were required in Jr. High, we’d have one semester cooking and the next semester sewing, and back and forth, and so I learned to make my own clothes then, and so I did.

So by Junior High you were making your own clothes?

Well, we had to do it as a project. I remember the beginning project, we had to make an apron and choose our own material and design.  The teacher told us how much to get; it was about one yard. The list of materials was: Percale, cotton or muslin. I got my material at Woolworths, they sold fabric and thread in those days. We learned how use the sewing machine by making an apron, a pillowcase and then also learned embroidery. Later, by eight grade, we learned to make a skirt and a dress. That’s when I started making my own clothes and choosing my own patterns and fabrics.

When you’d go to the movies would you wear the same clothes you wore to school?

Probably, yes. Yes, because in those days when you got downtown you would not wear jeans. It was unheard of to wear jeans. You dressed up when you went downtown.

Would you dress up for school then too?

Yes. You did not wear jeans. You wore dresses or skirts or a jumper even if it was snowing and real cold.

Was that the style for all the girls?

All the girls wore dresses, jumpers or skirts. No one wore pants, no matter how cold it was outside.

When did girls start wearing pants to school?

I don’t think it was 'til the mid- or late- 60s from what I recall.

Did you know the Holdens? They lived on 14th & Yesler.

I do know Dave Holden. I went to school with him we when to Garfield High. I didn’t know him then, I knew who he was. He was very popular and very famous in high school. He is a wonderful musician and he was in the marching band. That’s how I remember him, at the start of the football game he was out there with the band

I have a picture of him marching.

Dave Holden. Collection: Dave Holden

Oh, Yes! He would lean backwards and do the steps. Oh, that was his trademark; he would lean way back. Everyone would cheer when he did that.

When you were in high school were your friends a mixed group?

They were! I went to Garfield High and at that time it was like 30% Asian and 30% blacks and 30% white and 10% other like Latinos, we didn’t have too many Latinos.

This roughly what what year?

This was in the mid- to late- 1950s.

Your social group though was mixed?

My social group was mixed. I was active in a club called the 4N Club, capital N, it is a (word) play on 'foreign'. Everyone had to take a foreign language for two years. I took Spanish; it was my favorite, subject, my favorite class. I loved it. In fact, when I graduated from high school, I wanted my career to be a high school Spanish teacher. Instead, I became a high school English teacher but that’s ok (laughs). So my friends were in that (4N) club, and so we’d hang out together. My friends also were people who live in the neighborhood or nearby. One of my closest friends lived a block and a half away so we’ve known each other since elementary (school) and all through high school. Then I had other friends that were casual friends, there was a girl that lived up the street and we didn’t hang out that much because (laughs) she had a boyfriend. So…

There was a mix (of races in the 4N Club). This foreign language group consisted of people who took French, German, Spanish and Latin, those were the four languages offered. We’d meet after school.

What was dating like back then? How would your parents have reacted if you went out with someone who wasn’t Chinese?

That just was not done. Unwritten rule. Unwritten rule - you don’t date outside your race.

In your memory was that especially strong with Chinese families or was that across the board?

It was across the board! You just didn’t. Even though you’re Asian, you’re Chinese, you couldn’t date a Japanese or the reverse. Strict rules on that.

Also it was the same for Caucasians and Blacks?

It was a sort of an unwritten rule that everyone understood. People from the other races wouldn’t ask you out anyway.  It was sort of it was an unwritten rule, you didn’t ask someone of another race out. You could get around it if you were going in a group of four or six to go out somewhere together. If you were all going to go to a movie on the weekend and you’d meet a the theatre. Or after school you’d go get a bite to eat.

So anyone who did date out of their group was kind of an outlier?

I remember hearing a case this was already after I graduated, it might have been the was class of 1960. I remember that there were a few, not many, two or three who did venture out but by then I’d graduated.

So, it was a big enough deal that you heard about it even after you’d graduated?

Oh, yeah. Everyone talked about it.

That’s interesting. I have to ask Sue. So then as you recall, people generally dated within their own groups. Bob Santos told me that there were these big dances and in his description that there were Filipinos and Blacks at those dances. Did you guys go to those dances?

First of all, I don’t know how to dance and, well (pause) I would trip over my own two feet.

You mentioned you’d go to movies, what else did you do in a social group?

Well, playing tennis was popular. Down at Seattle Center they had an ice rink. You’d go ice-skating. It’s now McCaw Hall right on Mercer (Street). We’d go ice-skating. Of course, there were the weekend football games. I went to every one of them to support the team. Then in the winter, you had the basketball team we’d support them by going to the games…

Was your closest friend Chinese?

She was Japanese.

Was that a problem with your parents?


What year did you graduate?


You spent a lot of your career teaching in the Central Area in different schools.

Yes, I taught at Franklin (High School). I’m trying to remember all the schools (I taught in). I was an ESL teacher so being placed in the schools is a bit different. When I was hired…

This was roughly when?

This was in the early 70s, 1973, I think. ESL teachers were told not to get comfortable because we could be reassigned the next year. The placement is based on numbers of students with limited English speakers. If the numbers stay constant, you stay at that school. If the numbers drop, you might get a split assignment where you’d go to one school in the morning and another in the afternoon in schools. That has happened to me. I’ve taught in the Central Area where the numbers were always high and I’ve also taught in the north end where the numbers were low.

In the Central Area schools during the 1970s what was the student composition?

Asians, Blacks, Caucasians. It depended on which school - we were seeing an increasing in Latinos and in mixed students, students who were not just one ethnicity. Before the ‘70s we didn’t see too much of that.

So that was rare before the ‘70s?

Well, you’d see it before then but the district didn’t take it (mixed race) into account. Once after they started tracking race, people had to fill out these form. The parents are sent home with this document that states, check only one box, and it becomes problematic. They had to check a box describing their (racial) background. This happened to my friends, they were half Asian/half Caucasian. On the form, there was a box for Asian, a box for Caucasian, a box for Black and a box for Other. They (the district) wanted you to check only one box not multiple boxes. So, he just drew a box and wrote in ‘Eurasian.’ Since he could only check one box, he took the liberty of creating one. He also included a note that since his children are equally half/half there should be a category for Eurasian. Then, that’s what happened but he never got a return response.

I remember there were parents who’d come firstly from Ethiopia and then Eritrea, and now (they’re coming) from Somalia. I remember once parents from Ethiopia came in with this form. They didn’t read or write English and so someone would help fill it out for them. They’d get a copy, go home, and have someone translate it for them. Then the parents came back to school to tell the secretary, ‘we are not black’ because that was one of the categories. The secretary very wisely didn’t argue with them and instead said, what do you prefer to be called? They answered, “We are African!” So the secretary drew a box, wrote in ‘African’ and then the parent was happy.

I’ve learned doing this project that there can be a rift between people who consider themselves African and people who consider themselves African American or Black because they’re lumped together despite often they don’t see themselves as having many commonalities.

Exactly; exactly. It’s interesting watching the kids on the playground at recess time. The kids from Africa will play the other ESL kids, the kids from Cambodia, so they have a closer tie with them then the African American kids.

Students (come to the school district) from different countries. (At the individual schools) you see populations shift depending on the year and depending on the location. In the Central Area there were lots of Southeast Asian students, first you saw a big wave of Vietnamese and then those that came from Laos, the city and then the Montagnards, and then the Cambodians…

Where the Montagnards here Hmong?

There was a large percentage of Hmong. Then, there were the Mien, they were the second largest (group). There were a few Thai Dahm and had a few others. Big populations (from Vietnam, Laos and Thailand) came to the school district) especially in the 80s. There’s a documentary made by Ivory Levine and Ken Becoming American, the UW archives might have it and Seattle Public Library has to have it.  It traces a Hmong family from their hilltop home in Laos to the refugee camp in Thailand and the processing before they get on a plane and land in Seattle. They settle in an apartment in the Rainier Valley and talk about their adjustment and so on… A few years later, people kept writing to inquire what happened to the little kids in the movie? There’s a sequel by Suzanne Griffin. It’s called Children of Change and it’s a documentary about that family now that kids are teenagers how they’re adjusting and what they’re doing and so on.

When you were teaching was the Black Panther thing going on?

If it was it was going down, I don’t remember too much there’s still there but they’re more active in the Bay area, as far as Seattle goes, I’m not sure. I remember some of the Blacks very much believing in the philosophy of the Black Panther Party but I don’t remember that much about it. I think at Franklin High some students wanted to start a social organization and I don’t remember the details.

Maxine Loo came to this project by the warm, wonderful Sue Kay.

©  Madeline Crowley People of the Central Area 2015   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 
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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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