by J.M. Wong
On Friday, Sept. 30, my friends and I sent selfie photos of each other shopping at Viet-Wah, the Vietnamese-owned grocery store located in the Chinatown-International District. It was Viet-Wah’s last day of operations, and we exchanged our favorite memories of the place. It was nostalgic to listen to the music in the background amidst altars with joss sticks and offerings. When I arrived in Seattle in 2007, Viet-Wah was the one place that reminded me of home — they had spices and mixes for Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine. And most importantly, they had everything I needed for hot pot in one store.
Missing home is many things. It is missing the smells, the sounds, the tempo, the rhythm, the weather, the music. It is also missing the ease of navigation, of knowing where things, and people, lie in relation to one another. It is knowing the physical and political landscape of a place and how we are located in it.
Finding home is also about many things. It is learning new street names, discovering where to go for a sense of familiarity. Are you seeking a new beginning here? A space where enough questions are asked, but not so many that it pokes around the raw spots. It is experiencing life and significant moments that shape a generation, like the pandemic, with the people around you, so you are interwoven vividly into each others’ survival stories. It is by thrusting into new ways that our sense of self expands with people and things we never knew we would encounter. It is when we realize the people we left behind back home might never understand the person we are becoming here, because what we experience daily shapes us. It is the mix of feelings that are conjured at the realization that you have lived in this new place longer than the colloquial “old home” 老家.
Finding home in the CID is the homies playing music at Hing Hay park at the beginning of the pandemic, to ease the loneliness of quiet streets for a neighborhood that bustles with sounds and people. “Many of the workers and elders living in the SROs [Single Room Occupancy] are lonely,” says R. Finding home is us coaxing him and Y to let us host a community party at Hing Hay Park to celebrate their wedding, because we love them and they are part of our neighborhood and our sense of home.
Finding home is finding family with massage workers whose stores dot the neighborhood, where I pop in from time to time to chitchat or to get a massage. 人在异乡，亲情难找。Their stores are landmarks that imbue street corners with memories and interactions. Finding home is also visiting encampments and being introduced to long-term residents of the CID, L and A. It is moving their belongings into a van that S drives on the morning that the City conducts its sweeps, so they won’t be destroyed. It is witnessing the grief of displaced residents losing their medications, or tents, or in one case, a son’s ashes, during an encampment sweep — a cold eviction.
Finding home is precious, because it is scarce in a foreign land, because it is often embattled. Because our communities are poor and we send money home, because COVID hit all of us bad, but some worse than others. Finding home is a moment of solace, and it is a gift.
Which is why when right-wing forces like Proud Boy sympathizer and former KOMO reporter Jonathon Choe and the Republicans seize upon our communities’ angst and hardship at finding home, and make us into caricatures of anti-Blackness and white supremacy, I take issue.
I take issue with the ways that the Right tells immigrants like us, that finding home is synonymous with assimilation into whiteness; that we are told to measure our sense of belonging in a place by white peoples’ standards — their wanton access, their amnesia of the legacies of Native genocide and Black chattel slavery, their tasteless lackluster milquetoast aesthetic, their NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) displacement of poverty and social problems outside of their purview, and their white flight. I want another story — one where finding home is synonymous with finding community with other Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and poor displaced people, knowing that we are all survivors of our circumstances, making the best of what we have and need and seeking to thrive together.
Time and again, the Right’s playbook with Asian Americans is to limit the conversation of civil rights to a comparison with whiteness, generating distress and resentment at the establishment for our inability as immigrants to live the equivalent lives of white people. This comparative pursuit is not a pursuit for justice, health care, affordable housing, or other social goods that better our collective lives. Instead, the Right’s playbook centers on the way Asian Americans miss out on white supremacy’s ability to grant white people the freedom to be wanton, to be socially irresponsible and unaccountable to the rest of the society.
I first encountered the mechanics of the Right and its manipulation of the Chinese American community in the unfolding of the Peter Liang case. In 2014, Peter Liang, a Chinese American NYPD officer, was conducting vertical patrols at the Pink Houses, a housing project in Brooklyn, New York. Startled by some noises, Liang fired into the pitch-dark stairwell. The bullet hit and killed Akai Gurley, a Black man who lived there. The murder of Akai Gurley was a reflection of the structural violence that poor predominantly Black communities experience from the police force.
To pin Akai Gurley’s death solely on the shoulders of the cop whose bullet killed him, is incomplete. It is true that the vertical patrolling policy of the NYPD has always been racist and targets the poorest residents in the city. Institutional racism and anti-poor policies set the context for the cops being in the building that night and the events that followed.
To remove any responsibility on the cop who fired the bullet that ended up killing Akai Gurley is also incomplete. There were many things Peter Liang could have done, which he did not do.
The last of it was to fire the gun and stare, immobilized and in shock. The first of it was to aspire to be a police officer for the largest police force in the country with a known reputation for being racist. To associate serving the NYPD with keeping the public safe, or to associate being a police officer with successful assimilation as an immigrant, is to be misled or willfully ignorant.
The Chinese American Republican Right immediately mobilized. Their mobilizations were centered around generating anger against the sentencing of Peter Liang. If white cops were never sentenced for murder of Black people, why should a Chinese American cop be? The Right weaponized the language of civil rights, and waved Martin Luther King Jr. quotes calling for equality. An equality of a Chinese American police officer to be treated with the same immunity from justice as white officers are in the racist American legal system. A warped distortion of justice.
Akai Gurley’s senseless death was ignored, minimized, forgotten — his family’s grief and his humanity left untranslated while the indignation of the Chinese American Right flooded Chinese social and news media. The Right-dominated conversation did not see Black people’s right to live as a starting point for understanding our place in American society.
We should not repeat this, nor let those Right-wing opportunists amongst us, manipulate our communities in the name of political activity and civil rights.
Finding home can be understanding the legacy of racial violence and class warfare that has shaped this country. Paying tribute to the Black civil rights movement and the Black Power movement for contributing the language of civil rights to begin with, a legacy we, as immigrants, benefit from. Finding home can be knowing that our search for safety and security on stolen Native land cannot abandon the Indigenous and Black community’s search for liberation and freedom from white supremacy and the legacies of racial violence and colonization.
The neo-liberal, pro-austerity Seattle Right has long touted the Seattle is Dying narrative. This narrative blames poor people, especially those unhoused, who are predominantly Black and Brown and poor, for the multiple crises that austerity and chronic underfunding of social services cause. The solution they propose is further policing and state violence, a policy of incarceration and discardment of surplus populations deemed unsavory and unproductive for capital. This political project faced a humiliating retreat in the last two years with the Black Lives Matter movement and its calls for defunding the police, but more importantly, its demands for economic solutions to address the violence in our society. Reframing institutional violence as the primary instigator and form of violence, reframing racialized class warfare as the primary driver of death, the movement expanded our view and deepened our understanding of why finding home is so hard in this country.
The media touts Viet-Wah’s closing as a result of crime and increased homelessness in the CID. It erases the reality that Viet-Wah’s closure was initially part of a redevelopment project to gentrify Asian Plaza, the plot of land the grocery store sits on. The redevelopment project aimed to build not affordable housing, but market-rate housing. It joins KODA Condos and Vibrant Cities redevelopment projects in the CID — all luxury real estate that has displaced and will continue to displace more poor and working-class immigrants.
We are faced with opportunistic manipulation from the Right, and then the real racism of the states and cities we live in. CID has historically been a redlined district, and infrastructure projects in the area are driven by speculative interests and a disregard for the betterment of the community. The calls and needs of CID community residents are superficially dealt with at best, and ignored at worst. In recent conversations about the SODO shelter project, we see how the safety of the elders, who are often victims of street crime and theft, is pitted against the safety of unhoused residents in the CID.
Can we move away from the polarization and binary and ask, what vision of safety, community, neighborhood can we envision when offered an abundance of resources? A mitigation plan that is organized around care, not around policing and displacement, surveillance and discardment? A vision of community that doesn’t set housed and unhoused residents, who are mostly poor and low income, against one another? The topic of building a shelter and services for unhoused people can be an opportunity for a deeper conversation about how impoverished communities are played off against one another for resources, an opening to articulate collective demands on the state, community alternatives to the police that do not rely on criminalization and white supremacist violence, and treatment, care, and support that value the humanity of unhoused residents of the CID.
The treatment of unhoused people in our neighborhood is the canary in the coal mine. Developers see them as disposable, the same way they see poor immigrants who are non-English speakers. A few make for good aesthetic in a neighborhood that presents as an ethnic enclave, but too much and too different, and you become an enclave deemed inhospitable to white English-speaking society. We have receipts — the massage parlor raids in CID in 2018 — where first-generation immigrants — seen as undesirable, criminal, dirty, unpleasing to the eye — are disposed of and expelled from the neighborhood.
Finding home can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be unjust. And it is healing. We may have to fight for a home that encompasss our differences, that reduces harm. This conversation goes beyond the SODO shelter. Can we demand resources with the safety of our elders and our unhoused residents in mind, on our terms? Can we be a neighborhood that offers a soft landing and cares for those who are poor, displaced, and foriegn? If so, how? Let’s have that conversation.
The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.
The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.
J.M. Wong (they/them) is a queer child of the Chinese diaspora living on Duwamish lands (Seattle) via Malaysia/Singapore and many cities in between. They are a healthcare worker, policy analyst, and community member. They write about their time working in health care in “caring: a labor on stolen time.” They believe in the power, brilliance, and resilience of the global working class. They do outreach and organizing with the Massage Parlor Outreach Project (MPOP) based in Chinatown-International District.
📸 Featured Image: Historic Chinatown Gate at the Chinatown-International District in Seattle, Washington. (Photo: Jaidev Vella)
Before you move on to the next story …
The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With around 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible.
If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn’t have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference.
We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!