A First-Timer’s Guide to Seattle’s CID
Say hey to a certified national treasure 🌆
July 22, 2022
A bulleted list cannot represent the richness and vibrancy of Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (CID). Like, let’s try:
🌼Hunting for a gift for mom? Check out KOBO at Higo.
🥡 Craving an egg tart or fried sesame ball? Proceed to Dim Sum King.
😋 Interested in Filipino sweets with a twist? Hood Famous Cafe + Bar is your place.
🎮Love retro video games? Go to Pink Gorilla Games.
👾Looking for novelty? Visit the Seattle Pinball Museum.
🍲 Curious about Cambodian cuisine? Try Phnom Penh Noodle House.
See? Not enough. The list goes on and on and on. The neighborhood is teeming with curiosities, fun rabbit holes, and arguably the best food in Seattle. But if you’ve only got a few hours to visit the CID, or if you’re new to town, we’ve organized some essential spots to kickstart a first-timer’s tour of this historic neighborhood. Happy ‘sploring!
The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience
719 S King St
We’ll start this list at the right place: the Wing Luke Museum. This renowned Smithsonian affiliate focuses on the history, art, and culture of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI). Housed in the historic East Kong Yick single-room occupancy hotel building, the Wing’s permanent collection handily, and brilliantly, explores what might be covered in an Asian American Studies 101 course. From its guided tours situating visitors in the shoes of an immigrant laborer renting an upstairs room to its thoughtful rotation of exhibitions and programming, the Wing is the place to learn about the CID’s living history, then and now.
On the way in or out, take a walk down Canton Alley, which borders the museum’s west side, to see where community icon, unofficial safety officer, and neighborhood medic Donnie Chin stationed himself for decades before being killed on the job in 2015. Chin’s sister, Connie, now operates the Sun May Company, a third generation Chinese gift shop, out of the alley. The shop is great for treasure hunting and might have you asking yourself how many antique calligraphy sets a person who doesn’t know how to do calligraphy needs. (It’s called unfulfilled aspirations, people.) The entrance to the shop can be hard to find, so keep your eyes peeled for the dozens of regularly replenished and colorful Origami paper cranes hanging outside the door in Donnie’s memory.
650 South Main St
Finding a good place to post up outdoors in a populated urban setting like the CID can be challenging, especially on a crowded weekend or during a sports event. While the obvious choice for a picnic is to grab a table at Hing Hay Park in the heart of all the action, a more serene and treed hideaway beckons from a few blocks up the hill.
Walk north on Maynard before climbing the stairs toward the Danny Woo Community Garden. Pass the chickens and through the maze of flourishing P-Patches until you reach Kobe Terrace. The 1-acre public park has sweeping views of SODO and a handful of well-maintained benches.
Note: There’s an accessible entrance to the park at the east end of South Main Street toward 7th Avenue South if stairs don’t work for you. While Kobe Terrace is lovely all year, early spring is particularly exceptional because nothing prompts a shrewd examination of one’s life choices quite like sitting beneath a thick canopy of flowering cherry blossoms, fallen petals flurrying around you like snow. Ah, simile.
The Panama Hotel
605 South Main St
Though the CID has a reputation for bubble tea, the Panama Hotel on South Main Street is home to a classic tea and coffeehouse (and full bar) in its old street-level lobby. It also has the last remaining sento, or urban Japanese-style bathhouse, in the United States. Constructed in 1910, the space has maintained most of its original integrity, ambiance, and character. The teahouse doubles as a museum, displaying belongings left behind after Japanese Americans’ forced evacuation and incarceration during World War II. The gallery of black and white photos, coupled with the exhibition of historical artifacts, powerfully captures the rise and devastation of Seattle’s Nihonmachi, or Japantown, before and after the war.
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Whether you’re perusing the hotel’s history or observing its regular characters pass through, you’re sure to walk away with a richer knowledge of Japanese America, or at the very least, an excellent beverage. If you’re more of a mole-person, burrow down in the darker, quieter lower level, where you can spread out at large tables or hold meetings that could have been emails. Joking aside, you’ll understand in one visit why this National Historic Landmark is also designated as a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation—one of 91 in the country; a true embodiment of reflecting on the past to inform the future.
ChuMinh Tofu and Vegan Deli
1043 S Jackson St
It would be easy to walk past ChuMinh Tofu and Vegan Deli in Little Saigon and never experience the edible wonders that lie within unless someone had already clued you in. Welcome to the fold. Located on the corner of 12th and Jackson, everything on the Vietnamese deli’s menu is fresh and vegan. When asked for bánh mì recommendations, genuinely kind human and owner Thanh-Nga “Tanya” struggled to choose just one and proceeded to list her nine favorites. There are ten options total. Unless you’re a real jerk, you’ll probably receive a bonus egg roll, two if your pup tags along. ChuMinh supports a group of volunteers called the “The Egg Rolls” who help to dispense food and other necessities to the local community. On Sundays from 10:30 am to 12:30 pm, Tanya and her crew also serve free meals to anyone who comes in hungry.
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525 S Weller St
Most people who visit the CID will make a pit stop at Uwajimaya, our region’s iconic family-owned Asian supermarket. We second this. But once you’ve collected your specialty grub (the hot case Spam musubi is the best snack this city has to offer), be sure to browse the adjoining Kinokuniya Bookstore. They specialize in imported Japanese books and magazines, as well as manga, anime products, comics, gifts, and stationary. If you love(d) school supply shopping, perusing unique books, or collecting amusing tchotchkes, you’ll probably lose track of time here. Plan accordingly. Kinokuniya is also an official merchandise retailer for Studio Ghibli, so you’ll likely notice the impressive assortment of Totoro and No-Face plushies. If Uwajimaya is packed but you still want groceries, venture up to the lesser known, just as good, and slightly cheaper Viet Wah.
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Alexa Strabuk 譚文曠 is a cultural worker, journalist, and graphic designer. Her writing and illustrations have appeared here and also there. She lives in the Chinatown-International District with her dog Goji.