In 1910, 170 early Chinese pioneers pooled their money to fund the construction of the East Kong Yick Building in Seattle’s new Chinatown (an earlier Chinatown had been lost in the Great Seattle Fire of 1889). The building served as living quarters and gathering space for Chinese immigrants who came to the United States in the pre-World War II era.
As more people arrived, the neighborhood was filled with similar buildings to house these pioneers. Generally, retail businesses lined the storefronts while Chinese family associations—community and social groups—proudly displayed their presence along fancy top-level balconies. The remaining space provided lodging to newly arrived laborers, almost all single. Japanese and Filipino immigrants also gravitated to these inexpensive hotels.
Many of the original Chinatown-International District buildings have now been converted into modern apartments. Others remain vacant except for the ground floor retail space, leaving historic spaces languishing with little upkeep. The East Kong Yick Building was in such a state until 2008 when it was renovated to create the new home of the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience.
The museum, named after Seattle city councilman Wing Luke (the first Asian-American elected to office in Washington State), includes modern galleries showcasing rotating art and history exhibits. But a large part of the building provides a nearly preserved-in-amber look at life for early Seattle immigrants. Highlights of the building include a 1910 shop, tiny bedrooms, and a grand meeting room on the top floor, featuring tin ceilings and tables for mahjong games.