Photo: Josh Trujillo / Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Letter Cloud at the Wing Luke Museum.

Asian American Cultural Heritage

Asian Pacific Americans have played prominent roles in Seattle history from the beginning of the city’s settlement.


Download the full Asian American Cultural Heritage Guide to Seattle

Chinese pioneers, often single men seeking economic opportunities, first arrived in the 1860s to work as laborers for railroads, mines, canneries and sawmills. A Chinese quarter was established on the waterfront, and later moved a few blocks east. Economic downturns triggered anti-Chinese violence and discriminatory laws, but the Chinese remained a vital part of the growing town. After the Seattle Fire in 1889, the center of Chinatown shifted again with the construction of new rooming houses and community association buildings east of Fifth Avenue S.

Asian American pioneers and immigrants created a complex multi-ethnic urban neighborhood now known as the Chinatown-International District, and also resided in farming areas, logging camps and other communities throughout the Puget Sound area. Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt in 1942, forced Japanese Americans on the West Coast into internment camps for the duration of World War II. The impact of this policy altered urban neighborhoods and rural areas alike.

Japanese pioneers arrived in the 1880s, and worked as farmers and merchants. Single men often traveled to Washington Territory and sent home for “picture brides” to join them later. Discriminatory laws related to land ownership often thwarted the hard work of the Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants), although ownership was sometimes transferred to the Nisei (second generation, U.S. born children) or held in other creative ways. A distinct Nihonmachi, or Japantown, grew around S Main Street and Sixth Avenue S, north of Chinatown, which catered to urban residents and also supplied Japanese families living in rural areas.

Pacific Islanders have been part of Pacific Northwest history since native Hawaiians sailed to Puget Sound with Captain Vancouver in 1792. In the early 20th century, after the Philippines became a U.S. territory, many Filipinos pursued opportunities for education and employment in Seattle.

Since the 1960s, Seattle has become home to Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Thai, Hmong and South Asian immigrants, and a fusion of Pacific Rim cultures gives our region a unique flavor and aesthetic. The influence of Asian cultural traditions can be seen everywhere in Seattle – in architecture, garden design, regional cuisine, and the arts.

While the Chinatown-International District remains the heart of Seattle’s Asian American community, regional communities such as White Center, Bellevue, Federal Way and Shoreline boast vibrant multi-ethnic restaurants and stores. Numerous festivals and events preserve traditions, and a variety of museums and heritage sites interpret the histories and cultures of Asian Americans in the Seattle area.

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