Historic South Downtown Oral Histories: Mike Omura Discusses His Experiences on the Seattle Waterfront

  • Posted 7/21/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11090

Mike Omura (b. 1948) is a Seattle architect whose personal and professional lives have involved the Seattle waterfront. He traveled from Japan to Seattle in about 1958 on the Hikawa Maru, a Nippon Yusen Kaisha Line steamship, landing at one of the piers adjacent to Pioneer Square. He worked in Alaska canneries, at the Port of Seattle, and at an architecture firm located on a central-waterfront pier. Omura was interviewed in March 2015 as part of a project HistoryLink did in partnership with Historic South Downtown to document the historical connections between the Chinatown-International District and Pioneer Square neighborhoods and the central waterfront. Dominic Black talked with him about his experiences on the waterfront.

Coming to Seattle

I distinctly remember, I mean these are things I distinctly remember. I remember coming into Elliott Bay. And at that time I think the ships had to moor out there before they could come in to be piloted in or something like that. But I remember that we had to sit out there the night before and I distinctly remember there used to be an old sign that said "Port of Seattle" -- a red sign -- above the old Port of Seattle building which was on Pier 66, I remember thinking "Oh that’s so cool."

You know ... the lights of Seattle, even back then, were pretty amazing.

I remember my mother … you know, we hadn’t spoken any English for four years, and so I remember our mother teaching us a couple of words, and I remember the first words that I remember her teaching us was salt and pepper, for whatever reason. So I remember that distinctly ... I remember in our little bunkhouse on the boat she would teach us these little English words. 

Connected to the Waterfront

So many of us who are Asian have a connection to the waterfront, you know, because not only did we emigrate and pass through the ports, but we also … our fathers and our grandfathers worked on the waterfront, doing the canneries, doing the lumber work.

My grandfather worked up in Alaska doing lumber work, and also did oyster farming so, you know, he was really connected to the waterfront.  

Work in the Canneries

Another connection to the waterfront is that I, in my college years in order to make money, I worked up in Alaska, up in the canneries. And that was with the Filipino crew -- migrant workers that would come from California during the winter season doing farming, and then come to Seattle and get -- we had a union which then sent people up to Alaska to work in the canneries.

Dominic Black: Where would that crew disperse to when they were here -- like where would people stay?

Well I mean a lot of the Filipino men would stay in single-room-occupancy hotels here, which primarily started off as being a seafarers kind of hotel, right? And so because men just needed a place to sleep and they would go out and drink and eat and all that outside of their rooms. So yeah, they stayed round here until they got a contract and went up to Alaska. And so I went up there with those guys and it was fun, it was great.

DB: Yeah I was going to say, what was that like?

(Laughing) I could tell you tales but …


Dominic Black interview with Mike Omura, March 2015.

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