Historic South Downtown Oral Histories: Max Chan Recalls Her Work with Migrant Workers, Immigrants, and Residents of Seattle's SRO Hotels

  • Posted 10/25/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11129

Maxine "Max" Chan is a food anthropologist and a community activist who has researched the evolution of Chinese cuisine in the Pacific Northwest. She has also worked in social services in the International District/Chinatown, work that took her into the single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels where many older Chinese immigrants lived in the 1970s. She was interviewed on July 17, 2015, for 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 her about migrant workers and the neighborhoods' SRO hotels and those who lived in them.

Migrant Workers

So if you're talking about the 1970s, the 1960s and 1970s, there was still a lot of Filipinos who came out of the migrant triangle -- the I-5 corridor, you know. So they would work in Stockton, San Joaquin Valley, all of that you know, doing agriculture, all of that, and then they would come up here to go to the canneries…

And a lot of my friends who are baby boomers, they went up. It's almost like a rite of passage that everybody goes up. Not so much the Chinese then, because the Chinese had been aced out -- maybe that's not a good word, but they'd been phased out. You know, I mean the canneries had the "iron chink" -- incredible racist name for a machine -- but they replaced the Chinese, and they were able to gut and slime the fish mechanically where they had the Chinese doing it before.

DB: That's what it was called?

It's the "iron chink," yep. And you can see it at museums, some museums have the machines.  "Iron chink" is right there. And, the Chinese used to go up, and I know there was one store, unfortunately it's in a building that burned a year and a half ago, but I know that in the back they had bunk beds. It's been in the same family since the early 1900s when the Chinatown moved up here. And the Chinese, you know they had those bunk beds for people that were from the same family, like the village with the same last name, or other Chinese that came on their way up to Alaska. Or maybe they're here, they're trying to look for a job, but they have no place to stay. Because there wasn't a social service welfare system.

Knowing your clan or your kin was it, or the family association, they were the social-service safety net. And they stayed in the SROs, a lot of them, and a lot of the Filipinos lived at the Eastern Hotel.  

SROs and Restaurant Counters

You know, because of immigration, there was still a lot of Chinese who were single men. And when you talk about SROs -- Single Room Occupancy -- that's what legally they're designated. But they really were not, they were people's home. Not even apartments, they were home. They would live in those spaces for 20, 30, 40 years until they died. And like I said, in the 1970s, anyone who was 65 and older was my client, so that was almost everyone living down here. And they'd been down here for a long time.

I would walk into the room and there's a real, style, for a lack of a better word, of placement of possessions, belongings and furniture when you live in an SRO. I could walk in a room and say "Oh yeah, this is a single guy."

There would always be a bed -- usually it's very tiny, we're talking about 10-by-10 -- bathroom is down the hallway. You may be lucky if you have a sink in the corner, and there is usually a twin bed, OK, not a double, and you would have a table and you would have a hotplate. It could be a one burner or two burner hotplate.

If you had money you may have a rice cooker, but they were quite expensive then, they were not like today. And usually you have no refrigeration so the refrigerator was a wooden box hanging out of your window. In the winter it would keep your stuff kind of cold. Summer? Well, not very long. It was just going to rot. But you could tell because if you walked around then you could see these boxes hanging out. That was the refrigeration, whether it was Chinese or Filipino.

And then you would have maybe one or two bowls, you know you had very spare, you didn't keep a lot of plates and dishes, just kind of what you need was in there. And you would have your clothes hanging up. Sometimes you're lucky, you may have made a closet, you know, armoire, maybe out of boxes and stuff. But very sparse but … homey.

You know, they would have pictures. A lot of them may have pictures of their family that's been left behind in the Philippines. And you knew that they'd been here not just a year. Thirty, forty years because of the immigration, what the laws were.

And there were more Chinese women in the 1970s than men because women lived a little longer. In the 1950s you started to have families but you still had a lot of single men. Keep in mind they live in SROs -- we've just had this hot spell? There's no place to go. You may have a little fan if you were lucky but there's no air conditioning, so … where would you go? A lot of times maybe they'd sit outside, or, at that time most of the restaurants that were down here had a counter. The only one left is Tai Tung: you go in, there's a counter. I mean sometimes families sat the counter but, a lot of single guys. Or women. But mainly guys.


Dominic Black interview with Max Chan, July 17, 2015.

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